A NEWSLETTER FROM DAVID CORN
The Right-Wing Authoritarian Threat Beyond Donald Trump
By David Corn September 12, 2023
A representative of Project 2025, a conservative operation preparing for a possible Trump presidency, was recruiting supporters at the Iowa State Fair last month. Charlie Neibergall/AP
There is an authoritarian danger that threatens American democracy. It is a separate peril from Donald Trump and his tens of millions of rabid supports. It is the right-wing infrastructure that is publicly plotting to undermine the checks and balances of our constitutional order and concentrate unprecedented power in the presidency. Its efforts, if successful and coupled with a Trump (or other GOP) victory in 2024, would place the nation on a path to autocracy.
Trump’s desire to be a strongman ruler are no secret. He has repeatedly uttered statements that reveal a craving to be in total control of the US government. As he mounts a second campaign for the White House, his team has openly discussed his plans to consolidate government power in the White House should he win. The New York Times recently reported that his crew aims “to alter the balance of power by increasing the president’s authority over every part of the federal government that now operates, by either law or tradition, with any measure of independence from political interference by the White House.” The Washington Post ran a story in April headlined, “Trump touts authoritarian vision for second term.”
These plans include altering the rules governing the civil service so that tens of thousands of federal workers—maybe more—would be subject to immediate dismissal by the White House. That would mean that Trump could fire employees at federal agencies who do not pledge their loyalty to Trump—or who question the legality or appropriateness of White House directives. Say, Trump or an underling orders the IRS to audit the tax returns of a political foe and an IRS career official objects, that person could be pink-slipped.
Yet this effort to reshape the US government extends far beyond the fevered fantasies of one failed casino owner and his henchmen and henchwomen. Much of the right-wing establishment—including its leading think tanks and policy shops—are part of the attempt to concentrate federal power in the hands of Trump or another Republican president.
Conservatives have been advocating placing the White House in direct control of the Justice Department—that is, tearing down the (metaphorical) wall erected after Watergate that essentially blocks the president from unduly influencing the decisions of the agency and its criminal and civil investigations. Leading this charge has been Jeffrey Clark, the top Justice Department official who, not coincidentally, colluded with Trump after the 2020 election to push the department to falsely claim the election returns were fraudulent.(Clark was indicted last month in Fulton County, Georgia, as part of the criminal case that alleged Trump ran a “criminal enterprise” to overturn the last election.) Clark had been working on this Justice Department initiative as a senior fellow at the Center for Renewing America, a Washington, DC-based think tank run and staffed by Trump administration veterans, including Russell Vought, the former head of the Office of Management and Budget, and Kash Patel, who worked for Trump at the National Security Council.
The Center for Renewing America is merely a small piece of the right’s let’s-go-authoritarian operation. Dozens of conservative outfits—led by the Heritage Foundation—have banded together to produce what they call Project 2025, which has released a 1,000-page report, Mandate for Leadership: The Conservative Promise, which provides a blueprint for a wannabe-White-House-autocrat. Their proposals include removing protections for federal employees so perhaps as many as 50,000 could be fired and replaced with Trump (or Republican) loyalists. This would be done under the banner of annihilating the supposed “deep state” bureaucracy and smashing the “administrative state.”
As noted above, this would destroy the civil service, booting out of federal agencies employees with expertise and experience and replacing them with political hacks. We’re talking about EPA lawyers who might inform a White House that its proposal to sell oil leases off environmentally sensitive coastlands would violate the law. Or perhaps a CIA analyst who produces an assessment saying that a presidential policy might yield negative consequences (for instance, a report noting that bombing Mexico could cause an immigration crisis).
There’s much more in Project 2025 than eviscerating the civil service. It, too, calls for curbing the independence of the Justice Department and proposes revved-up prosecutions of persons providing or distributing abortion pills by mail. The project urges rolling back environmental regulations, reversing actions to address climate change, and abolishing the Pentagon’s diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. One chapter that focuses on the Department of Health and Human Services calls on the next president to “maintain a biblically based, social science–reinforced definition of marriage and family.” In other words, the next chief executive should wage a war on marriage equality.
Project 2025 harks back to a Heritage Foundation tradition. Four decades ago, when Ronald Reagan won the presidency, the far-right think tank produced its first Mandate for Leadership, a thick report laying out conservative proposals for the new administration. Project 2025’s Mandate for Leadership volume is a similar right-wing wish-list, but an overarching theme is the fortification of presidential power so a presumably conservative president could single-handedly impose right-wing policies on the nation. For a movement once defined by its cries against the evils of big government, this is quite the turnabout. It is a sign of how deeply Trump’s authoritarian impulse has penetrated into the conservative cosmos.
Project 2025 would make real the yearnings of a power-mad indicted former president. The Heritage Foundation claims it is raising $22 million for the venture, which will include recruiting thousands of right-wingers to “flood the zone” of the federal government. This could be a serious and dangerous operation.
