The potential return of the Trump administration looms large in US politics—and a new initiative called Project 2025 offers a roadmap for a redux of the Donald. Drawn from an extensive policy platform known as the Mandate for Leadership, which was initially authored by the Heritage Foundation in the Reagan years, Project 2025 lays out a plan to stack the federal government with thousands of die-hard conservative loyalists who can execute an authoritarian agenda where the mercurial meister of the MAGA movement could fail. DC Bureau Chief of Mother Jones David Corn joins The Marc Steiner Show for a look at what Project 2025 has in store.
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Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. It’s great to have you all with us. This is another episode of The Rise of the Right, looking today at the Trump agenda, its depth and power rising from the populist wing of the Republican Party and organizations that banded together to make their authoritarian vision wrapped in the camouflage of freedom, and liberty a reality. In September, David Corn, Mother Jones‘ Washington DC Bureau chief, wrote an article entitled “How Right-Wing Groups Are Plotting to Implement Trump’s Authoritarianism: Project 2025 is an out-in-the-open scheme to steer the US toward far-right autocracy.” It inspired me to get in touch with him, he joins us today, and David Corn, welcome. Good to have you with us.
David Corn: Good to be with you, Marc.
Marc Steiner: So let’s begin. I’m going to make an assumption here that a lot of people in the US have no idea what Project 2025 is, and I’d like you to describe it and lay that out.
David Corn: It’s important to realize, to back up for one second and say there are two tracks going on right now: One is Trump, what he says, how he campaigns, and as we know it’s full of bluster, and demagoguery. He wants to come back for retribution. He’s told his aides he wants to prosecute all the people who he chose, who worked for him, who he now considers to be his political enemies. People like the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, John Kelly, his chief of staff, Bill Barr, his attorney general, and so on and so on. And he’s out there saying all these things in a very autocratic democratic way, said that he wants to be in charge and he wants to use government for his own purposes and for revenge. Okay.
At the same time, there’s a group, I don’t know, a dozen or so conservative outfits that have banded together for something called Project 2025. There’s a group called Project 2025 which has been put together by a dozen or so right-wing organizations and these are groups that looked at the first Trump term and they saw what we saw: a lot of ineffective action, and lack of discipline. Trump has no attention span, and couldn’t do all the things that the far-right wanted to do or even some of the things that he said he wanted to do. So what they’ve done is put together a thousand-page book called Mandate for Leadership – Comes out it was something that was done back in the Reagan years – Which has a whole to-do list for what to do to have a far-right authoritarian government, what you need to do with personnel. That includes having the ability to look at all the political appointees who come in, a couple of thousand, 3000, 4,000 people, and make sure they’re diehard loyalists – In this case, they’d be Trump loyalists – And the ability to fire other people in the US government, career civil service workers who you might consider not loyal, and to put the Justice Department more under the control of the White House.
Now after Watergate, everyone saw that it was bad to have the president of the US controlling the Justice Department and its criminal investigations. Well, they want to go back to those days. And here you have Donald Trump saying out in the open that he wants to use the Justice Department to prosecute his past and present political enemies should he get into the White House again. So what’s particularly dangerous at this moment is not that you have Donald Trump saying the things that Donald Trump has always said and acting like he always has, you now have this gigantic right-wing infrastructure that is working to make that reality because Trump can’t do that on his own. He can’t do it on his own with Steve Bannon and some of his more eccentric folks who would be in his inner circle. But these folks are smart, they’re methodical, and they’re looking at how to put together a government of several thousand people that would all be aligned and aiming at this target of a right-wing authoritarian regime.
Marc Steiner: This is so critical. It seems to me that what you’re describing, what your article and other works have done and other people are doing as well, is that America really does not get or understand the danger our future faces. If Trump wins his authoritarian agenda, which people don’t even talk about an authoritarian agenda for the most part, could take place it could change the entire fabric of this country. And in an America that nobody’s even can even remember unless you lived in the separation of the South before 1970. People don’t understand the seriousness of what we’re facing.
David Corn: That’s the true Donald Trump from the very beginning. I don’t think people recognized him as the threat to democracy that he is. And even after 2020 with his promotion of the Big Lie, which every day we see people in his inner circle on that copping pleas and saying that there was no stolen election, I only said that stuff on TV. So we know more and more that the Big Lie was a lie. But at the time he also was inciting violence with January 6. He did nothing the day it happened because he wanted it to go down the way it was going down because he hoped that would stop the certification of Joe Biden’s electoral college victory. And then they could come up with some other scheme to keep him in the White House. And even worse than that, even worse than sitting on his hands while thousands of his brown-shirt loyalists were beating up cops and storming the Capitol and getting into the Capitol, was that since then he has said that he would pardon these people.
