It’s not like we haven’t been warned.
Should the Republican presidential nominee (likely Donald Trump) win the election next year, conservatives have been pretty clear about what they intend to do. In fact, explicitly clear.
Trump himself isn’t much on policy, of course. The 2020 Republican National Convention was notable chiefly because, at his behest, it made no effort to pass a party platform, effectively giving Trump carte blanche for whatever he wished to do in his second term.
But Trump’s all-too-personal vision for a second-term agenda is now leaking into the press. According to stories in The New York Times and The Washington Post, it begins with transforming the Justice Department into an instrument of his vengeance, initially against those first-term appointees Trump thinks betrayed him: former Attorney General Bill Barr, former chief of staff John Kelly, former Joint Chiefs Chair Mark Milley, and others who opposed his attempted seizure of power. Then comes filing charges against Joe Biden and his family, with the substance yet to be determined.
To this end, Trump is assembling a cadre of lawyers who supported his attempt to cling to the presidency, and who won’t be deterred from doing his bidding—as those wusses from the Federalist Society were—by the niceties of constitutional law. A leading figure among these l’état c’est Trump legal eagles is Jeffrey Clark, a Trump Justice Department official who during the plot to overturn the 2020 election countered a White House counsel’s argument that Trump’s putsch would lead to “riots in every major city” by noting, “That’s why there’s an Insurrection Act”—a law that allows the president to deploy the Army to quell protests. That exchange is quoted in the federal indictment of Trump for fomenting the January 6th insurrection. (The Post indicates that Trump is plotting to invoke the Insurrection Act on the first day of his presidency: January 20, 2025.)
At a recent campaign event in New Hampshire, Trump stumbled into a rationale for going after Biden, should he win the 2024 contest. “This is third-world country stuff, ‘arrest your opponent,’” Trump said. “And that means I can do that, too.”
If nothing else, that quote explains why Trump is seeking more lawyers like Jeffrey Clark.
But Clark’s current ambit isn’t confined to Mar-a-Lago. He’s also part of Project 2025, an initiative of the right-wing Heritage Foundation, which, in collaboration with over 80 other far-right groups (including the Center for Renewing America, where Clark is a senior fellow and director of litigation), is laying out the tasks and recruiting the candidates that the next Republican president must employ to de-woke-ify America, banish liberalism, and extirpate modernity.
When the Post reported that Clark is leading a study on how to implement the Insurrection Act, a Heritage Foundation official quickly sought to assure the wider world that “there are no plans within Project 2025 related to the Insurrection Act or targeting political enemies.”
Earlier this year, Project 2025 published a 920-page manifesto called Mandate for Leadership: The Conservative Promise, laying out its agenda for Trump or any other Republican who should win the White House. The book consists chiefly of the world’s longest enemies list, with detailed instructions on how to target them, oust them, and reverse their policies, both real and imagined.
I’ve read every damn page of that book. Here’s what it says.
THIS IS NOT THE FIRST TIME Heritage has sketched out a blueprint for a conservative presidency. In 1980, the think tank aided another neophyte politician with revolutionary aspirations—Ronald Reagan—with a report, also called Mandate for Leadership, that stretched to 1,100 pages and covered virtually every nook and cranny of government. Heritage boasts that Reagan took up the majority of their proposals, including across-the-board tax cuts, “Star Wars” missile defense, inner-city “enterprise zones,” and a hard line with the Soviet Union. On the latter, Heritage claimed that “Reagan sticks so closely to the Heritage suggestions that [Mikhail] Gorbachev complains to Reagan about Heritage’s influence in the first few minutes of the [1986 Reykjavik] summit.”
