May 28, 2024

“Does fascism intend to restore state authority or subvert it? Is it order or disorder? Can you be conservatives and subversives at the same time?” Six months before the March on Rome in October 1922, when Benito Mussolini was the head of the Fascist Party and its decentralized militia movement, he isolated the contradictions at the heart of fascism that remain fundamental to authoritarianism today.

During his 21 years in power, 18 of them as dictator, Il Duce framed fascism as a revolution of reaction against the left, against liberal democracy, and against any group that threatened the survival of white Christian civilization. Carrying out a violent destabilization of society in the name of a return to social order and national tradition, fascism pioneered the autocratic formula in use today of disenfranchising and repressing the many to allow the few to exploit the workforce, women’s bodies, the environment, and the economy.

Trumpism is in this tradition. It started in 2015 as a movement fueled by conservative alarm and white rural rage at a multiracial and progressive America. It continued as an authoritarian presidency envisioned as “a shock to the system” that unleashed waves of hate crimes against nonwhites and non-Christians. It culminated in the January 6 assault on the Capitol, which was a counterrevolutionary operation in the spirit of fascism. Its goal in deploying violence was not just to keep Donald Trump in office, but to prevent the representatives of social and racial progress from taking power.

PROJECT 2025 AS COUNTERREVOLUTION

The fascists believed that you have to destroy to create, and this is what a second Trump administration would do. Project 2025 is a plan for an authoritarian takeover of the United States that goes by a deceptively neutral name. It preserves Trumpism’s original radical intent in its goals to “[d]ismantle the administrative state” and “decentralize and privatize as much as possible,” allowing the American people to “live freely.” “[T]he Trump administration, with the best of intentions, simply got a slow start,” Heritage Foundation head Kevin Roberts told The New York Times in January. “And Heritage and our allies in Project 2025 believe that must never be repeated.” The solution to this “slow start”—code for the restraints imposed by operating in a democracy—is counterrevolution.

The plan promises the abolition of the Department of Education and other federal agencies. The intent here is to destroy the legal and governance cultures of liberal democracy and create new bureaucratic structures, staffed by new politically vetted cadres, to support autocratic rule. So new agencies could appear to manage parents’ and family rights, Christian affairs, and other pillars of the new order. The Department of Health and Human Services is poised to have a central role in governance, given the priorities Trumpism places on policing sexuality, weaponizing motherhood, persecuting transgender people and LGBTQ communities, and criminalizing abortion.

During Trump’s presidency, far-right Roman Catholic attorney Roger Severino headed the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Health and Human Services, transforming it into an office that prioritized the protection of the rights of white Christians and the “natural family.” During his tenure, the department banned the use of the words “fetus” and “transgender” in government communications and made other moves long embraced by evangelical Christians and their far-right allies in politics. In the future, this office could be elevated into an autonomous entity. Appropriating civil rights for white Christians furthers the Trumpist goal of delegitimizing the cause of racial equality while also making Christian nationalism a core value of domestic policy. Doing away with the separation of church and state is the goal of many architects of Trumpism, from Project 2025 contributor Russ Vought to far-right proselytizer Michael Flynn, who uses the idea of “spiritual war” as counterrevolutionary fuel.

Even if the Department of Education is abolished, some other entity would appear to take its place, since it is unlikely that the task of undoing liberal democratic models of pedagogy would be left entirely to individual states. Not everyone will be able to homeschool their children—the preferred extremist option, since it removes children from exposure to the multifaith and multiracial environments of public schools. It is not so far-fetched to imagine the special Bible Trump has been hawking, which includes the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Pledge of Allegiance, as a required text in a Christian nationalist curriculum.

Mussolini kicked off his counterrevolutionary police state in the 1920s with new “public security” laws that justified the arrest of anyone deemed a security threat—meaning anyone who opposed fascism from a liberal democratic or leftist point of view. Trump’s assertion a century later that “people within our country” pose “the greatest threat” to the United States, and his desire to “root [them] out,” could translate into counterterror and counterinsurgency operations. These would require a recasting or expansion of existing federal and state security agencies—for example, if the National Guard is federalized or the promised mass deportations of undocumented immigrants come into being.

The counterrevolution will be televised. Given Trump’s repeated threats to carry out “retribution” against his enemies, expect prompt and showy announcements of trials and investigations of the political opposition, members of the January 6 Select Committee, and anyone who sought to hold him accountable. “He’ll start throwing people in jail, and I’d be at the top of the list,” said Gen. Mark Milley, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—a man not given to hyperbole, who understands how autocrats operate.

THE LEADER CULT AND PERSONALIST RULE

Authoritarianism is a political system in which the executive branch of government is able to exercise disproportionate or total power over the legislature and the judiciary. This gives the leader the ability to minimize or abolish restrictions on his behavior and also avoid accountability for his corrupt and violent actions. Maintaining that culture of impunity is why strongmen go after the press, prosecutors, opposition politicians, and judges, all of whom can expose their crimes or send them to jail, and why their personality cults present them as victims of “witch hunts” meant to stop them from saving the nation. Project 2025 takes an openly autocratic stance in asserting an “existential need for aggressive use of the vast powers of the executive branch” in America, as though the nation would fail if the democratic system, which is built on checks to presidential authority, were to continue.

Trump has worked hard since 2015 to condition the public to see the strongman brand of leadership as the only choice for America. To that end, he has repeatedly sung the praises of authoritarians around the world. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is a muse of Trump, the GOP, and the Heritage Foundation for his success at a brand of authoritarian governance that Trump’s first administration introduced to America and his second administration would seek to consolidate: personalist rule.

