"Project 2025 shows us that the old Right has left the building": GOP's surrender to Trump complete

Power expert explains how MAGA is "consciously manipulated" by "a fear and loathing of liberals"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published October 10, 2023 5:45AM (EDT)

Former US President and 2024 presidential hopeful Donald Trump behind a flag before he speaks at Drake Enterprises, an automotive parts manufacturer and supplier, in Clinton, Michigan, on September 27, 2023. (MATTHEW HATCHER/AFP via Getty Images)
Former US President and 2024 presidential hopeful Donald Trump behind a flag before he speaks at Drake Enterprises, an automotive parts manufacturer and supplier, in Clinton, Michigan, on September 27, 2023. (MATTHEW HATCHER/AFP via Getty Images)

Donald Trump has publicly announced his plans to become America’s first de facto dictator if he wins the 2024 election. Using Orwellian Newspeak and other lies, Trump and his spokespeople are presenting their fascist agenda as "taking back the country” for “real Americans." In reality, Trump’s Agenda 47 and Project 2025 (both created by right-wing think tanks and interest groups) are no such thing. If imposed on the American people, these political projects will attempt to end the First Amendment, make White Christianity the official religion, fire government employees who are not personally loyal to Trump, use the military to occupy cities, invoke the Alien Enemies Act to deport undocumented immigrants, and take away the civil and human rights of other targeted groups.

Contrary to the mainstream news media’s superficial narrative, these plans to end American democracy are not new. This is not a crisis that suddenly emerged during the Age of Trump. Movement “conservatives” and the global right have been developing (and implementing) their revolutionary plans for decades. Their movement is highly organized, well-funded, and encompasses almost every area of American political life and civil society, which includes the media, interest groups, think tanks, universities, the military, law enforcement, religion, banking and finance, and the Republican Party.

In an attempt to make better sense of these plans to end American democracy and what it will all mean for the average person and the future of the nation, I recently spoke with Katherine Stewart, the author of “The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism."

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length:

How are you feeling given the democracy crisis and the Age of Trump and beyond? How are you sustaining your emotional balance?  

I feel determined and yes, apprehensive, but I try to focus on the job ahead. I’m excited about my new book on the topic, which I am close to finishing; it should come out in late 2024 or early 2025.

For balance I listen to good music, watch bad TV, and think about history. There’s actually some solace in reading about, say, the decline and fall of empires from earlier times. But history has plenty of inspiring examples for us too. Above all, I have really enjoyed connecting with others through my work, including other writers as well as people around the country who report on developments in their communities. That can be very sustaining.

The rise of Trumpism and American neofascism are not sudden developments. This is the result of decades of movement building and other work to undermine democracy by the “conservative” movement. What do you “see” through that more long-term lens?

We have to rise above the news cycle.

It is essential, for both emotional and analytic purposes, to extend our time frames, both forward and backward. Looking back, we have to acknowledge that Trumpism didn’t just come down the escalator one day in 2015. He emerged as a political force out of the Birther movement, before that the Tea Party, and before that the racist backlash to the Civil Rights movement, among others.

Looking to the future: the Republican electorate is unfortunately telling us that they are in love not just with one man but with the politics of hate and unreason that he represents. When you look down the list, the Republican electorate strongly favors candidates who are doing what they can to be as Trumpy as possible.

"A key additional point about the hard right is that they don’t all want the same things."

There are two other major shifts in the Republican Party that we have to think about in a longer time frame. One is that, given that Trump is the clear GOP favorite, the party has largely abandoned conservatism and has now re-fashioned itself as a revolutionary party. It’s not interested in preserving key American institutions. A segment of the party doesn’t even care about governing – witness the shut-down shambles in the Republican-led House of Representatives. The extreme faction of the Republican Party is aiming to blow up the system and take control of whatever remains.

The other shift is that the Republican Party is trying to align itself with the working class. I say “trying” – and even that is a stretch. “Pretending” might be better. All they are really offering is culture-war red meat to the end of time, rather than policies that will actually improve the lives of most working Americans.

What do they want? What are their goals?

Broadly speaking, the extreme right is important to understand. But it is equally important not to excuse its proponents.

