Feature / June 6, 2024

The Theocratic Blueprint for Trump’s Next Term

How the Christian nationalist vanguard would pursue unprecedented power over all branches of government.

Chris Lehmann
Illustration by Johanna Goodman.

This article is part of “Project 2025: The Plot Against America,” a Nation special issue devoted to unpacking the right’s vast and chilling program for a second Trump term.

The first pages of Project 2025’s Mandate for Leadership invoke the Beltway axiom that “personnel is policy.” If that’s the case, readers should pay especially close attention to the handiwork of Russell Vought. Vought served as Donald Trump’s director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the critical nexus of policy execution and agency performance in the executive branch. He has also served, by some accounts, as the lead administrator of the Project 2025 initiative, overseeing 1,000 employees in 30 separate task groups under its aegis. He also contributed a central chapter to Project 2025’s blueprint for a second Trump administration, bearing the deceptively anodyne title “Executive Office of the President of the United States.” In it, Vought lays out the case for unleashing untrammeled executive power from the maw of a “sprawling federal bureaucracy” that, contrary to the intent of the Constitution, “is carrying out its own policy plans and preferences—or, worse yet, the policy plans and preferences of a radical, supposedly ‘woke’ faction of the country.”

Vought proposes to curb the excesses of this dangerous administrative elite by expanding the prerogatives of presidential authority in every facet of the federal government’s operations. Right-wing power-mongers have long expounded the theory of a “unitary executive” as the most durable, efficient, and potent way to achieve a policy agenda that remains deeply unpopular with the American electorate, yet Vought seeks to transform that theory into a comic book plot arc, with a S.H.I.E.L.D.–style rescue mission to redeem a republic besieged by sinister bureaucratic scheming and administrative power grabs at every turn. “The overall situation is constitutionally dire, unsustainably expensive, and in urgent need of repair,” he writes. “Nothing less than the survival of self-governance in America is at stake.”

In this dark vision of a looming administrative coup, the president becomes the Nick Fury savior figure: a master accruer of power devoted at the same time to its wide dispersion among the satellite communities of superheroes practicing an elevated MAGA-sanctioned lifestyle in conditions of stoic watchfulness. The president must be a figure of unparalleled ingenuity to carry out this ambitious agenda of national deliverance: “Success in meeting that challenge will require a rare combination of boldness and self-denial: boldness to bend or break the bureaucracy to the presidential will and self-denial to use the bureaucratic machine to send power away from Washington and back to America’s families, faith communities, local governments, and states.” (If you think, as Vought clearly does, that Donald Trump is the duly anointed avatar of this brand of benevolent spiritualized federalism, then I have a warehouse full of MAGA-branded Bibles to sell you.)

Since at least the heyday of Ronald Reagan, the American right has been steeped in the strongman vision of the presidency as a maximum lawgiver of patriotic virtue. That vision has guided the rampant consolidation of executive power, producing a model of presidential authority tailor-made for the abuses of a Caesarist figure such as Trump. Vought seeks to extend this legacy by championing his former bureaucratic haunt as the great cross-agency enabler of the Caesarist-Christian mashup that he wants a second Trump administration to be. He argues that the OMB must assume a far more aggressive role, for example, in securing the legal foundation of a MAGA imperial presidency—a great rolling brief for executive impunity that even past legal quislings such as John Yoo, the deputy assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel under George W. Bush, wouldn’t dare to dream of: “The Director must ensure the appointment of a General Counsel who is respected yet creative and fearless in his or her ability to challenge legal precedents that serve to protect the status quo.” This swashbuckling executive would rely on the OMB to face down renegade federal agencies “that attempt to protect their own institutional interests and foreclose certain avenues based on the mere assertion (and not proof) that the law disallows it or that, conversely, attempt to disregard the clear statutory commands of Congress.”

For adherents of actual democratic self-governance, Vought’s administrative theory of maximum executive power is plenty unnerving on its own. But an even fuller picture of the sort of substantive policy agendas that it would serve emerges in the theocratic mission of the think tank Vought launched after his tour at the OMB, the Center for Renewing America. This group is a partner in Project 2025, but it’s also a policy shop positioned firmly in the vanguard of the Christian nationalist movement, fiercely dedicated to shoring up a militant right-wing culture-war agenda and based on the lie that the United States was founded as an exclusionary, Christian nation. “Our mission is to renew a consensus of America as a nation under God with unique interests worthy of defending…where individuals’ enjoyment of freedom is predicated on just laws and healthy communities,” the CRA’s website announces.

If you’re curious to learn more about what the CRA’s vision of “healthy communities” might be, you can toggle over to a series of policy “primers” on the subject that advance a wide range of righteous crusades for a unitary executive to undertake. “Palestinian Culture is Prohibitive for Assimilation,” one such entry boldly asserts. “Yes, America’s Institutions Are Grooming Your Children,” another QAnon-adjacent offering proclaims. If that doesn’t have you sufficiently alarmed, check out “School Systems Are Corrupting Children with Pornography” or “Biden’s Woke War on Police.” There’s a rich mosaic of election-denial content under the deeply misleading heading of “Election Integrity,” while the designations “Medical Tyranny” and “Woke and Weaponized” speak—or rather shout—quite unmistakably for themselves. The overarching mood is less that of a colloquy of policy wonks than Steve Bannon podcasting on a meth binge.

Yet this is the labor of intellectual love undertaken by a man plainly positioning himself to be the cross-agency administrative czar in a second Trump administration. So if Trump wins another term and grants Russell Vought’s wishes, stand warned: He has already pledged his fealty to a vision of the MAGA imperial presidency that is equal parts Cotton Mather and Roy Cohn.

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Chris Lehmann

Chris Lehmann is the D.C. Bureau chief for The Nation and a contributing editor at The Baffler. He was formerly editor of The Baffler and The New Republic, and is the author, most recently, of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).

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