The other night I was asked to discuss this initiative on MSNBC. I prepared by reading assorted articles on the project and its own material. But during the segment, I thought of a particularly dangerous possibility.
Trump has already vowed to pardon the January 6 assaulters if he returns to the White House—which would reward and validate violent insurrectionists, domestic terrorists, and seditionists. Now suppose Trump’s supporters—in large or small numbers—mounted new acts of political violence. Under the proposals advocated by Project 2025, Jeffrey Clark, and others, Trump could order the Justice Department not to investigate or prosecute these criminals. He could protect the brownshirts who engage in violence against his opponents. Similarly, Trump could do the same in cases of election interference or voter suppression. He could instruct the FBI to not probe the shady business dealings of his cronies or allies—or those of his family or his own enterprises. He and his favorites would have free rein across the board to break the law or to assist those who do. (See Vladimir Putin.)
Trump has repeatedly said he would use the Justice Department to prosecute and lock up his opponents and critics. That sounds like the usual Trump bluster. But if he gains full control of the department—and the federal law enforcement system—he and his followers (including the violent ones) could get away with murder. Not to be alarmist, but perhaps literally.
It’s been often said that Trump failed to do more damage to the nation because he and his minions were incompetent The organized right wants to ensure that doesn’t happen again, if Trump stays out of prison and ends up back at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Worse, it seeks to institutionalize Trump’s authoritarian instincts. A mad-king ruler needs a support system, and the Heritage Foundation and its partners are happily toiling away to concoct one for Trump.
Here's the MSNBC segment in which we discussed Project 2025:
American Psychosis and C-SPAN
I was on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal on Sunday morning—for what I was told was my 92nd appearance on the network—and I had the chance to discuss my book American Psychosis: A Historical Investigation of How the Republican Party Went Crazy, which, as you might know by now, comes out in an expanded paperback version today. Calls to the show were reminders that the title of the book was no exaggeration. I chose “American Psychosis” to reflect a profoundly disturbing development: Millions of Americans now reside in a political realm that does not accept reality. They cannot discern facts and truths and are shackled to spin, falsehoods, and disinformation. When I wrote the book, foremost in my mind were those thousands of Americans who attacked the US Capitol on January 6, believing that the election had been stolen from Donald Trump. They represented tens of millions who had embraced Trump’s baseless lies as God’s truth.
This fervent belief in a false narrative—reflecting an acceptance of a larger anti-reality: Trump is the champion of real Americans and the target of a subversive campaign mounted by an evil cabal of Democrats, journalists, antifa, communists, the Deep State, and pedophiles—is a dangerous virus that infects our political system. On C-SPAN, callers on the Republican line claimed that the Russia attack on the 2016 election was a hoax and that the January 6 riot was staged by Trump’s foes (presumably to discredit Trump and his cultists). At one point, I said to such a viewer, “I don’t think I can help you.” If someone believes the roundly debunked conspiracy theory that January 6 was a false flag operation, he or she is probably beyond rescue. They have been infected—the same way that millions have in The Last of Us. Call them Trump zombies.
American Psychosis does explain how we reached this point. Since the 1950s, the GOP has steadily fueled the paranoia, grievances, and resentments of the far right, encouraging and exploiting extremism. It eventually led to the Trump sickness that now prevents tens of millions of Americans from recognizing reality. They live within their own bizarro land. My hope is that American Psychosis shows that this problem did not emerge suddenly with Trump but was a long time in coming and that understanding this history can help us find a way forward.
The good news is that the book is now cheaper—and even more so for Our Land subscribers. Through September 30, my publisher Twelve (a Hachette imprint) is offering 10 percent off to readers of this newsletter when you buy the paperback directly from its website. Just hit this link and use this code: DAVIDCORNPBK. Once more, thanks ever so much for supporting the book. And here I am on C-SPAN; click this link to watch:
The Watch, Read, and Listen List.
Barbie. I had spared you my Big Thoughts on Barbie because there were already plenty of BToB flooding our information ecosystems. But a recent New York Times article on the $125 million windfall Mattel has accrued from the movie, which has grossed close to $1.4 billion, spurred me to the place my hesitation aside. The story chronicled how Ynon Kreiz, the chief exec of the toy company, lay the foundation for Barbie’s success by affording co-screenwriters Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach the freedom to pursue an artsy and culturally provocative approach to the story, which included spoofing Mattel and its CEO.
In the movie, the company’s head honcho, played in slapstick manner by Will Ferrell, is a buffoonish profit-uber-alles suit surrounded by buffoonish yes men. But, hey, for 125 million bucks (and more to come), Kreiz was happy to take the hit. (I’d be happy to be parodied in front of hundreds of millions of people for only a few million dollars. Maybe only six-figures.)