A subsequent edition of Mandate for Leadership has been produced for every presidential election since 1980. This iteration, very much in the spirit of Trump, is lighter on policy and heavier on retribution. Its enemies list begins with the usual targets of right-wing ire: welfare recipients, lazy and liberal civil servants (since they’re liberal, one might think Heritage would be heartened by their laziness), anti-business regulators, environmentalists, and union bosses. But it expands from there to include more recent bȇtes noires: scientists, woke bureaucrats, woke educators, woke diplomats, woke generals and admirals, woke G-men, and anyone who doesn’t indulge the next Republican president’s every whim (an adaptation to the likelihood of a Trump nomination).
The particular frustrations Trump encountered when federal employees pushed back at his more lunkheaded notions loom large in Heritage’s assessment of the federal workforce, which the book’s editors describe as “largely underworked, overcompensated, and unaccountable.”
No matter what department or agency is under discussion in this volume, their officials’ and employees’ adherence to the president’s policies and piques should be their primary, if not only, task. When dealing with the State Department, the book advises, “the next Administration must take swift and decisive steps to reforge the department into a lean and functional diplomatic machine that serves the President.”
If that requires a purge, so be it. The authors advise the incoming administration to identify and interview every Treasury Department official who participated in its DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) activities and programs, and make such activity “per se grounds for termination of employment.”
Project 2025 sees a path to manipulating the Federal Vacancies Reform Act to ensure loyalists take control.
In a 900-page book, one occasionally encounters boilerplate affirming the importance of hiring qualified experts. Writing about the CIA, one author apparently on autopilot says that the administration must avoid selecting intelligence leaders “for their policy views or political loyalties.” But when fully conscious of who he’s advising, he gets down to the real stuff, writing, “The President-Elect should choose a Deputy Director who, without needing Senate confirmation, can immediately begin to implement the President’s agenda.”
That last part is critical. For Project 2025, speed is at a premium, lest career officials persist in doing their jobs. Besides, a Democratic Senate or even a Senate with a narrow Republican majority may resist approving a number of Trump’s more outrageous appointments. Jeffrey Clark as attorney general? Michael Flynn running Defense? All the more reason why deputy directors who don’t need Senate confirmation should take power immediately to begin Trump’s war on his so-called “vermin.”
Waiting for Senate confirmations, some of which are still pending for the Biden administration nearly three years into his presidency, does not align with this wholesale takeover of government. And this is where Heritage’s knowledge of the federal vacancy process becomes useful.
Under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, for most federal agencies, a vacancy at the top means that the next available deputy becomes the acting head. Project 2025 sees a path to manipulating this law to ensure loyalists take control.
“Where a career employee holds a leadership position,” explains Ken Cuccinelli, the former acting deputy homeland security secretary under Trump, “that position should be deemed vacant for line-of-succession purposes, and the next eligible political appointee in the sequence should assume acting authority.” Other authors call for political appointees to be put into the line of succession directly, “selected by the President-elect’s transition team” and “in place the first day of the Administration.”
This gambit would hand over the administrative state to those dedicated to crushing it. That would combine with the restoration of Trump’s October 2020 “Schedule F” order, which would reassign up to 50,000 civil service workers with a designation that robs them of employment protections, making them easier to terminate. So the leadership of executive branch agencies would be ideologues, and many bureaucrats under their care could be fired at will.
Republican candidates have warmed to this vision. Vivek Ramaswamy has said that if elected, he would fire more than 75 percent of the federal workforce, and disband such agencies as the Department of Education, the Food and Nutrition Service, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the FBI.
In short, Heritage’s directions for Day One presidential appointments come straight out of Macbeth’s musings as he ponders the timing of his imminent murder of Duncan, his king:
If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly.
THE REPUBLICAN NEED TO BANISH the ostensibly woke is nowhere clearer than in Heritage’s agenda for the armed services. Picture Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) and his viewpoints (such that they are), only inside the Pentagon. Project 2025 sees a Defense Department that “has emphasized leftist politics over military readiness,” and makes an impassioned plea to DOD to “eliminate Marxist indoctrination.” (You didn’t know that all recruits are required to read Volume III of Das Kapital?)
