New Times,
New Thinking.

Why Donald Trump rejected American conservatism’s favourite think tank

He knows he will never win as the tribune of the right.

By Sohrab Ahmari

The least persuasive argument against Donald Trump is that he is a committed ideologue bent on delivering the conservative movement’s long-standing wish list. In reality, Trump won the 2016 GOP primary by defying conservative policy orthodoxies, and he continues to disappoint the purists this time around. Behold his hilariously cruel dismissal of Project 2025, a Heritage Foundation-led effort to staff and set the agenda of his next administration.

“I know nothing about Project 2025,” Trump wrote on his Truth Social platform on Friday afternoon. “I have no idea who is behind it. I disagree with some of the things they’re saying, and some of the things they’re saying are absolutely ridiculous and abysmal. Anything they do, I wish them luck, but I have nothing to do with them.”

Students of Republican history will have heard echoes of Richard Nixon’s dismissal of Young Americans for Freedom, the group founded in 1960 by William F. Buckley to push the GOP away from the New Deal settlement and in a more libertarian and aggressively anti-Communist direction. Swatting away the YAFers as “nuts and second-raters”, Nixon governed as the last New Deal president at home while pursuing détente with Moscow and an opening to Beijing.

Buckley’s group, rebranded as Young America’s Foundation, is on the advisory board of Project 2025, alongside some four dozen right-of-centre think tanks, colleges, journals, and advocacy outfits. The authors of its policy playbook, Mandate for Leadership: the Conservative Promise, are a who’s-who of the conservative intellectual movement, ranging from libertarians to conventional conservatives to New Right types, including not a few alumni of Trump’s first administration.

Some of these advising groups and individuals are serious and praiseworthy. Among the advisory groups, for example, is the economic reformer Oren Cass’s organisation, American Compass, which has won plaudits across the spectrum for articulating a pro-worker agenda on the right and for exposing the corrosion of the real economy by Wall Street. The report also acknowledges Elbridge Colby, the fresh-thinking Pentagon strategist whom I recently profiled for The New Statesman, for providing feedback, though Colby himself is not featured as an author.

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But the document’s overall orientation clearly owes more to the numerous free-market and libertarian figures and entities that shaped it more directly. Project 2025 is thus all too typical of today’s Heritage Foundation: It presents the same old obsessions of movement conservatism and the donor class, only now repackaged as hard-hitting Trumpism. The foreword by Heritage boss Kevin Roberts sets the tone, in his elisions even more than what he does mention. Summing up America’s domestic crises, Roberts has much to say about the ravages of “woke” than about issues like wages, job and health security, and retirement for working- and lower-middle-class Americans.

Roberts and many of his authors are more interested in “dismantl[ing] the administrative state and return self-governance to the American people”: OK, Kevin, I invite you to take the first flight after the Federal Aviation Administration has been dismantled. Or to eat the first can of sausages after the American people have been freed from under the tyrannical yoke of the Food and Drug Administration. Many of the foreign policy sections, meanwhile, could have been penned by any starry-eyed George W. Bush official circa 2005: “The correct future policy for Iran is one that acknowledges that it is in US national-security interests, the Iranian people’s human-rights interests and a broader global interest in peace and stability for the Iranian people to have the democratic government they demand.” Back to regime change!

On healthcare, Project 2025 offers the same old libertarian nostrums about letting “consumer choice” and “competitive markets” and “health-savings accounts” (HSAs) take care of the problem. Translation: encouraging individuals and families to seek less care and permitting private insurers to cover shoddier plans, while affluent Americans get to use the HSAs as one more tax shelter. Elsewhere, the document waffles on core populist demands, staging debates over issues like industrial policy and trade with China rather than taking a decisive position that would match Trump’s own worldview and that of the GOP’s increasingly working-class base. On trade, there is a point-counterpoint standoff between Peter Navarro, Trump’s trade warrior (as The New York Times has described him), and Kent Lassman, a standard-issue market fundamentalist from the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Navarro, whose position on tariffs and import substitution has emerged as the new conventional wisdom among Bidenites and even many in the UK Labour party, admirably makes his case. But Lassman disagrees: “The next president should ignore special interests and populist ideologues who want… industrial policy, trade protectionism, and other failed progressive policies.” This single derisive reference is the only time the word “populist” appears in a document supposedly prepared for a populist administration.

By the time we get to education policy – “the federal Department of Education should be eliminated” and school meals for kids should be cut back – it becomes painfully obvious why Trump distanced himself from Project 2025. Contrary to his mainstream reception and to the chagrin of movement activists and donors, Trump isn’t a conservative ideologue. He favours reducing regulatory burdens, which may be prudent in some areas – especially, for example, where green diktats would hinder manufacturing revival. But he knows that dismantling the administrative state in a complex economy is a libertarian fantasy; that the Department of Education can’t be eliminated; that attempting to do so would make him look like an ineffectual lunatic.

Hence, “I know nothing about Project 2025.”

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