Personalist leaders organize government institutions around their self-preservation. Their private interests and needs shape party politics, legislative action, and national policy, just as their relationships with foreign autocrats influence foreign affairs. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who served as the translator of Vladimir Putin’s views and desires in Europe for a decade, was able to personalize Italy’s foreign policy. He excluded Italian diplomats from meetings with Putin, allowing only his private translator-envoy, Valentino Valentini, to be present. An Italian parliamentary investigation later revealed that Berlusconi would have received a kickback from the profits of a planned Italy-and-Russia-built South Stream pipeline.

Trump holds a similarly proprietary vision of governance, which is why classified national security documents ended up in the bathroom of his private residence in Florida. Like most autocrats, Trump sees holding public office as a means of personal enrichment. That is why he spent one-third of his time between 2017 and the end of 2019 visiting Trump-branded properties. Such self-dealing would likely expand massively in a second administration, given his boasts on the campaign trail about receiving more than $7 million from China and other foreign governments for “doing services” while he was president.

THE INNER SANCTUM AND THE PARTY

A staple of authoritarian governance is the inner sanctum: a small circle of insiders, who often include sons-in-law and other relatives, who keep the leader’s secrets, conspire in his corruption, and prevent any criticism from reaching his ears. This informal cabinet often includes people the leader has known for years. Putin’s inner circle includes people he has known since his St. Petersburg days. Berlusconi’s was helmed by Marcello Dell’Utri, a senator in his party who was in charge of his advertising firm, Publitalia, and served as his liaison to Opus Dei and to the Mafia.

Trump’s inner sanctum included Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, who had offices in the White House and earned up to $640 million in outside income during Trump’s presidency. In a future administration, fewer federal agencies would mean a smaller presidential Cabinet of congressionally confirmed officials and a larger role for die-hard loyalists. Extremists whom Trump pardoned in 2020 and 2021 for their crimes on his behalf, from Flynn to Steve Bannon, could return to positions of influence, as the guides of the counterrevolution for secular and religious constituencies. Some MAGA loyalists are already auditioning for Cabinet jobs. Richard Grenell, who is visiting foreign leaders as Trump’s “envoy,” has advised clients in Iran and China and has close ties to pro-Orbán circles in Hungary—his PR firm worked for a Hungarian government–funded nonprofit (a fact he failed to disclose while serving as Trump’s acting director of national intelligence).

For the personalist ruler, the party exists to defend, avenge, and enrich him. The GOP has filled these roles in conspiring to help Trump overthrow the government, and in elevating Trump’s personal legal and financial struggles to the forefront of party business. So it should be no surprise that daughter-in-law Lara Trump has been tasked with optimizing the Republican National Committee for the ends of personalist rule. The RNC has long been a Trump tool: It continued to pay Trump’s legal expenses long after he left office. Now Lara Trump has vowed that “every single penny” of RNC money will be spent on getting her father-in-law back into office. Soon the RNC could well become Trump’s private bank, bereft of any political purpose, and then its transformation into an autocratic instrument will be complete.

THE CIVIL SERVICE

Every counterrevolution needs disciplined cadres. Project 2025 is readying a civilian army of bureaucrats to transform U.S. government. During Mussolini’s regime, policymakers and ideologues debated how to form a new political elite inculcated with fascist values. Orbán has his Mathias Corvinus Collegium Brussels, founded in 2022 to train far-right thinkers and managers for Hungary and Europe. Trumpism has its little-known Presidential Administration Academy, which aims to groom “Political Appointees to Be Ready on Day One”—when the cascade of counterrevolutionary executive orders will presumably commence. The academy’s civil servant training is in “Conservative Governance,” but the intent of vanquishing the ideal of an apolitical civil service and jump-starting the counterrevolution by firing thousands of nonloyalists hews to the history of fascism.

Trump’s presidency provides precedent for the many ways to drive civil servants out. Creating hostile workplaces for critics, and hiring scores of zealots and bullies—Sean Lawler, Trump’s chief of protocol, carried a horsewhip around to intimidate co-workers—Trumpism achieved a passive purge that saw over 79,000 civil servants retire or leave their jobs in his first nine months. In 2018, retired Ambassador Nancy McEldowney compared this process to a “hostile takeover and occupation.” In 2024, it looks like a rehearsal for a counterrevolutionary cleanse of anyone still attached to liberal democratic ethics and norms.

Americans may believe that all this sounds fantastical. Yet the strongman’s special talent is to bring the unthinkable into being. People around the world and throughout history have been caught by surprise at their methods and the scale at which they operate. Bannon, Roberts, Stephen Miller, and other American incarnations of fascism are convinced that counterrevolution leading to autocracy is the only path to political survival for the far right, given the unpopularity of their positions (especially on abortion) and their leader’s boatload of legal troubles. This is why Project 2025 declares that that there is an “existential need” to make “aggressive” use of executive power. The alternative could be defeat.

Mussolini understood that situation well. In 1923, when he was still prime minister of a democracy, he mused about the problem of having one’s destiny decided by the whims of an electorate. “Consent is as changeable as the sands of the seashore,” he wrote, noting there was only one way to deal with “discontented people” who might vote you out: “You prevent it by means of force; by surrounding the mass with force; by employing this force without pity when it is necessary to do so.” Less than two years later, Il Duce announced the start of dictatorship in Italy, ending the right of the population to express its political will.

From the noisy crowds with MAGA hats that fill Trump’s rallies to the quiet fanatics in suits such as Miller and Roberts to a party leader who announces he will act as a dictator on “day one” of his administration, Trumpism is what fascism looks like in twenty-first-century America. If Trump returns to the White House, get ready for a new round of “shocks to the system.” Authoritarians often tell us what they are going to do, and Trump, the GOP, and the political operators of Project 2025 are open about their plans to occupy power and carry out a counterrevolution designed to keep them there indefinitely.