As Heritage sees it, the military stinks from the head down. “Most officers, especially below the rank of general or admiral, continue to be patriotic defenders of liberty,” they affirm. But those generals and admirals, boy oh boy. Accordingly, Heritage advises the National Security Council to “rigorously review all general and flag officer [admiral] promotions to prioritize the core roles and responsibilities of the military over social engineering and non-defense matters, including climate change, critical race theory,” and many more. This amounts to providing an ideological test for the military leadership.
The other stalwart defenders of traditional American values that Heritage thinks have gone awry are the Justice Department, and the FBI in particular. Sinister Attorney General Merrick Garland, they lament, has “devoted unprecedented resources to prosecuting American citizens for misdemeanor trespassing offenses,” which sounds a lot like a complaint against the prosecution of the January 6th insurrectionists. Worse yet, Justice also “sued multiple states regarding their efforts to enhance election integrity,” which of course refers to the states’ efforts to suppress voting.
We’ve already seen that conservatives want the power to shape Justice Department discretion on who to prosecute. But according to the Heritage book, the president should also be able to “terminate” FBI investigations and activities that are “contrary to the national interest.” Who is charged with determining what’s in or contrary to the national interest? They don’t say it, but you can take a guess: the president, as long as they’re a Republican.
VIRTUALLY EVERY CHAPTER OF Mandate for Leadership comes with suggestions for privatizing governmental functions, deregulating industries, or just plain helping corporate America make more money.
Some of these would require congressional sign-off, a bold break from Heritage’s main preoccupation with centralizing power. Heritage recommends lowering the corporate income tax to 18 percent and the tax on capital gains and dividends to 15 percent. As for those employers foolish enough to provide their employees with not just wages but benefits, Heritage suggests changing tax law so that those employers can deduct no more than $12,000 in an employee’s benefits from their taxes. That, of course, could hold down employer expenses on benefits, a boon for employers, if not for their workers.
Each chamber of Congress should require a 60 percent supermajority for any tax hikes, Heritage proposes. That is already practically in place for the Senate thanks to the filibuster, but this supermajority would extend to the House, too—and only for taxes. Project 2025 further calls on Congress to repeal the Federal Reserve’s mandate to promote full employment. Inflation reduction, no matter how many Americans it throws out of work, is what matters.
The chapter devoted to the Defense Department suggests ending congressional review of arms sales to foreign countries, which hit an all-time high in 2018 (when Trump was president) of $56 billion. The to-do list for Transportation calls for privatizing the TSA, to “bring private-sector know-how to government programs” (like, presumably, the airlines’ expertise in passenger boarding and seating).
But these are by and large wish lists. The proposals for economic regulations, which the next Republican president’s new teams of functionaries will carry out themselves, reveal the deeper dangers of the agenda.
On that perennial area of Republican expertise, health insurance, Heritage suggests that the government should “make Medicare Advantage the default enrollment option” for people getting into the system, so that private health insurers can make more money and seniors’ health care options can be limited. That could be accomplished by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
Heritage also requests a regulatory change to Medicaid co-payment levels, so that recipients are required to pay for the services they receive “at a level that is appropriate to …” You think it’s going to say “appropriate to their ability to pay”? No. The sentence actually concludes: “appropriate to protect the taxpayer.”
As for student loan recipients, Heritage wants the government to phase out income-driven repayment plans that hold repayment levels to a percentage of the payer’s income. The Education Department created those programs and could dissolve them.
Heritage also has some suggestions for regulatory enforcement agencies. It calls for a limit on the amount of time the Securities and Exchange Commission can spend on investigating financial chicanery to two years. That may need congressional authorization, but a loyalist at the SEC could initiate that as a norm by themselves. And there are admonishments to agencies like the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to simply cease making rules. Much of what the new conservative leadership will do with these enforcement agencies is to give the impression of being busy without doing anything at all.
“THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION’S CLIMATE fanaticism will need a whole-of-government unwinding,” Heritage tells us, and proceeds to explain how that can be done. First, they want Congress to repeal the Inflation Reduction Act’s tax credits for clean-energy companies, a rare example of a conservative endorsement of tax increases.
But the real agenda here is ensuring that climate change deniers are appointed to the relevant agencies. To that end, Heritage suggests reforming EPA’s Science Advisory Board “to ensure independence, balance, transparency, and geographic diversity,” which are all admirably creative euphemisms for climate deniers. Just in case EPA’s scientists persist in mapping out the planet’s future, the administration should revive Trump’s ban on the use of cumulative impact analysis in assessing environmental risks. And just to snuff out any further resistance to the president’s mandates, the administration should impose a rule on EPA that it “will not conduct any ongoing or planned science activity for which there is not clear and current congressional authorization.” Inquiry itself, then, is banned.
For regulation that Heritage wants implemented, it sees a way for the chief executive to just unilaterally suspend administrative procedure.
In its current state, American science is just too woke—which in this case means too empirical—for Republicans. “The National Labs,” Heritage laments, are “too focused on climate change and renewal technologies.” The Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research is a “source of much … climate alarmism” and thus should be downsized.
Getting scientists out of the policy business is the overriding goal of any incoming Republican administration. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health are primary anti-Fauci targets of Heritage ire. They are “the duo most responsible—along with President Joe Biden—for the irrational, destructive, un-American mask and vaccine mandates that were imposed upon an ostensibly free people.” The CDC, in whatever reduced form it may continue to exist, should have “severely confined ability to make policy recommendations.”
But do not let it be said that Project 2025 rejects all critical research. The book stresses that the CDC should “fund studies into the risks and complications of abortion.”
THE INCOMING REPUBLICAN PRESIDENT, Heritage makes clear, should not be daunted by the public’s overwhelming rejection of the Dobbs decision and support for abortion rights. The Department of Health and Human Services “must ensure that all HHS programs and activities are rooted in a deep respect for innocent human life,” and like that federal judge in Texas, do what it can to ensure that mifepristone, the abortion medication, is made illegal. It should also withhold Medicaid funds from states that require insurers to cover abortions. These could all be carried out by the administrative state.
Republicans, Heritage makes clear, should put Christian nationalism at the center of policy and statecraft. On matters of LGBTQ rights and gender identity, the government must uphold the rights of religiously inspired bigots to violate civil rights laws by denying services to those whose practices or identities offend them. In its discussion of the nation’s Middle East policy, Heritage avers that “special attention must be paid to challenges of religious freedom, especially the status of Middle Eastern Christians and other religious minorities.” As to Palestinians, Heritage’s policy brief is brief, indeed. In its entirety, it reads: “The Palestinian Authority should be defunded.” Even before the current war, this pouring of oil on fire was as idiotic as it was callous.
When it comes to encasing bigotry in policy, Heritage gives the next Republican president a lot of leeway. The president should give the HHS secretary the power to deny admission at the border (or ports, or airports) to “persons from such countries or places as he or she shall designate” to avert or curtail mass migration. That would seem to encompass, for instance, Trump’s ban on immigrants from “Muslim countries” that he sought to establish as president, which he has vowed to bring back and expand. Next time, says Heritage, the president should stipulate that such orders “shall not be subject to the requirements of the Administrative Procedures Act.”
Now there’s quite a tell. The Administrative Procedure Act establishes the procedure for creating regulations, with a public comment period and compliance with various guidelines. It has typically been something that bogs down regulation, which Heritage would usually appreciate. But for regulation that Heritage wants implemented, it sees a way for the chief executive to just unilaterally suspend administrative procedure. This would invite a court challenge, but you may remember the state of the Supreme Court, which hangs over this entire project as a reminder of how much easier it may be to enact this radical agenda.