That’s basically accepting and endorsing political violence, which is a signal, I see it as well, if we need to, we should do it again. So in and of itself, put aside everything that we’re talking about here, I would consider it to be a disqualifier for a person whose job it is to protect and defend the US Constitution. But even that has not taken him out of the game. That did not lead his fellow Republicans to impeach him or vote for the impeachment in the Senate. It has not taken him out of the running in the Republican primary. It has not taken him out of the running in a general election where in some polls he’s ahead of Joe Biden. And whatever you think of the polls, it’s certainly a competitive race and he is on target to be competitive next November, despite being indicted four times on 91 different counts. So people aren’t going to pay attention or be moved by that. I don’t think the existence of Project 2025 is going to put them on the other side or have them change their view on this.
That’s what’s scary here; it’s all out in the open. What Trump says is out in the open. He wants to be an autocrat, he wants to be an authoritarian, he wants to use the government to prosecute and persecute his own political enemies and he says that at rallies. It’s no secret here that there are tens of millions of Americans who are okay with that. That is our biggest threat. You can have Trumpism without Trump. He’s one guy; These groups are powerful and influential and they are trying to leverage the influence that they do have. But the real danger is that tens of millions of Americans, not that they don’t even know about this, but that they’re fine with what they do see of this movement towards authoritarianism.
To me, they’re a minority of the country. It’s hard to put a number on it, but they’re a minority. And the key thing to your point Marc, is whether the other tens of millions of Americans pay attention and recognize that this is indeed the threat we’re facing. And whatever you think about climate change, the war in Gaza, the attack on Israel, housing policy, tax policy, student loans, whatever you think about any of that stuff, if we don’t have a democracy, we can’t fight about it. We can’t have an honest disagreement. We can’t come to a conclusion as a country about what to do with winners and losers in terms of the policy.
Ultimately, this is… I know I’m in the minority on this, but whether you’re talking about inflation or Joe Biden’s age or Donald Trump’s age, the number one issue here is whether we preserve our democracy. Because if we don’t and you’re upset about gas prices, food prices, or anything else, you’re not going to be able to have a way to deal with that if our democracy becomes too degraded.
Marc Steiner: So in the time we have together, I’d like to come back to one thing you said here. Because you’re not a man known for hyperbole, but you use the word brown-shirts. And Trump has said he will free the people who were put in prison for January 6. When you use that term, that’s a very loaded term. Now let’s talk a bit about that: What do you think are the clear and present dangers if this authoritarian move by Trump, actually wins the next election? Surrounded by the folks who are equally as dangerous. It seems to me from all these right-wing think tanks and organizations that have raised millions of dollars that go behind him to replace all the people, as you’ve written about that he does not like in our civil service, replacing them with his far-right colleagues. So let’s talk a bit about what you see as the clear and present danger here that we face in the coming years if, in fact, they win the next election.
David Corn: The ultimate danger is that they will continue to rig the political system so that they retain power. This can be done with more gerrymandering, it could be done by trying to pass legislation in the states or win court battles that allow state legislatures to decide who wins a presidential election in a state and not stick to what the voters want. Ultimately, the thread is that they basically blow up or pervert parts of our democratic system. I know there are lots of problems with American democracy, so don’t come at me for that, but that they make it hard. They make it harder for anyone other than them to win elections and make it harder than it might already be that way they retain power and we move much further from being a democracy. Then under that, there are all the things that could be done in terms of overturning important aspects of foreign policy and trying to leverage the power. Because if you can control who gets into Congress, then you can control whether or not there’s a national ban on abortion.
Whether he’s imposing an authoritarian regime or not, one of the other most important things about the election is that he will reverse all climate change action that Joe Biden, with Democrats in Congress, has been able to implement. It’s been a pioneering policy that no one has gone much further than Barack Obama or anyone else has. We obviously all know that it’s not sufficient, but it’s further than what any other politician has achieved in America and certainly, we need to do more. And certainly going backwards as Trump would do, would further imperil the planet and its inhabitants, meaning us and others. And creating a regime in which political opponents are explicitly targeted by the president for criminal prosecution, I know Republicans claim that’s what’s happening to Donald Trump, but we can run through that over and over again. It’s clear that the Biden Justice Department has been trying to use special councils and do it the right way. Trump wants to be able to snap his fingers and explicitly say Marc Steiner should be investigated and it happens. We know that he talked about this when he was president the first time using other levers of the federal government, the IRS to go after enemies, the FEC to go after television stations and corporations that don’t report on him favorably.
