Blitzkrieg Against the Administrative State

On November 1, The New York Times reported that allies of former President Donald Trump have been drawing up lists of hard-right lawyers likely to support a “radical White House agenda” in a potential second Trump administration. This comes as no surprise. Enough lawyers in the first Trump administration—traditional conservatives all—were sufficiently finicky about legality to block or at least slow some of Trump’s more extreme ideas, including overturning the 2020 election. Echoing Trump’s frustration at such fastidiousness, the Times quotes one current ally, Mike Davis, as saying: “In the Trump 47 administration, they need much stronger attorneys who do not care about elite opinion who will fight these key cultural battles.” One worries Davis and his colleagues may be untroubled by the president’s constitutional obligation to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”

The Washington Post’s reporting earlier this month deepens this fear. It confirms that among the central aims of recruiting compliant legal talent is ensuring that Trump can vigorously deploy Justice Department resources to go after his “perceived enemies.” The avowed aim is to “exact revenge on those who have challenged or criticized [Trump], if he returns to the White House.” A key figure in these discussions appears to be Russell T. Vought, Trump’s former Office of Management and Budget director and now president of the right-wing Center for Renewing America. The Times quotes Vought’s impatience with conservative lawyers in the first Trump administration who were unwilling to do Trump’s bidding without hesitation. Criticizing the timidity of traditional conservative lawyers, Vought told the Times: “The Federalist Society doesn’t know what time it is.” As for making the Justice Department an instrument of White House political retribution, Vought would unblinkingly jettison the norm of independence that presidents and attorneys general of both parties have carefully nurtured since Watergate. “You don’t need a statutory change at all, you need a mind-set change,” Vought told the Post. “You need an attorney general and a White House Counsel’s Office that don’t view themselves as trying to protect the department from the president.”

Vought’s Center for Renewing America is one of many organizations working with the Heritage Foundation on an ambitious effort to prepare a blitzkrieg against the administrative state and turn the bureaucracy into the president’s personal strike force. Now celebrating the end of its fifth decade, the Heritage Foundation hopes to maintain its position in spearheading the agenda of the Republican right wing. Joined by roughly 75 other conservative groups, the foundation has launched Project 2025—a multi-prong initiative of agenda-setting, personnel recruitment, and online instruction for would-be Trump minions. Much of what Hillary Clinton was once mocked for labeling a “vast right-wing conspiracy” now operates in plain sight. Whether or not the hoped-for right-wing revolution will be televised, it already has a website.

Project 2025 presents itself online in apocalyptic terms, describing its agenda as “the next conservative President’s last opportunity to save our republic.” The full-throated version, however, is reserved for the project’s free, downloadable, 920-page book, Mandate for Leadership: The Conservative Promise. (You can order a bound copy for $35.00.)

In his foreword, Heritage President Kevin Roberts warns of unprecedented peril: “The long march of cultural Marxism through our institutions has come to pass. The federal government is a behemoth, weaponized against American citizens and conservative values, with freedom and liberty under siege as never before.” The time to respond is short: “Conservatives have just two years and one shot to get this right. With enemies at home and abroad, there is no margin for error.” The opposing forces are evil. Without irony, Roberts writes:

Ultimately, the Left does not believe that all men are created equal—they think they are special. They certainly don’t think all people have an unalienable right to pursue the good life. They think only they themselves have such a right along with a moral responsibility to make decisions for everyone else.

Given the conservative orthodoxy with which Project 2025 seeks to infuse the executive branch, a nonbeliever might be forgiven for suspecting that some Freudian projection is here at work.

Mandate for Leadership: The Conservative Promise represents but one of what its website describes as “four pillars that will, collectively, pave the way for an effective conservative administration: a policy agenda, personnel, training, and a 180-day playbook.” The “playbook,” a set of draft agency-by-agency transition plans to “move out upon the President’s utterance of ‘so help me God,’” is described in Mandate for Leadership as a work still in progress.

Of the three remaining pillars, the policy agenda looks least innovative, at least in form. In 1980, less than a decade after its founding, the think-tank/advocacy group burst into prominence with a similar initiative for the incoming Ronald Reagan administration, which implemented, according to Heritage, “nearly two-thirds of the 2,000 policy recommendations” from that year’s volume of Mandate for Leadership. Heritage recommendations presented to the Trump administration were pared  to “approximately 334.”  The group claims that Trump embraced nearly two-thirds of them during his first year in office.

            In terms of substance, the 2025 agenda includes healthy doses of:

  • customary conservative policy recommendations, some of which might even have bipartisan appeal, such as increasing the private sector role in civilian nuclear waste disposal, but most of which are simply variations on themes of deregulating the economy and reducing the administrative reach of government;
  • right-wing wish-list chestnuts, such as defunding National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System;
  • culture war dreams, such as “deleting the terms sexual orientation and gender identity (‘SOGI’), diversity, equity, and inclusion, gender, gender equality, gender equity, gender awareness, gender-sensitive, abortion, reproductive health, reproductive rights, and any other term used to deprive Americans of their First Amendment rights out of every federal rule, agency regulation, contract, grant, regulation, and piece of legislation that exists”;
  • genuflection in the direction of “Judeo-Christian,” a/k/a, Christian, values, such as a presidential recommendation that Congress “encourage communal rest by amending the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to require that workers be paid time and a half for hours worked on the Sabbath”; and
  • radical proposals for economic or political transformation, such as considering either abolition of the Federal Reserve or returning to the gold standard.