A FEW OF HERITAGE’S SUGGESTIONS evoke simpler solutions from earlier times, such as linking the value of the dollar to the gold that the government holds, or at least once held, in its vaults, a policy that ensured long and severe depressions throughout the 19th century. But the complexities of today have required Heritage to acknowledge that there’s not yet a consensus on the right on several key policies. And when it can’t lay down the line of what conservatives should do, Heritage lays down two lines and lets conservatives pick one, or try to muddle through.
On what to do about the war in Ukraine, for instance, Heritage presents an argument for continuing U.S. aid and another for stopping U.S. aid. On the question of free trade, the right’s unified opposition to China has been a major factor behind the critique some have leveled at the global investments, and global dependence, of American corporations and banks. That critique is fully voiced in a chapter by Trump trade counselor (and fellow election denier) Peter Navarro, in which he also documents the damage that offshoring has visited on American workers. Navarro’s arguments are countered in another chapter by Kent Lassman, who not only argues for limitless free trade, but also makes clear his opposition to including any labor or environmental standards in trade accords.
In the book’s section on antitrust policy, two opposing views are presented within the same chapter. Most of the discussion follows the pro-business conventional wisdom as propounded by Robert Bork, that concentration is fine so long as it doesn’t raise the prices consumers must pay. But the author also acknowledges that “many large U.S. corporations are earning substantial incumbency rents,” and frets about the undue market power exercised by platform monopolies. Indeed, he actually faults the Obama administration for opting not to prosecute Google in 2013 for its monopolization of the search function.
Even the chapter on labor and collective-bargaining rights, to which almost all Republicans remain unalterably opposed, contains some blips of pro-worker sentiment. The chapter’s author acknowledges some input by Oren Cass, who heads up the GOP’s small and relatively pro-worker wing. This may explain why it includes a debate on repealing the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires the payment of prevailing wages to workers on federally financed projects, rather than just a straight call for termination. Astonishingly, there’s one suggestion (surely from Cass) that unions should have the right to get court injunctions (10(j) injunctions, they’re called) to require employers to immediately rehire workers they’ve fired in the midst of an organizing campaign. That puts Heritage in line with Biden’s National Labor Relations Board.
Alas, most of the chapter calls for reversing gains that workers have only begun to make at Biden’s NLRB and Labor Department. Heritage wants to limit the number of workers eligible for overtime pay, relieve corporations of liability for violations of workers’ rights that their franchisees may make, and insist that workers are independent contractors, not employees entitled to certain wages and benefits, if their employer says so. Workers should not be able to win union ratification if a majority sign affiliation cards. They should be given a seat on publicly traded corporate boards, but only if it’s nonvoting. (I’d term that non-co-determination, or simply, a device enabling workers to determine nothing at all.) Perhaps worst of all, Heritage suggests a new law that permits states to get “waivers” from the National Labor Relations Act for a five-year period in which they can try to demonstrate that their workers will fare just as well without a right to bargain collectively as with it.
Finally, there’s one proposal that nicely mixes Christian nationalism with better pay for workers: requiring employers to pay time and a half to workers whom they compel to work on the Sabbath. If your off-days normally come in the middle of the week and you’re compelled to work on one of them, looks like you’re denominationally out of luck.
Mandate for Leadership is more than a book; it’s a recruitment poster. Its organizers want to use it to attract like-minded conservatives into Washington, with the promise of political appointments. “People need to lay down their tools, and step aside from their professional life and say, ‘This is my lifetime moment to serve,’” said the director of the project, Paul Dans, to the AP. Project 2025 even ran a booth at the Iowa State Fair looking for recruits.
It concludes with an afterword by Ed Feulner, Heritage’s founder, who briefly runs through its previous editions and notes that Ronald Reagan implemented “almost half” of their recommendations in his first year as president, while Trump implemented 64 percent in his first year.
What Feulner doesn’t note is how autocratic, theocratic, and downright unhinged the current edition is when compared to its predecessors. But in that, it merely is tracking the descent of the entire Republican Party.
Used with the permission. © The American Prospect, Prospect.org, 2023. All rights reserved.