So I expect to see a lot more of that because when he was there the first time, it’s true that there were bureaucratic guardrails if you wanted to do something. Sometimes the people around him, even the lawyers in the council’s office at the White House or people in the agencies would say, well, I’m not sure we really can do that. And they would slow walk it, whatever, rather than have an explicit clash over it. This time around, or next time around should it happen, he wants to make sure that the people in the agencies are his people and will do whatever he says. We could be looking at an authoritarian society where people in the government or anyone who interacts with the federal government, say colleges and other institutions will be quite fearful of doing anything that might raise his ire. Because he will be trying to develop means and methods to punish those people, not just people who are serving in the government.
So I see tremendous potential for a lot of trouble and difficulty, as well as what this will mean to policy outcomes if he tries to again get rid of Obama Care and 17 million Americans are left without health insurance. If he cuts back on some of the expansions of social programs that Biden won, you have millions of people who will lose school lunches, maybe access to food stamps, and access to healthcare as well. So you can imagine a variety of nightmare scenarios, let alone he’s talked about setting up a police state to deport 10 million or more undocumented people here in the US and setting up gigantic deportation camps for these people. One can only imagine what conditions will be like there. Almost in every area of American public life, we could have very, very disturbing developments.
Marc Steiner: You’ve been in Washington for a long time, the nation now, Mother Jones. So what do you think is wrong at this moment with the Democrats, strategically? I was thinking about this the other day and talking to a friend of mine who’s in Congress. I said, so why aren’t the Democrats pouring tons of money into A, organizers around the country, and B, a massive media campaign to let people understand what the hell is going on and what we face? It seems like there’s no real fight or opposition and that the fight is actually on the right to attempt to seize power. What do you think the dynamic is there? What the hell’s going on?
David Corn: People in general sometimes have a problem seeing the biggest threats. It’s hard to wrap your head around it. It can seem abstract. I would say that’s true with something like climate change for instance. The Democrats take their pokes at Trump, but the Biden campaign has not focused on him yet. Their belief is that they have time because let him first win the Republican primaries and contrast the sanity of Joe Biden with the insanity of Donald Trump. Biden has given a few good speeches about the threat that Donald Trump and MAGA pose to American democracy, and I salute him for that. I happen to think that they should be doing more of that sooner. Democrats overall should try to find ways to do more of that sooner. A lot of this falls on the media. Both the New York Times and Washington Post have done good stories on the authoritarian aims of Donald Trump for a second term, but at the same time, there needs to be more one-offs rather than a constant drumbeat. The way they handled the story, say, of Hillary Clinton’s emails in 2016, which I do believe was a story, but it got out-sized attention.
They need to keep coming back to this, and not just them but the entire media, in making this a top priority. And individual Democrats need to do it in their own way but I know they’re freaked out about inflation and prices and kitchen table issues, believing, and I think rightfully so, that those seem to be the things that people care first and foremost about and that aggravate them the most. If you’re having trouble finding a house or if you feel grocery prices are… Even if inflation has gone down tremendously since a year ago if you still believe or feel that you’re having a tough time economically, that often is what’s first and foremost in mind when you look at Washington and American politics. I understand that telling people they need to worry about something that is as fundamental, but not something you can feel and touch and taste at this particular moment, is a little bit of a steeper climb when it comes to politics in a mass media culture.
Marc Steiner: Let me conclude with this because we had a short time today together, and I heard what you just said, but it seems to me that all you write about and what you have posited and put before us in your articles and the work you’re doing shows a really grave danger for our future. And other people think that as well. What I’m positing here is that I don’t think the vast majority of people in our country read Mother Jones or the Washington Post and don’t get a sense of what we actually face and what the dangers are in front of us. And that’s what I was alluding to, is why there seems to be such, from your perspective of covering this for so long, a real dearth of action.