A key additional point about the hard right is that they don’t all want the same things. The ultrawealthy individuals funding the movement want the kind of tax policies that benefit them. The New Right intellectuals manning the think tanks want to stick it to their “woke” rivals on campus. The Christian nationalist preachers want power, policies that privilege their religious viewpoints, and access to both public and private sources of money. The agendas of movement leaders are often at odds with those of the rank-and-file supporters, who are often being exploited or consciously manipulated.

What really unites them is a fear and loathing of liberals specifically, and the modern world more generally. Try to read descriptions of “the woke” from Christian nationalist leaders or leaders of the New Right and see if you recognize anybody or anything you know. They are united in their stated view that they face a monolithic totalitarian enemy, which includes anyone to the left of them. They really don’t know those who disagree with them politically and appear to have no interest in knowing them.

Can you tell us why some of the men associated with the new right and the Claremont Institute are saying, or strongly implying, that America needs a “Red Caesar”?

The short answer is that this is standard fare for authoritarian or fascist movements. They decry the chaos (much of which they helped to create) and then say the only answer is a strongman who can fix it. It is irritating because it is so obviously pseudo-intellectual. Caesar is supposed to make us think of the glories of ancient Rome. If they said America needs a “Red Mussolini,” it would be just as accurate.

What will day-to-day life look like for the "average American" if malign actors on the right get their way?

Since there is no “average American,” this is a difficult question to answer. But we can say, broadly speaking, that there will be privileged groups in society, those who adhere to the “correct” religious and political viewpoints, and those who are despised and disfavored.

The far-right seeks to impose a culture of majoritarian fear, where if you don’t conform to a certain prototypical expectation and are not part of the “in-group,” then you are going to feel out of place and may have difficulty in the society they wish to create. We know from history that the people in the in-group often don’t end up feeling better either. They feel pressure to conform, and they live in a state of fear. It’s not a happy cultural place.

"There are still many Americans who see themselves in the center and think they can put up with a bit of this culture war nonsense from the right if it means a stronger economy. We need to tell them that they may, in fact, be taking money out of their own wallets."

For members of disfavored groups, some of your most important life decisions may be out of your control; your vote may be marginalized; and an even larger share of your tax dollars will be funding other peoples’ religion. But I want to shift a bit, too, and say that the average person is going to be poorer. The Right is currently subordinating major economic issues to their emotional and cultural agendas. So, for example, they think consumer safety and workforce protections are “woke.” They think policies that promote environmental health are “woke.” On that account, they are trying to stop what is one of the major building blocks of economic development in the future, which is investment in renewable energy. Ironically, this sector offers great opportunities in the red states. But it is more important for these culture warriors to score points against “climate libs” than to promote this sector of economic development.

Beyond that, I think there’s a lot to be learned from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ ludicrous engagement with Disney. He, and Donald Trump, have made it clear they would subordinate business to their agenda. This is characteristic of authoritarian regimes, where corporations have to conform to the agenda of the ruling party. This point is important to grasp because there are still many Americans who see themselves in the center and think they can put up with a bit of this culture war nonsense from the right if it means a stronger economy. We need to tell them that they may, in fact, be taking money out of their own wallets.

In my writing and other work, I consistently describe the “conservative” movement and the Republican agenda as being “revolutionary." This is distinct from the folk theory of politics and centrism and incrementalism and belief in “the institutions” and “American exceptionalism” that too many in the news media and mainstream political class continue to be blinded by.

The thing about liberal incrementalism is you don’t really realize how good it is until it’s gone. It’s not sexy, it involves compromise, and it may not seem to be as symbolically or emotionally satisfying as the big, radical, revolutionary gestures. But it’s usually too late that you discover that revolutions are often pretty bad things.

We need to stop calling the Republican Party’s dominant faction “conservative.” The real conservatives, right now, are the incrementalists on the center-left, people who think that we should try to preserve, build on, and improve our key democratic institutions and international alliances. Leaders of the New Right and related movements are not remotely conservative. I would say they are revolutionaries without a rational or coherent purpose, or reactionary nihilists.

Given your recent series of articles and the book "The Power Worshippers", how do these movement conservatives and the larger right-wing understand power and violence?

