Former President Donald Trump speaks at a podium.

Former President Donald J. Trump speaks during the Heritage Foundation’s President’s Club meeting on October 17, 2017 in Washington, D.C.

(Photo: Martin H. Simon - Pool/Getty Images)

The Heritage Foundation Plan to Help Trump End Democracy in America

Last year, the right-wing think tank launched a new initiative—dubbed the “2025 Presidential Transition Project,” or “Project 2025” for short—to ensure that the next GOP President’s authority will be unchecked.

Donald Trump nearly destroyed American democracy in his first term in office. If he is reelected, he plans to try to finish the job. This isn’t a matter of speculation; it’s a virtual certainty.

In campaign speeches, TV interviews, posts on Truth Social, and a head-spinning list of promises posted on his official campaign website, Trump has vowed to pressure Congress to pass legislation imposing the death penalty on drug smugglers and human traffickers; purge “Marxists” from the Department of Education; remove civil service protections for federal employees; and “obliterate the deep state [and] rout the fake news media.” He has also pledged to fire Special Counsel Jack Smith, whom he has labeled “a deranged lunatic, [a] psycho, and a “crackhead,” and appoint “a real special prosecutor” to target President Joe Biden and his family, along with a litany of other real and imagined enemies.

It would be bad enough if such threats were simply the ravings of a wannabe dictator desperate to stay out of jail, but they are much more dangerous than that. Trump’s 2024 election bid and his vows of revenge and retribution are backed by a sophisticated and multi-faceted movement that seeks to expand presidential power to unprecedented heights should he or another like-minded GOP extremist win back the Oval Office.

The question for the rest of us, who see democracy teetering on the brink, is how to stop Trump and Project 2025.

The intellectual heart of the movement is the Heritage Foundation, the well-known and influential Washington-D.C.-based think tank, founded in 1973, that played an integral role in shaping the policies of President Ronald Reagan. From its early days as a pivotal player in the mainstream of the Republican Party, the Heritage Foundation went full MAGA during Trump’s first term. Last year, it launched a new initiative—dubbed the “2025 Presidential Transition Project,” or “Project 2025” for short—to ensure that the next GOP President’s authority will be unchecked.

The project’s webpage describes its vision in ambitious and unambiguous terms:

“The actions of liberal politicians in Washington have created a desperate need and unique opportunity for conservatives to start undoing the damage the Left has wrought and build a better country for all Americans in 2025.
‘It is not enough for conservatives to win elections. If we are going to rescue the country from the grip of the radical Left, we need both a governing agenda and the right people in place, ready to carry this agenda out on day one of the next conservative administration.”

The specific goals of the project are discussed in great detail in the ninth edition of the Heritage Foundation’s Mandate for Leadership. First published in 1981, the Mandate is designed to serve as a guide for conservative governance, and is updated periodically, usually at the outset of each presidential administration. The current version totals some 920 pages.

If you lack the stomach to plow through the entire tome, you can turn to a two-page preface written by Paul Dans, Project 2025’s director who served as the Trump Administration’s Chief of Staff for the Office of Personnel Management. Dans outlines the project’s four basic objectives, which he calls its “four pillars.” These are: the development of a broad “policy agenda” for the next right-wing President to implement; the construction of a “personnel database” to assist the President in making staffing decisions; the creation of a “Presidential Academy”to train the next set of high-level government appointees; and a “Playbook” for the first 180 days of the next administration.

One of the project’s more disturbing aims is to bring all federal agencies under direct presidential control, ending the operational independence not only of the Department of Justice and the FBI, but also the Federal Reserve, which oversees the banking industry and regulates interest rates; the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which oversees television, radio, and the Internet; and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which enforces antitrust and consumer protection laws.

“What we’re trying to do is identify the pockets of independence and seize them,” Russell Vought toldThe New York Times in an interview for a lengthy article published earlier this month on Trump’s plans for a second term. Vought ran the Office of Management and Budget for the Trump White House, and currently serves as the president of the Center for Renewing America, one of sixty-five ultra-right organizations that have come together to form Project 2025’s advisory board. (Others include the American Family Project, Hillsdale College, Liberty University, Susan B. Anthony Pro-life America, America First Legal, the Claremont Institute, Moms for Liberty, Freedom Works, the James Madison Institute, and ALEC.)

“The President’s plan should be to fundamentally reorient the federal government in a way that hasn’t been done since F.D.R.’s New Deal,” John McEntee, another former Trump White House staffer, also told TheTimes. “Our current executive branch,” McEntee continued, “was conceived of by liberals for the purpose of promulgating liberal policies. There is no way to make the existing structure function in a conservative manner. It’s not enough to get the personnel right. What’s necessary is a complete system overhaul.” McEntee joined Project 2025 in May as a senior advisor, working on the initiative’s “personnel” pillar.

Dismantling the New Deal-era regulatory framework of the administrative state, as McEntee advocates, has long been a goal of the radical right. The right has also long advocated a bloated view of presidential power known as the “unitary executive theory.” The doctrine was popularized in the early 1980s by Ed Meese, who served as counselor to the President in Reagan’s first term, and as attorney general in his second term, before assuming a full-time post with the Heritage Foundation in 1988. Bill Barr, Trump’s last Senate-confirmed Attorney General, is another prominent proponent of the theory.

In an oft-quoted 2006 essay, professors Karl Manheim and Allan Ides of Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, California, described the theory as inimical to the core tenets of democracy, writing:

“[T]he theory of the unitary executive is anything but an innocuous or unremarkable description of the presidency. In its stronger versions, it embraces and promotes a notion of consolidated presidential power that essentially isolates the Executive Branch from any type of Congressional or judicial oversight… Its proponents seek the cover of the Constitution, but in truth their theory wreaks havoc on the most fundamental principles of our constitutional traditions.”

In a recent column published online by MSNBC, New York University Professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat, an internationally renowned expert on fascism, compared the programmatic goals of the Trump campaign and Project 2025 to the crippling anti-democratic reforms implemented by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

The question for the rest of us, who see democracy teetering on the brink, is how to stop Trump and Project 2025. It is possible, but unlikely, that Special Counsel Jack Smith could derail Trump’s campaign through the multiple prosecutions he is pursuing. It is also possible, but by no means certain, that the Supreme Court, currently stacked with three Trump appointees, could overturn or weaken some aspects of a second-term Trump agenda if Smith fails.

The most effective way to stop Trump and the new movement behind him, however, is to defeat him at the polls, making sure that he never accedes to power again. Sadly, that, too, remains decidedly uncertain.

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