Editor’s note: The below article first appeared in David Corn’s newsletter, Our Land. The newsletter comes out twice a week (most of the time) and provides behind-the-scenes stories and articles about politics, media, and culture. Subscribing costs just $5 a month—but you can sign up for a free 30-day trial of Our Land here. Plus, David Corn’s American Psychosis: A Historical Investigation of How the Republican Party Went Crazy, a New York Times bestseller, has just been released in a new and expanded paperback edition.
There is an authoritarian danger that threatens American democracy. It is a separate peril from Donald Trump and his tens of millions of rabid supports. It is the right-wing infrastructure that is publicly plotting to undermine the checks and balances of our constitutional order and concentrate unprecedented power in the presidency. Its efforts, if successful and coupled with a Trump (or other GOP) victory in 2024, would place the nation on a path to autocracy.
Trump’s desire to be a strongman ruler are no secret. He has repeatedly uttered statements that reveal a craving to be in total control of the US government. As he mounts a second campaign for the White House, his team has openly discussed his plans to consolidate government power in the White House should he win. The New York Times recently reported that his crew aims “to alter the balance of power by increasing the president’s authority over every part of the federal government that now operates, by either law or tradition, with any measure of independence from political interference by the White House.” The Washington Post ran a story in April headlined, “Trump touts authoritarian vision for second term.”
These plans include altering the rules governing the civil service so that tens of thousands of federal workers—maybe more—would be subject to immediate dismissal by the White House. That would mean that Trump could fire employees at federal agencies who do not pledge their loyalty to Trump—or who question the legality or appropriateness of White House directives. Say, Trump or an underling orders the IRS to audit the tax returns of a political foe and an IRS career official objects, that person could be pink-slipped.
Yet this effort to reshape the US government extends far beyond the fevered fantasies of one failed casino owner and his henchmen and henchwomen. Much of the right-wing establishment—including its leading think tanks and policy shops—are part of the attempt to concentrate federal power in the hands of Trump or another Republican president.
Conservatives have been advocating placing the White House in direct control of the Justice Department—that is, tearing down the (metaphorical) wall erected after Watergate that essentially blocks the president from unduly influencing the decisions of the agency and its criminal and civil investigations. Leading this charge has been Jeffrey Clark, the top Justice Department official who, not coincidentally, colluded with Trump after the 2020 election to push the department to falsely claim the election returns were fraudulent.(Clark was indicted last month in Fulton County, Georgia, as part of the criminal case that alleged Trump ran a “criminal enterprise” to overturn the last election.) Clark had been working on this Justice Department initiative as a senior fellow at the Center for Renewing America, a Washington, DC-based think tank run and staffed by Trump administration veterans, including Russell Vought, the former head of the Office of Management and Budget, and Kash Patel, who worked for Trump at the National Security Council.
The Center for Renewing America is merely a small piece of the right’s let’s-go-authoritarian operation. Dozens of conservative outfits—led by the Heritage Foundation—have banded together to produce what they call Project 2025, which has released a 1,000-page report, Mandate for Leadership: The Conservative Promise, which provides a blueprint for a wannabe-White-House-autocrat. Their proposals include removing protections for federal employees so perhaps as many as 50,000 could be fired and replaced with Trump (or Republican) loyalists. This would be done under the banner of annihilating the supposed “deep state” bureaucracy and smashing the “administrative state.”
As noted above, this would destroy the civil service, booting out of federal agencies employees with expertise and experience and replacing them with political hacks. We’re talking about EPA lawyers who might inform a White House that its proposal to sell oil leases off environmentally sensitive coastlands would violate the law. Or perhaps a CIA analyst who produces an assessment saying that a presidential policy might yield negative consequences (for instance, a report noting that bombing Mexico could cause an immigration crisis).
There’s much more in Project 2025 than eviscerating the civil service. It, too, calls for curbing the independence of the Justice Department and proposes revved-up prosecutions of persons providing or distributing abortion pills by mail. The project urges rolling back environmental regulations, reversing actions to address climate change, and abolishing the Pentagon’s diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. One chapter that focuses on the Department of Health and Human Services calls on the next president to “maintain a biblically based, social science–reinforced definition of marriage and family.” In other words, the next chief executive should wage a war on marriage equality.
Project 2025 harks back to a Heritage Foundation tradition. Four decades ago, when Ronald Reagan won the presidency, the far-right think tank produced its first Mandate for Leadership, a thick report laying out conservative proposals for the new administration. Project 2025’s Mandate for Leadership volume is a similar right-wing wish-list, but an overarching theme is the fortification of presidential power so a presumably conservative president could single-handedly impose right-wing policies on the nation. For a movement once defined by its cries against the evils of big government, this is quite the turnabout. It is a sign of how deeply Trump’s authoritarian impulse has penetrated into the conservative cosmos.
Project 2025 would make real the yearnings of a power-mad indicted former president. The Heritage Foundation claims it is raising $22 million for the venture, which will include recruiting thousands of right-wingers to “flood the zone” of the federal government. This could be a serious and dangerous operation.
The other night I was asked to discuss this initiative on MSNBC. I prepared by reading assorted articles on the project and its own material. But during the segment, I thought of a particularly dangerous possibility.
Trump has already vowed to pardon the January 6 assaulters if he returns to the White House—which would reward and validate violent insurrectionists, domestic terrorists, and seditionists. Now suppose Trump’s supporters—in large or small numbers—mounted new acts of political violence. Under the proposals advocated by Project 2025, Jeffrey Clark, and others, Trump could order the Justice Department not to investigate or prosecute these criminals. He could protect the brownshirts who engage in violence against his opponents. Similarly, Trump could do the same in cases of election interference or voter suppression. He could instruct the FBI to not probe the shady business dealings of his cronies or allies—or those of his family or his own enterprises. He and his favorites would have free rein across the board to break the law or to assist those who do. (See Vladimir Putin.)
Trump has repeatedly said he would use the Justice Department to prosecute and lock up his opponents and critics. That sounds like the usual Trump bluster. But if he gains full control of the department—and the federal law enforcement system—he and his followers (including the violent ones) could get away with murder. Not to be alarmist, but perhaps literally.
It’s been often said that Trump failed to do more damage to the nation because he and his minions were incompetent The organized right wants to ensure that doesn’t happen again, if Trump stays out of prison and ends up back at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Worse, it seeks to institutionalize Trump’s authoritarian instincts. A mad-king ruler needs a support system, and the Heritage Foundation and its partners are happily toiling away to concoct one for Trump.
Click here to watch the MSNBC segment in which we discussed Project 2025.