They told us everything we need to know on January 6. The telling line comes from the Claremont Institute’s John Eastman, or “Co-Conspirator 2” in Trump’s Jan. 6 indictment, in an interview he gave afterward. He used “the Declaration of Independence” argument, which is popular with this crowd because it makes treason sound like patriotism. The position is that when “the regime” is coming after you and forcing you to change your gender against your will, or whatever it is they claim to believe is happening, violence is not only justified but necessary.

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The survey data should disturb everybody. Because when you ask people if it is justified to use political violence to overthrow the regime, a significant percentage are ready to take up arms. According to a 2021 Washington Post-University of Maryland poll, 41 percent of Republicans, 40 percent of independents and 23 percent of Democrats say violence against the government is sometimes justified. Moreover, according to the University of Chicago’s Project on Security & Threats, 10 percent of American adults said they believe the government is run by Satan-worshipping pedophiles, and a quarter said they believe in the Great Replacement conspiracy. The mainstreaming of this type of disinformation and conspiracism creates a permission structure for violence.

How do the leaders of the Christian Right understand democracy in America?

It is really sweet that we make efforts to understand them. Having been to a great many of their gatherings, I can tell you that they do not make a reciprocal effort to understand what they view as a monolithic “Left,” which they increasingly refer to as “demonic” or “Satanic,” nor do they make much effort, in spite of their flag-waving, to understand how democracy works.  They do not believe in a government of, by and for the people. They assert that America was established as a Christian nation, meaning that it is here to serve some divine purpose and that it has to be kept true to its conservative Christian roots or it will fall apart. Many of them promote the idea that Christians of a hyper-conservative variety should seek to dominate all sectors of government and society and say our laws should be based on the Bible. That’s not democracy. It’s a version of theocracy.

What does “freedom” mean to today’s “conservatives” and other members of the hard right?

For many of them, “Freedom” means the ability to impose their will on others and collect money for the purpose. You see this most clearly in the “religious liberty” cases that the movement’s legal advocacy groups have been pushing. For example, it’s the freedom of pharmacists to decline to provide you with your prescribed medication if they happen to have religious objections. It’s the freedom of hospitals to deny best-practices medical care to women experiencing miscarriage complications. It’s the freedom to use your tax dollars to fund schools that inculcate children in contempt for those who are different.

Donald Trump and other right-wing and neofascist actors have developed a series of policies called Agenda 47 and Project 2025, which if enacted with mean the end of America’s multiracial pluralistic democracy and society. In essence, Trump will become America’s first dictator if he wins back the presidency. You and others have been warning about these plans by the hard right for some time. The mainstream media, political class, and general public are still largely ignorant of them and what it will mean if this neofascist agenda is imposed on the country. Can you elaborate?

Project 2025 represents a remarkable and alarming development. The extremism has always been present in the wider public, but now it is showing up at the commanding heights of the Republican apparatus. The Heritage Foundation was traditionally right-wing in its pro-business economic ideology and generally hawkish foreign policy. But Project 2025 shows us that the old Right has left the building. Heritage has a new president now, and under his leadership the organization has embraced a fusion of Christian nationalism and the New Right.

"We need to stop calling the Republican Party’s dominant faction 'conservative.' The real conservatives, right now, are the incrementalists on the center-left, people who think that we should try to preserve, build on, and improve our key democratic institutions and international alliances."

Project 2025 unambiguously identifies the great enemy of the people as the “woke elite.” It repeatedly asserts, without evidence, that this woke elite has commandeered and weaponized the entire federal bureaucracy. They claim it represents an apocalyptic threat to the nation. This paranoid narrative is now boilerplate on the New Right.

Another crucial piece of Project 2025 is the religious nationalism. The solution many of its contributors pose to problems that we face is to do what they claim to believe the Bible says. Hence, the author of the chapter on the Department of Labor has little to say about unions. Instead, he wishes to restore the Sabbath as much as possible; eliminate diversity practices, or as he describes them “managerialist left-wing race and gender ideology”; and he infuses his prose with the rhetoric of the anti-abortion movement.