This article reminded me of one reason I had an unsettling feeling, as I watched Barbie at the drive-in in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, in a parking lot full of minivans and SUVs loaded with excited young girls dressed in pink. Mattel was exploiting its exploitation of sexualized commercialism. For decades, there’s been plenty of debate over the meaning and impact of Barbie. Is this doll a celebration of female empowerment (Barbie the Astronaut!) or a manifestation of a degrading body-image tyranny? The movie tries to have it both ways.
In Barbie, Barbie, played by Margot Robbie, lives in Barbie Land—in a Barbie dream house, of course—and this world is populated by all the Barbies: Surgeon Barbie, Supreme Court Justice Barbie, Architect Barbie, etc. Here all the Barbies are accomplished, smart, and full of agency, while all the Kens are secondary figures who spend most of their days waiting for a dollop of attention from the Barbies. The main Ken (Ryan Gosling) notes that his job is “beach”—not lifeguarding, just “beach.” For reasons unimportant here, Barbie must leave this queendom and journey to the real world. While there, she encounters a teen named Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) who lets loose, slamming Barbie for causing young girls emotional distress by encouraging impossible beauty standards. She calls Barbie a “fascist.”
This is a key scene in the movie. Ultimately, though, it is played for laughs, when Barbie, processing the comment, says to herself that she couldn’t be a fascist because she doesn’t “control the railways or the flow of commerce.” But this encounter supposedly shows how Barbie is regarded in the real world. The only counterpoint is when Sasha’s mom Gloria (America Ferrera) notes that playing with Barbie brought her and Sasha together when Sasha was younger. Still, we have Mattel profiting off a film that accuses Mattel of profiting off body-shaming. That’s very corporate-meta.
Another central scene in the movie occurs when Gloria delivers a fiery speech about society’s conflicting and impossible-to-meet expectations for women. It’s a rousing piece of neo-feminist oratory that has come to be seen by many as the heart of the film. But other aspects of the movie were less feminist-y. When Ken hits the real world with Barbie, he discovers patriarchy—and loves it. He returns to Barbie Land without his gal pal and within a day or so imposes a male-dominated power structure on the realm. All the Barbies immediately assume submissive roles as maids, wives, and girlfriends, while Ken and the other Kens macho-strut about in full control. The Barbies all-too-adoringly gaze at the Kens, as the Kens play guitar and serenade the ladies and explain The Godfather. (Ouch!) Barbie, Gloria, and Sasha must rush back to Barbie Land to save the Barbies from male supremacy.
Wait a minute. Barbie Land was at first full of self-assured, confident, and capable women. How could Ken, a clod, brainwash them into accepting a patriarchal order so easily and so quickly? The role model Barbies were complete pushovers for Ken and the other male numbskulls. Why did they surrender completely? How non-feminist. I was confused.
The movie is witty and stylistically a tour de force. Gerwig, who was also the director, deserves credit for turning a doll-flick into a cultural touchstone that provokes intellectual discourse. Yet I wonder what Mattel’s let’s-exploit-the-exploitation corporate strategy will lead to next. Perhaps Barbie (and Mattel) can pursue that in the sequel.
“Angry,” the Rolling Stones. The Rolling Stones are about to release a new album, Hackney Diamonds, the band’s first collection of original tunes since 2005 (alas, without Charlie Watts, their powerhouse drummer, who died two years ago). Its initial single, “Angry,” is typical Stones, a crunchy guitar riff from Keith Richards and focused howling from Mick Jagger. Good stuff. But if I were to make a parody video for a Stones number it might look a lot like the one they released (which features Sydney Sweeney, who put in a wow of a performance in HBO’s stellar Reality). See for yourself:
Read Recent Issues of Our Land
September 9, 2023: A story too immense (Rudy Giuliani and Russia)?; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Tucker Carlson); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
September 6, 2023: One of the best books I’ve ever read; the Mailbag; Full Circle offers a fascinating neo-noir trip; and more.
September 1, 2023: Can Donald Trump rally be barred from the 2024 ballot?; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Tucker Carlson): the Mailbag; Jade Bird and LP belt it out (separately); and more.
August 26, 2023: The bottomless cynicism of Tucker Carlson; the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
August 23, 2023: David Brooks’ blind spot; American Psychosis, the paperback; whatever happened to our service economy?; the Mailbag; Citizen Cope takes a “Victory March”; and more.
August 17, 2023: Donald Trump, mob boss (then and now); Dumbass Comment of the Week (Matt Gaetz); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
August 12, 2023: From the Our Land archives: In Ohio, sex sells freedom; and more.
August 8, 2023: Ron DeSantis—not dead yet; Our Land on Cape Cod; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Mike Pence campaign); and more.
August 5, 2023: From the Our Land archives: The tale of Jeffrey Clark (Trump’s “co-conspirator 4”); Hightown, a crime drama that explores the underside of Cape Cod; and more.
Got suggestions, comments, complaints, tips related to any of the above, or anything else? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.