What’s At Stake In This Year’s Election

Heather Cox Richardson

On Friday, journalist Casey Michel, who specializes in the study of kleptocracy, pointed out that reporters had missed an important meeting last week. Michel noted that while reporters covered  Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán’s visit to former president Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago, they paid far less attention to the visit Orbán paid to the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the Heritage Foundation on Friday, March 8. There, Orbán spoke privately to an audience that included the president of the organization, Kevin Roberts, and, according to a state media printout, “renowned U.S. right-wing politicians, analysts and public personalities.” 

Michel noted that it was “nothing short of shocking” that Orbán declined to meet with administration officials and instead went to Washington, D.C., to meet with a right-wing think tank. With Roberts’s appointment as head of Heritage in 2021, the conservative organization swung to the position that its role is “institutionalizing Trumpism.” 

Roberts has been vocal about his admiration for Orbán, tweeting in 2022 that it was an honor to meet him. At last year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Orbán boasted that Hungary is “the place where we didn’t just talk about defeating the progressives and liberals and causing a conservative Christian political turn, but we actually did it.” In January, Roberts told Lulu Garcia-Navarro of the New York Times that Orbán’s statement was “all true” and “should be celebrated.” In a different interview, Garcia-Navarro noted, Roberts had called modern Hungary “not just a [italic] model for conservative statecraft but the [italic] model.” 

Last year, Michel notes, Heritage joined the Hungarian Danube Institute in a formal partnership. The Hungarian think tank is overseen by a foundation that is directly funded by the Hungarian government; as Michel says, it is, “for all intents and purposes, a state-funded front for pushing pro-Orbán rhetoric.” The Danube Institute has given grants to far-right figures in the U.S., and, Michel notes, “we have no idea how much funding may be flowing directly from Orbán’s regime to the Heritage Foundation.” 

The tight cooperation between Heritage and Orbán illuminates Project 2025, the plan Heritage has led, along with dozens of other right-wing organizations, to map out a future right-wing presidency. In Hungary, Orbán has undermined democracy, gutting the civil service and filling it with loyalists; attacking immigrants, women, and the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals; taking over businesses for friends and family, and moving the country away from the rules-based international order supported by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). 

In the January interview, Roberts told Garcia-Navarro that Project 2025 was designed to jump-start a right-wing takeover of the government. “[T]he Trump administration, with the best of intentions, simply got a slow start,” Roberts said. “And Heritage and our allies in Project 2025 believe that must never be repeated.”

Project 2025 stands on four principles that it says the country must embrace. In their vision, the U.S. must “[r]estore the family as the centerpiece of American life and protect our children”; “[d]ismantle the administrative state and return self-governance to the American people”; “[d]efend our nation’s sovereignty, borders, and bounty against global threats”; and “[s]ecure our God-given individual rights to live freely—what our Constitution calls ‘the Blessings of Liberty.’”

In almost 1,000 pages, the document explains what these policies mean for ordinary Americans. Restoring the family and protecting children means making “family authority, formation, and cohesion” a top priority and using “government power…to restore the American family.” That, the document says, means eliminating any words associated with sexual orientation or gender identity, gender, abortion, reproductive health, or reproductive rights from any government rule, regulation, or law. Any reference to transgenderism is “pornography” and must be banned. 

The overturning of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision recognizing the right to abortion must be gratefully celebrated, but the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision accomplishing that end “is just the beginning.” 

Dismantling the administrative state in this document starts from the premise that “people are policy.” Frustrated because nonpartisan civil employees thwarted much of Trump’s agenda in his first term, the authors of Project 2025 call for firing much of the current government workforce—about 2 million people work for the U.S. government—and replacing it with loyalists who will carry out a right-wing president’s demands. 

On Friday, journalist Daniel Miller noted that purging the civil service is a hallmark of dictators, whose loyalists then take over media, education, courts, and the military. In a powerful essay today, scholar of authoritarianism Timothy Snyder explained that with the government firmly in the hands of a dictator’s loyalists, “things like water or schools or Social Security checks” depend on your declaration of loyalty, and there is no recourse. “You cannot escape to the bar or the bowling alley, since everything you say is monitored,” and “[e]ven courageous people restrain themselves to protect their children.”

Defending our nation’s sovereignty means ending the rules-based international order hammered out in the years after World War II. This includes organizations like the United Nations and NATO and agreements like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which provide an international set of rules and forums for countries to work out their differences without going to war and which offer a system of principles for those abused within countries to assert their rights. 

Heritage and Orbán have stood firmly against aid to Ukraine in its struggle to fight off Russian aggression. 

Securing “our God-given individual rights to live freely,” hints at religious rule but ultimately focuses on standing against “government control of the economy.” The idea that regulation of business and taxes hampered economic liberty was actually one of the founding ideas of Heritage in the 1980s. 

In the U.S. that ideology has since 1981 moved as much as $50 trillion from the bottom 90% to the top 1%.

And, as that concentration of wealth and power among a small group of people reveals, the real plan behind Project 2025 is the rule of a small minority of extremists over the vast majority of Americans. 

The plan asserts “the existential need for aggressive use of the vast powers of the executive branch”—that is, it calls for a very powerful leader—to dismantle the current government that regulates business, provides a social safety net, and protects civil rights. Instead of the government Americans have built since 1933, the plan says the national government must “decentralize and privatize as much as possible” and leave “the great majority of domestic activities to state, local, and private governance.”

We have in front of us examples of what such governance means. Because state legislatures control who can vote and how the state’s districts are carved up, Republican-dominated state legislatures have taken absolute control of a number of states. There they have banned abortion without exceptions and defined a fertilized human egg as a person; discriminated against LGBTQ+ people and immigrants, banned books, attacked public education, and gutted business regulation, including child labor laws. They have also attacked voting rights. 

Project 2025 presents an apocalyptic vision of a United States whose dark problems can be fixed only by a minority assuming power under a strongman and imposing their values on the rest of the country. And yet the authors of the document assert that it is not them but their opponents who do “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.”

In 1776 the Founders were quite clear about the relationship between rights and government, and their vision was quite different than that of the authors of Project 2025. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” they wrote. 

They continued, “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men,” and that those governments were not legitimate unless they derived power “from the consent of the governed.”

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