Project 2025 Was Supposed to Boost Donald Trump's Campaign — but It May Be Backfiring Instead

Amanda Marcotte / Salon
Project 2025 Was Supposed to Boost Donald Trump's Campaign — but It May Be Backfiring Instead Donald Trump. (photo: MSNBC)

Trump's authoritarian game plan is breaking through the post-debate noise and it's starting to scare people

When Project 2025 was released, a number of progressives expressed surprise that Donald Trump's army of authoritarian schemers would boldly publish their plan to destroy American government as we know it. The over 900-page document, commissioned by the people expected to run another Trump White House, is a laundry list of the far-right's most politically toxic ideas, from banning abortion nationwide to mass firing federal officials who believe in protecting public health and safety. One would think that Trump and his allies would try to keep their sinister plans out of public view. Instead, Team Trump published their fascistic blueprint on a website for anyone to read,. They even proudly display the menacing "Project 2025" label on the front page.

But really, it's not that surprising. The MAGA right learned years ago the value of hiding their wicked plans in plain sight. Authoritarian thought leader Christopher Rufo is the most prominent example. He frequently speaks loudly of his machinations, such as boldly announcing on Twitter that the right is trying to take away birth control, claiming women should not have "recreational sex." Recently imprisoned Trump ally Steve Bannon gloated openly on his podcast about his schemes. Before going to prison, he bragged to the New York Times, "This is a military headquarters for a populist revolt." Kevin Roberts, whose group Heritage Foundation is helping run Project 2025, recently spoke about how Trump will use violence to force the MAGA agenda on the public.

Trump himself regularly employs this strategy, giving speeches where he declares that his goal is "retribution" against political opponents, promises pardons for the January 6 insurrectionists, and characterizes anyone who objects as "vermin" who need to be eliminated. This strategy works because it depends on the fact that most Americans don't pay close attention to politics. They will never learn that Trump and his allies are saying such vile things. So the MAGA goal with this bad guy posturing is twofold: First, get the juices flowing in their base. Second, cause those progressives who are paying attention to panic. Trumpists then paint the people speaking out as a bunch of liberal crazies who are exaggerating the threat of MAGA.

I often liken it to a guy who pinches a woman's butt in a bar, and when she protests, laughs and insists she's just a crazy lady making it all up. We saw this strategy with the Supreme Court's recent presidential "immunity" decision. It's factually correct that it gives Trump a license to kill, but anyone who speaks this fact is accused of "Trump derangement syndrome" and "madness" by Republicans.

The strategy largely works, because less politically engaged Americans assume that "both sides" engage in hyperbole. Low information people are ready to believe the false accusations that liberals are "deranged" when they warn of Trump's plans to be a dictator. Project 2025 seemed to be rolled out with this assumption that "normies" would never hear of it, and that the few who did hear would dismiss the fears as overheated nonsense.

Instead, however, there are promising signs that people who aren't political junkies are starting to hear about Project 2025. Even better, those folks aren't immediately dismissing it as progressive theatrics but may be genuinely alarmed.

On Sunday, actress Taraji P. Henson took a break during the BET Awards, which she was hosting, to speak out about Project 2025. "The Project 2025 plan is not a game. Look it up!" she told viewers. "I’m talking to all the mad people that don’t want to vote. You’re going to be mad about a lot of things if you don’t vote."

The clip went viral, amplified by other celebrities like Mark Ruffalo. So the MAGA forces swung into action on social media, accusing Henson and Ruffalo and other progressives of making it all up. "Is Project 2025 in the room with you?" a blue-checked user sneered under Ruffalo's tweet. These efforts at gaslighting people run against a real problem, however: The drafters of Project 2025 seek to promote their authoritarian playbook. Thus, a simple Google search generates a slew of explainers from various news organizations, with even more coming out rapidly, as a response to the rising number of people asking, "What's Project 2025?"

"We received a flood of reader inquiries asking if Project 2025 was a real effort," the fact-checking team at Snopes wrote in their lengthy explainer published Tuesday. Google Trends confirms that the number of searches for "project 2025" has grown dramatically in recent days.

Henson's speech juiced the search rate, but this data shows interest levels were rising before her speech last Sunday. Earlier this month, John Oliver did a segment about Project 2025 on his HBO show, though the boost of interest from that was modest. His audience tends to be people who are already politically engaged and have heard about the initiative from the news. Perhaps more importantly, President Joe Biden's campaign has started a big media push to raise awareness, starting with a website last week that offers "a taste of Trump’s Project 2025" with bullet points like, "Takes Away Reproductive Freedom Nationwide" and "Terminates the Constitution." The campaign projected a QR code around Atlanta Thursday that sends people to the site.

There have also been a few TikTok videos garnering millions of views that break down what Project 2025 is, and what a threat it is to ordinary people.

Perhaps one of the most telling signs that this is beginning to backfire on Trump, however, is the way the MAGA forces on social media are starting to freak out. As Democratic activist and researcher Will Stancill pointed out, the MAGA people who pretend to be leftists to sow confusion online are busy at work trying to pretend Project 2025 is, uh, a Biden thing.

Perhaps the right's mistake was giving the initiative the name "Project 2025," which sounds like something out of a dystopian sci-fi novel. Trump's in-house team has the same urge, as they have "Agenda 47," a lighter-weight version of the same fascistic game plan. Trump's campaign likely went with scary-sounding names on purpose, both to thrill their sadistic foot soldiers and to cause liberals to react fearfully. But those monikers also make them memorable enough to break into the consciousness of people who aren't paying close attention. Swing voters and people who aren't sure yet if they're going to vote are starting to hear about this "Project 2025" — and they do not like it.

That's now how this was supposed to work.

Even in early June, polling showed only a quarter of Americans had heard of Project 2025. It was, for a time, working as likely intended: To motivate hardcore MAGA people and alarm partisan Democrats, all without even being noticed by the everyday people who still haven't made a choice of who to vote for or whether to vote.

There hasn't been new polling data yet, but this spike of interest suggests there's a strong chance that the sands are shifting. If the chatter about Project 2025 continues in both the press and social media, the knowledge of Trump's plans might start to influence the election — and in ways he will not like. Trump cannot win without a large percentage of voters backing him under the false belief he's "not so bad." The more they find out about what he intends to do in office, the more will have second thoughts about risking another Trump term.

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