Project 2025, a plan to help any Republican that wins the presidency next year expand executive power, is spearheaded by the conservative Heritage Foundation. Here: The Heritage Foundation building, Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017, in Washington. (AP Andrew Harnik)

Last week, The New York Times ran the headline, “Trump and Allies Forge Plans to Increase Presidential Power in 2025,” over a disturbing report on conservative efforts to break our carefully calibrated system of checks and balances. The headline suggests such a power grab would only be realized if Trump returns to the Oval Office. But Trump is not the sole authoritarian threat. 

Deep in the story, we learn that the “plans” are being developed by Project 2025—”a $22 million presidential transition operation” meant to aid “any Republican who may win the 2024 election.” Any Republican. 

Furthermore, Project 2025 is spearheaded by the Heritage Foundation, which has cranked out policy papers for over 20 years urging Republican presidents to assert expansive executive branch powers. But you don’t need to spend $22 million just to publish some issue briefs. Project 2025 has assembled a coalition of nearly 70 conservative organizations, which are not only sketching out policies but also vetting “personnel lists” and detailing “transition plans.” According to The New York Times, the “scale” of the effort “is unprecedented in conservative politics.” 

If the next president is a Republican, it doesn’t matter whether that person is Donald Trump. Political infrastructure is being put in place, so any Republican administration will gut federal agencies from environmental protection to education to national security; obliterate the independence of the Justice Department and federal law enforcement agencies; and fire career civil servants and replace them with ideological apparatchiks hostile to the mission of the agencies that employ them. 

If conservatives get this wish list, the only constraint on presidential authority would be impeachment and the courts. But congressional Republicans, we know, would refuse to impeach, let alone convict, a GOP president even if he or she is blatantly guilty of extorting foreign leaders for personal gain and inciting a mob that endangered their lives. Because the Senate increasingly gives undue power to rural conservative states, Republicans have a hammerlock on the 34 senators needed for an acquittal

Would the Roberts Court stand in the way of the politicization of agencies? Yes, the Court opposed Trump’s risible efforts to overturn the 2020 election and tossed the “independent legislature theory” down the building’s steps in June. But there’s hardly any guarantee that it would be a bulwark against an authoritarian government. The Roberts Court knocked down some Trump policies, but they approved the bulk of his agenda. The chief justice and his majority are famously hostile to the power of federal agencies, even when they’ve been afforded specific powers to regulate. Should the Court constrain Trump’s consolidation of federal power in a second term, the then-47th president might adopt the Jacksonian nullification approach— refusing to acknowledge judicial review, as many Republicans propose. Besides, the next GOP administration may be less ham-fisted than the DOJ of Trump’s first term and may craft their right-wing policies to survive judicial muster. 

You might argue that there have always been cranky broadsides against democracy, independent federal law enforcement, and deference to expert agencies. Richard Nixon, George W. Bush, and Trump made feints at unitary executive theory and were shot down. 

But two big things have changed. The first is the widespread adoption of these anti-democratic notions by Republican candidates up and down the ballot. Trump isn’t the only authoritarian in town. Consider the elimination of cabinet departments. In 1980, Ronald Reagan vowed as president to eliminate the newly created Department of Education. By 1985, he formally gave up on it. Then Republican ambitions to deconstruct the administrative state grew more ambitious. In 2011, Texas Governor Rick Perry wanted to eliminate three cabinet-level departments. It was a hilarious moment when he couldn’t remember them on the debate stage. “Oops,” he said. Still, the gruesome thing is that he wanted to toss out century-old departments like Commerce where Herbert Hoover (!) was secretary and most of the budget goes toward such leftist projects as NOAA and the Census. Now, putting a flamethrower to the federal government is par for the course for Republican presidential candidates. Candidates for lower offices who refuse to swear fealty to Trump and opposition to the “Deep State”—conservative code for any civil servants who dare to get in their way—can’t survive Republican primaries. 

This authoritarian streak is echoed in conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation. (A few small-government conservative organizations still oppose the dramatic expansion of executive power, but their minuscule influence is dwindling in the modern GOP.) Heritage is spearheading Project 2025 alongside dozens of other right-wing organizations, drafting detailed blueprints for achieving their vision of a counter-revolutionary presidential dictatorship. While think tanks, in general, have lost some of their clout over the last two decades—the end of regular order on Capitol Hill undermined the way they influenced policymaking from subcommittee hearings to congressional passage to writing regulations—the mere fact that they are putting out Trumpian manifestos show how infected the party has become with authoritarianism. 

It has taken time for Trump’s irritable mental gestures (to quote literary critic Lionel Trilling’s famous phrase about the intellectual vacuity of postwar conservatives) to coagulate into a dictatorial policy. Still, the day has arrived—much as it did when Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics wrote “the brick,” which devastated Chile and much of Latin America, and when the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) wrote the playbooks that turned so many GOP states into laboratories of illiberalism. 

This project will outlast Trump, whether he wins or loses next year. Governor Ron DeSantis has waged a similar battle against executive accountability in Florida. Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy wants to chuck the constitutional rights of birthright citizenship and the 18-year-old vote. This extremist revolutionary movement is not the product of one or two candidates. Its promoters know they cannot win majority support in an increasingly diverse and progressive electorate, so stealing elections and wiping away checks and balances drives it. 

Democrats cannot stymie the GOP’s authoritarian appetite by holding the White House or a chamber of Congress ad nauseam. The average voter does not understand how extreme the GOP is, and eventually, the economy or some scandal will lead the public to swing the pendulum back to Republicans, and they will hold both chambers of Congress and the White House as they did as recently as January 2019. You do not want to bet that Adam Kinzinger will be leading them. 

While Democrats do hold power—especially if they can hold onto the Senate and win back the House in 2024—they must enact countermeasures, including criminal penalties for not only the president himself but any appointees who undermine the independence of federal law enforcement. These laws-as-ramparts would define the prerogative of agencies—not Congress or the president—to determine minutiae, like how many parts per million of sulfur are allowed in drinking water. It may require moving fights to the states, replicating federal agencies in case Republicans do succeed in decimating the D.C. versions.  

The Republican threat to democracy will not disappear with Trump. Democrats need to be a fire bell in the night, ramping up their rhetoric but also legislative tactics to minimize the damage when Republicans eventually win again. 

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Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.