David Corn: I sense the frustration in your question, and I feel it too. Most Americans do not watch the news, do not read newspapers, and pay attention to this stuff intermittently. They don’t listen to NPR. And if you even look at Fox News on the other side, a good night for Fox News is 3 million viewers, maybe 4 million, out of a country the size of 330 million. So you’re talking some nights less than 1%. We tend to think everyone’s watching Vox and a good night for MSNBC or CNN can be half that amount. Most Americans, as a rule, don’t pay attention to this stuff, let alone specifically to the question that we’re discussing at this moment. Dancing With the Stars gets 26-27 million viewers. You know what the Super Bowl gets and what sports, like football games on Sunday draw, in terms of audience. A lot of news magazines and things like that are closing or have a hard time getting by. We’re not a highly informed society, I don’t know if we’ve ever been. If you want to measure it in terms of people regularly reading newspapers and absorbing news as opposed to what they may see on TikTok… And now you even have Facebook and Twitter and other social media sites, Instagram downplaying news and making it even less available in their feeds per their algorithms.
So that’s a terrible problem because it allows the scoundrels more latitude. They can get away with more stuff if more people aren’t paying attention. And it really falls upon leaders like Joe Biden and others to try to figure out ways to get these messages deeper into the American consciousness and psyche and on the radar stream. I don’t think that’s easy. I don’t think you can say give a speech and that will work. This is a fundamental problem and you need to have enough people who care, at least in talking about it with friends, neighbors, your crazy uncle, and things. I don’t know why they always say it’s a crazy uncle because it could be a crazy aunt. I don’t want to be sexist about this here. But basically, those who do care, those who get it, mobilizing them so that they spread the word so it extends a little bit beyond the usual crowd. That’s the most I can come up with. There’s no magic wand to wave here. And the media world is already so fractionalized and the audience is down that you can’t figure out, oh, let’s go back to the Walter Cronkite days; That ain’t happening. So it’s a multilevel problem that extends into very different aspects of American society.
But the number one thing that we can do is for you to talk about it, for me to write about it, and others and have The Times and The Post cover it extensively and consistently and not dilute it with bullshit stories and hope then that enough people get alarmed that they start talking about it a little bit more than they otherwise would.
Marc Steiner: We can only hope. When you see how organized the right wing can be, people like Vince Haley and putting together the Harris Foundation with a conservative partnership institute, the Senate for Renewing America, and Stephen Miller’s America First Legal, they’re actually coordinating and putting their money and thoughts together about how to make this fight. And the danger is, of course, that we’re not seeing that same organized fight in return to save everything that people fought for the last 60-70 years in America to change the heart of it, from social security to civil rights. Do you know what I’m saying? I feel like we’re on a very uneven battlefield at the moment.
David Corn: Well, that may be true. The right complains the left is always out-organized. Then the left complains the right is always out-organized. It’s true. People will say MSNBC, but the left really is nothing like the propaganda operation that Fox News is, nothing like that. I work at MSNBC and I can tell you we don’t get talking points every morning about what we should say that come from the Murdochs or Roger Ailes when he was around. So the left is now fighting amongst itself over the Hamas/Israel war and that’s going to make it harder to have a unified popular front against Donald Trump. I believe so. Yes, so there are problems there. But the only message I have for people now is what I said a moment ago, that we all have to come together despite whatever differences that we might have about particular presidential candidates or whatever, and have something of a popular front to save democracy. That includes centrist Democrats and progressive Democrats, never Trump Republicans and Independents.
That’s to me, the first order of business here, and it’s easy for me to say that. I realize some people don’t care, about other things that they put first, and that’s particularly true when a war is underway. But ultimately, we need to really be mindful of the desperate need to preserve American democracy.
Marc Steiner: Well, David Corn, I want to thank you for taking the time in your busy day to join us here. And of course, David Corn is Mother Jones‘ Washington DC bureau chief. Check out his newsletter; It’s really well worth the read, Our Land. And David, once again, thanks for being with us. I look forward to many more conversations. We have a battle in front of us but it’s no time to give up. Thank you for being with us.
David Corn: Well, thank you. For Our Land, people can go to davidcorn.com. It’s great talking to you, Marc.
Marc Steiner: You too. And thank you all for joining us today. And thanks to Cameron Grandino for running the show, David Hebden for his editing, the tireless Kayla Rivara for making it all work behind the scenes, and everyone here at The Real News for making the show possible. Now, we’re going to link to David Corn’s articles and more right here on The Real News site so check that out. And please let me know what you thought about what you heard today, and what you’d like us to cover. Write to me at email@example.com and I’ll get right back to you. So for the crew here at The Real News, I’m Marc Steiner. Stay involved, keep listening, and take care.