Meanwhile, the author of the chapter on the Department of Energy and Related Commissions has said climate change is a hoax and investments in renewable energy, rather than fossil fuels, are the problem. A final example is the author of the chapter on Health and Human Services, who seems to think the first goals of the department should be to promote policies that ban abortion, along with certain forms of contraception, and that the department should police the sector for any lingering signs of “transgender ideology.” He also lays the blame for America’s declining life expectancy on Joe Biden wokery and “unaccountable bureaucrats” like Dr. Anthony Fauci.

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Several individuals left the Heritage Foundation recently because they couldn’t stomach the foreign policy stuff – some of which is starting to look rather Putin-y. Remember, Putin has worked for two decades to present himself to Western conservatives as a Christian nationalist. One of the reasons he has been loud and proud with his anti-gay policies is because it made America’s right-wingers feel like they have a friend in Russia.

Given the slow response to these dangers by the political class and mainstream news media, is it possible to catch up and defeat this antidemocracy neofascist agenda? They have a decades-long head start in their campaign to end American democracy.

Political leaders have a huge role to play. This is why I am encouraged by President Biden’s recent speech on the danger of the MAGA movement to democracy. He said things that some pundits are still too timid to say. By getting it out there, and putting his name and office behind it, at least he can force the “both-sidesist” sectors of media to report something about what is actually happening in America. I am also encouraged by retiring top general Mark Milley, former U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, who, as others have reported, appeared to suggest that Trump is a “wannabe dictator.” More people need to call it as they see it. It would be nice if Republican leaders who still believe in American democracy would step forward. But with a few notable exceptions, including Mitt Romney, Liz Cheney, and Adam Kinzinger, they have not failed to disappoint since 2016.

As for the media: While I abhor the horse-race politics-as-usual both-sides approach of the supposedly “liberal” major media, I don’t think that they are the root of the trouble. The root of the trouble is the vast, insulated, fact-deprived world of right-wing media. It’s Fox News, AM radio (really, try taking a long drive, you will be amazed), targeted social media, and all those podcasts and chat groups where conspiracy theorists can egg one another on.

Above all, we have to motivate others to engage – in meaningful ways. Polls can be misleading; what really matters is who turns out on Election Day.

What happens if Donald Trump is president again?

His first term will look like a garden party. Trump has always been motivated only by concern for himself. Now he is motivated not just to protect himself from imprisonment, but also to take revenge on his growing list of enemies.

If he returns to power, we will also see an immediate change in the U.S. position in the world. A Trump victory would be a tremendous boost to Russia and other antagonistic foreign governments, and it would diminish our alliances in Europe. All of that would be costly and dangerous.

We will also see a swift politicization of large parts of the federal government. With the help of Heritage, plans are already being laid to, as Ron Desantis put it, “start slitting throats.” The main upshot will be a significant increase in incompetence. Anything associated with the rule of law—DOJ and FBI, for example—is going to be hit hardest. But you can also expect damage in healthcare and health research, climate-related programs, civil rights legislation, and lots of other government functions that everyone takes for granted until they stop showing up.

Where do we go from here?

Look, the basic tools of democracy are still available to us. We need to make use of them to restore our democracy, not just for ourselves but for future generations.

Also, every Republican candidate should be asked, every single day, “Do you support Trump’s call for overthrowing law enforcement in the U.S.? Do you support his call for executing former military leaders? Do you believe that a person with 91 felony counts against him can be trusted to serve as an effective president? Do you believe a man charged with gross mishandling of classified documents should be charged with the nation’s secrets?”

There needs to be a positive messaging program, too. The economy is doing better than expected, the infrastructure programs are working, the Inflation Reduction Act has been more successful than anticipated, and investments in alternative energy are generating strong economic growth, among others. This doesn’t have to be a lesser-of-two-evils contest.

More than that, we need to learn something from the Right. They talk a good game about taking on the woke elite. But they are the ones who have managed to create a well-connected and super well-funded elite in their own space. They have invested in the institutions and infrastructure of their movement, and not just in political candidates, which is where a lot of democratic giving is directed. They support and promote the careers of young right-wing reactionaries through internship and fellowship programs. Look at the investments they make in leadership training initiatives and in networking organizations. Look at their investments in media and messaging strategies and in the legal advocacy space. We need to invest in the infrastructure of democracy-building at all levels.

We don’t want to replicate their intellectual dishonesty, much less their politics. But from an institutional perspective, there is much to be learned. 

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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