But whatever its agenda, Heritage recognizes the role of administrative personnel—not just cabinet officers—in implementing a president’s agenda. The adage, “personnel is policy,” appears five times in Mandate for Leadership. Despite its successes in the Reagan Administration, the Heritage Foundation complained even in 1981 about “the appointment of individuals who are not committed to the President’s goals and policies,” who had thwarted or delayed policy changes Heritage advocated.

In Mandate for Leadership, Paul Dans, the director of Project 2025, implores: “We need a new generation of Americans to answer the call and come to serve. This book is functionally an invitation for you the reader—Mr. Smith, Mrs. Smith, and [in a nod to modernity?] Ms. Smith—to come to Washington or support those who can. Our goal is to assemble an army of aligned, vetted, trained, and prepared conservatives to go to work on Day One to deconstruct the Administrative State.”

Just weeks before the 2020 election, Trump issued an executive order authorizing the creation of a civil service “Schedule F,” which would have enabled the transfer of any career personnel in policy-relevant roles into a regulatory status that would make them easier to fire and their politically motivated replacements easier to hire. President Joe Biden revoked the Trump order on his first full day in office. But reporting on Biden administration efforts to forestall the re-institution of any such system, the New York Times described Trump allies as saying they do not expect any such regulatory impediments “to do much more than delay by a number of months their renewal of Schedule F if Mr. Trump wins back the presidency.”

The most audacious pillars of Project 2025 may be its efforts at personnel recruitment and training, which started in Barack Obama’s second term when Heritage assembled a database of conservatives eager to serve in a post-Obama Republican administration. Despite the initial reluctance of at least some at Heritage to embrace candidate Trump—Michael Needham, then head of Heritage’s sister advocacy organization, Heritage Action, called Trump “a clown”—it moved quickly to draw on its database to help staff Trump’s executive branch. Heritage’s new recruitment effort, however, features an online application process that reads like nothing so much as a college application to a crafty right-wing university.

After requesting the usual personal information, the application asks you to specify your political philosophy. “Moderate” is one possibility, flanked on the left by two others, “Liberal” and “Progressive.” Right-of-center applicants, however, get five choices: “Traditional Conservative,” “Fiscal Conservative,” “Libertarian,” “Neoconservative,” and my favorite, “Paleoconservative.” Applicants are then asked to name “one person, past or present, who has most influenced the development of your political philosophy,” “a book that has most significantly shaped your political philosophy,” “one living public policy figure whom you greatly admire,” and “the one public policy issue you are most passionate about.” There is room for explanations to elaborate on each of these.

The trickiest part of the application, however, may be the roster of 18 statements with which the applicant is to “agree,” “disagree,” or “neither agree nor disagree.” Several of these would appear to be statements for which agreement would be automatically disqualifying, such as, “The U.N. should have authority over the citizens or public policies of sovereign nations” or, “The police in America are systemically racist.” Nor would I predict much success for applicants who disagree with several, such as, “Life has a right to legal protection from conception to natural death,” “We should be proud of our American heritage and history, even as we acknowledge our flaws,” or, “The President should be able to advance his/her agenda through the bureaucracy without hindrance from unelected federal officials.”

However, some responses may be received differently by different members of the admissions committee. For example, in asking whether applicants agree that “in combatting censorship by Big Tech, we must look to more than just the free market” or “the U.S. should impose tariffs with the goal of bringing back manufacturing jobs, even if these tariffs result in higher consumer prices,” the application is venturing into territory where the conservative movement is showing its fault lines.

By submitting a successful application, applicants get to partake of the third pillar, a free online training program—the Presidential Administration Academy—where they can take courses on-demand from “a veritable Who’s Who of the conservative movement.” (The website also anticipates “onsite, in-person programs [which] will be intensive learning and run one to two days.”) Courses cover such topics as “reviewing the processes, requirements, and preparations necessary to be a successful appointee candidate,” “the institutional knowledge needed to navigate relationships, cut through the bureaucracy, and get to work on Day One as a political appointee,” as well as “best practices for drafting and advancing policy.” Again, emulating institutions of higher education, Project 2025 describes its courses as falling within “certificate programs,” presumably suitable for resume inclusion.

All this amounts to a full-bore effort to make real a vision of the so-called “unitary executive” that the conservative movement has embraced since the 1980s and which the Roberts Court has steadily assimilated into legal doctrine since 2013. The Supreme Court now describes the “thousands of officers” who make up the federal bureaucracy as “wield[ing] executive power on behalf of the President in the name of the United States.” The work they do “on behalf of the President” “acquires its legitimacy and accountability to the public” not through conformity with law or the observance of due process, but “through a clear and effective chain of command down from the President, on whom all the people vote.” The embrace by both the judiciary and right-wing legal circles more generally of this too-wooden view of how democratic government works has helped to lay the groundwork for a dangerously authoritarian presidency.

In 2008, former Oklahoma Representative Mickey Edwards, a Republican, one of Heritage’s original trustees, and now a Visiting Professor at Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs and a fierce critic of the foundation’s direction, published Reclaiming Conservatism: How a Great American Political Movement Got Lost—And How It Can Find Its Way Back. In it, he bemoaned his conservative contemporaries’ acquiescence to a vision of a presidency above the law—a vision of executive power he thought all too evident in the George W. Bush administration. The first Trump administration made the executive power claims of the Bush-Cheney years look modest. Trump’s near-daily assault on norms of pluralism and institutional restraint within the federal bureaucracy was unprecedented. But Trump’s first assault on democracy would be nothing compared to the program of authoritarian control and regulatory decapitation that the architects of Project 2025 hope to unleash.

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