Feature / June 5, 2024

Conservatives Are Gearing Up for a Major Military Expansion Under Trump 2.0

If Project 2025 gets its way, a second Trump term will funnel more money to the Pentagon, dwarfing even the Biden administration’s spending.

William D. Hartung
Illustration by Brian Stauffer.

This article is part of “Project 2025: The Plot Against America,” a Nation special issue devoted to unpacking the right’s vast and chilling program for a second Trump term.

When I dipped into the 195-page section on “The Common Defense” in Project 2025’s Mandate for Leadership, my first question was how even the most hawkish of hawks could be disappointed with a Pentagon budget that is now soaring toward $1 trillion a year—hundreds of billions of dollars more than at the height of the Vietnam War or the peak year of the Cold War. I was particularly intrigued because the author of its chapter on the Pentagon is Christopher Miller, who, after a brief stint as acting secretary of defense under Donald Trump, wrote a memoir in which he asserted that our military is “bloated and wasteful” and argued that we could “cut our defense budget in half and it would still be nearly twice as big as China’s.”

Unfortunately, Miller the budget cutter is nowhere to be found here. Instead, Miller calls for expanding the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Space Force and increasing the funding for nuclear weapons, missile defense, and offensive weapons in space. Perhaps that’s because, according to a number of veteran Pentagon watchers, he is the current favorite to serve as secretary of defense in the unfortunate event of a second Trump administration.

Miller conveniently fails to mention how much all of his proposals will cost. At a minimum, they would add hundreds of billions of dollars to the Pentagon’s spending plan for the next five years—and they would do so at the expense of everything else we need to protect the lives and livelihoods of the people of America and the world, from promoting public health to addressing climate change to rebuilding basic infrastructure to reducing poverty and hunger.

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The central component of Miller’s ultra-muscular approach to “defense” is to double down on efforts to create a military that can beat China in a potential conflict. “By far the most significant danger to Americans’ security, freedoms, and prosperity is China,” he warns, adding, with some redundancy, that “U.S. defense strategy must identify China unequivocally as the top priority for U.S. defense planning.” Far from ensuring this country’s safety, however, a military-first approach to China increases the prospects for a war between nuclear-armed powers that we should be doing everything in our power to prevent. (For more on Project 2025’s plans for the US-China relationship, see Jake Werner’s “A New Exclusion Act” in this issue.)

To its credit, Mandate for Leadership makes a frank admission of the severe split within the Republican Party over the conflict in Ukraine. It notes that one conservative faction argues for “continued U.S. involvement including military aid, economic aid, and the presence of NATO and U.S. troops if necessary” (emphasis added), while the other side wants a negotiated end to the conflict and “denies that U.S. Ukrainian support is in the national security interest of America at all.”

Meanwhile, Miller’s proposals for changes in nuclear policy, missile defense, and the militarization of space are both straightforward and extremely aggressive: building more nuclear-armed bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles than are currently planned, ensuring the viability of warheads on existing missiles, and developing new types of nuclear weapons. Keep in mind that these increases would come on top of the Pentagon’s current $2 trillion plan to build a new generation of nuclear weapons. It’s a recipe for an accelerated three-way arms race with Russia and China that will make a nuclear confrontation more likely.

Given Miller’s unalloyed militarism here, it’s not surprising that he calls for sharp increases in spending on missile defense and space war—items that have been near-sacred commitments of the Republican national security elite ever since Ronald Reagan’s 1983 “Star Wars” speech. The Project 2025 Mandate proposes the closest thing to a comprehensive missile defense program since that failed effort of the 1980s. Perhaps most important, Miller denies the very real likelihood that building up “defensive” systems will only provoke rival nuclear powers to increase their deployments of offensive weapons in return.

The flip side of such wholesale militarism is Miller’s call to jettison diplomacy. Among the chapter’s major proposals are plans to “streamline” the State Department by means of a deep restructuring; to issue a freeze on international agreements that are not enshrined in formal treaties; and to withdraw from international organizations like the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees and the World Health Organization.

While much of Miller’s chapter is a familiar right-wing wish list for US military dominance—albeit a Trumped-up version—there is one element that is decidedly new: the obsession with rooting out “Left” ideas like diversity, equity, and “gender radicalism.” Miller takes aim at these on the very first page, claiming that “the Biden Administration’s profoundly unserious equity agenda and vaccine mandates have taken a serious toll” on the military—and he goes on to blame the current low recruitment numbers on Biden-era interventions. Never mind that potential recruits may be having second thoughts after looking at the disastrous wars of this century—wars that have resulted in the deaths or severe physical and psychological wounding of hundreds of thousands of US troops, to say nothing of the massive death toll, devastation, and destabilization of the targeted countries. For Miller, the blame lies with DEI and public health.

The degree of focus on these issues is so far over the top that it’s hard to know whether it’s cynical, delusional—or both. For example, one of Miller’s major recommendations is to “eliminate Marxist indoctrination and divisive critical race theory programs and abolish newly established diversity, equity, and inclusion offices and staff.”

Elsewhere, Project 2025 proposes a litmus test for military leaders: The National Security Council “should rigorously review all general and flag officer promotions to prioritize the core roles and responsibilities of the military over social engineering and non-defense related matters, including climate change, critical race theory, manufactured extremism, and other polarizing policies that weaken our armed forces and discourage our nation’s finest men and women from enlisting.”

Or, put another way, even modest efforts to root out racism, sexism, and anti-government extremism in the ranks of the US military are too much for the Project 2025 crowd to bear.

Along with its hyper-militarism, this call for a neo-McCarthyite cleansing of the military and the diplomatic corps is different in kind from what has come before. Advocates of a more peaceful world must vigorously oppose this approach to “the common defense.” But blocking these proposals is not enough. We also need to press for an alternative to current US policies, which prioritize force and the threat of force over nonmilitary tools of interaction like diplomacy, dialogue, economic cooperation, and cultural exchange.

Existing US strategy is premised on maintaining a posture of global military dominance, despite the overwhelming evidence that this approach has done far more harm than good in Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond. This is painfully evident in the Biden administration’s shameful policy of enabling Israel’s criminal attacks on Gaza.

We need to articulate a new vision for US foreign policy that not only refutes the validity of the hawkish policies proposed by Project 2025 but also advocates for a sharp departure from our current force-based approach to solving global problems. A short-term agenda should include pushing for a cease-fire in Gaza, pulling back from the brink of a potential war with Iran, halting the new nuclear arms race, reducing Pentagon spending, and taking a more constructive approach to relations with China. The fact that Project 2025’s recommendations would make things even worse than our current course is no reason to accept the status quo. It’s just another indication of how desperately we need to reverse course.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

William D. Hartung

William D. Hartung is a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

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