The Overthrow Project existed before Trump, but it may not survive his presidency.
Before moderate Republicans became members of the Democratic party, the GOP advocated limited government. Today, however, Donald Trump is pursuing a radical shrinkage of the federal government that comes close to overthrowing it entirely. The goal of this project: to leave the country with a minuscule government basically an appendage to private enterprise.
Call it the Overthrow Project.
The essence of the Overthrow Project is familiar: to reduce taxes on the very rich, free the business community from taxes and regulations that interfere with its money-making, and subsidize that community with public funds. In addition, the Overthrow Project aims to privatize as many governmental activities as possible. Left for government is the maintenance of the remaining public infrastructure that enables private enterprise to operate efficiently and safely, as well as the assurance of public safety through ever-higher funding of the military, the homeland-security apparatus, the police, and other forces of so called law and order.
Unlike conventional attempts by political parties to remain in power, the Overthrow Project also aims to obtain permanent control over all branches of the federal and state governments. That goal is pursued with an increasingly aggressive and norm-violating form of hardball politics only rarely seen in recent times.
Understanding the GOP’s various activities as a single project makes it possible to see the unstated purposes of these activities and how they are connected.
Donald Trump campaigned as a populist outsider and frequently attacked the Republican establishment. Nonetheless, he has always supported its Overthrow Project, adopting its goals and its hardball methods. In fact, Stephen Bannon, President Trump’s most senior adviser, has been quoted as saying, “Lenin wanted to destroy the state and that’s my goal too.”
Now Trump occupies the Oval Office, he will do all he can to lower taxes, deregulate the business community, and privatize a large number of governmental activities. Like other Republicans, he is eager to make life yet more difficult for America’s economically and otherwise vulnerable citizens. In addition, he has announced his intent to significantly beef up the military.
Even though Trump promised to bring back the jobs lost by the white working-class members of his base, his actual job-creation proposals appear to be limited to those infrastructure projects that would create profits for the business community.
The deregulation programs will, as always, increase the profits and stock prices of deregulated enterprises in many parts of the economy. The emasculation of the Clean Air Act, for example, will benefit the suppliers of coal, oil, and gas, even though it will require even Republicans to breathe polluted air.
The total or partial privatization projects now being implemented will target public education and the Veterans Affairs department, as well as Obamacare, Medicare, Medicaid, and other entitlement programs. Another attempt to divert part of Social Security to Wall Street can be expected. The further privatization of public lands, including in the national parks, is already being discussed.
Existing privatized institutions, such as prisons and the military will undoubtedly be expanded. Private contractors have already taken over many of the military’s support functions. The possible elimination of cabinet departments and other federal agencies would generate additional privatization to replace some of the goods and services these have provided. A number of Trump’s cabinet secretaries and other top officials were chosen because they are intent on privatizing major government programs in the agencies they are to lead. Several have clearly been picked in order to decimate and perhaps eliminate their agencies.
The donor class has already gone far to privatize election campaigns, and a number of elected officials have always been at the beck and call of private enterprise.
Should the Overthrow Project be successful, government’s role would be limited to enforcing the rules and regulations for the newly privatized enterprises. Presumably, lawyers working for these enterprises will supply government with many of these rules and regulations and government would mainly protect money making and prevent unfair competition.
The business community would probably have government subsidize privatized public functions that supply what were once public goods. In fact, GOP ideology, which treats the market as America’s dominant institution, suggests that additional institutions supplying public goods are eligible for eventual privatization.
Acentral part of the Overthrow Project seeks to enable the Republicans to obtain long-term political control of the federal and state governments. The systematic gerrymandering of congressional and state legislative districts has played a crucial role in the control effort, enabling the Republicans to put far more elected officials in office than the size of their majorities would justify. The various voter suppression, limitation, and discouragement schemes have helped to further increase the Republican vote in many places.
Partly as a result, nearly two-thirds of the state legislatures are now controlled by the GOP, almost enough to propose amendments to the Constitution. A handful more election victories would enable three-fourths of the states to approve the amendments after the Republican majorities in the Congress had passed them.
Gerrymandering and voter suppression often allow elected officials to disregard the wishes and opinions of all but a narrow base of their constituencies. The resulting autonomy frees them to advance party control as well as policies that are favored by only a small part of the population.
Other methods of advancing the party’s control over government are more indirect. These include cutting back funds for the Bureau of the Census and other federal data-gathering programs that implicitly but clearly criticize Republican policies. In years past, members of Congress have already proposed such informational cutbacks, notably those reporting the increases in racial, economic, and other inequalities that could hurt the party politically.
Further initiatives for party control include the intimidation of critics and the barring of access to critical news media. Presidential tweets can distract attention from important events and facts that could interfere with the pursuit of party control. Fake news can have a similar effect, for example by encouraging yet more distrust of the news media and influential political institutions. The recourse to “alternative facts” that seem to legitimize Republican ideology can threaten the country’s reliance on actual facts.
The attempt to achieve long-term party control is accompanied by new forms of hardball politics that include the rejection of long-held political norms. A significant example was the Republican-controlled Senate’s refusal to hold hearings on then-President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, thus preventing the Democrats from attaining a liberal majority on the Court. Or consider the post-2016 election vote by North Carolina’s GOP legislators to reduce the powers of the newly elected Democratic governor. That coup is likely to be imitated in other states and could encourage conservative think tanks to invent yet other control schemes.
Yet the most dramatic example of the GOP’s norm violations may turn out to be President Trump’s refusal to sell his properties and financial holdings and put his monies into a blind trust. Since he will continue to collect profits from the businesses he owns, he is in effect telling the country that governing can coexist with, and perhaps be used for, money-making.
All of these actions support the Republicans’ attacks on the foundations of democratic government and thereby advance its overthrow.
Although the Overthrow Project may be revolutionary in the changes it could bring to the country, it will probably not include violence. Instead, its primary effects may include the normalization of the various party-control schemes, the constant violation of traditional norms, the toleration of nepotism, corruption, and the injection of alternative realities into the country’s political life.
Unless the currently widespread protest by large numbers of citizens, the media, and other cultural institutions continues, initiatives of the Overthrow Project and its various effects could become part of the mainstream culture. Even anti-democratic politics and authoritarian decision-making may then seem less and less abnormal.
Donald Trump’s belief that he has the power to implement his proposals by himself, his support of foreign dictators as well as his tolerance of the anti-democratic tendencies of the domestic and global far right all suggest that he may be ready to try some dictatorial methods himself if he cannot get his way by democratic means.
The Democrats may share the GOP’s aim to control all branches of government, but so far they have done little to achieve it. Although they have resorted to some of the same strategies and tactics as the Republicans—gerrymandering, for example—they have never gone about it as systematically as the Republicans.
While a handful of Democrats may support some of the GOP’s tax reform, deregulation, and other policies, the party is not interested in overthrowing the government—or private enterprise. Instead, it seeks to increase the well-being of the economically vulnerable population, particularly with a stronger safety net and an enlarged welfare state.
Yet the Democrats have not been as energetic and determined as the Republicans. Nor have they enforced party discipline. They have never received the level of strategic and tactical guidance the Republicans have obtained from their think tanks.
The Democrats have also eschewed the coup-like initiatives of the Republicans. They have not even figured out how to counter the GOP’s hardball politics, but then they have rarely resorted to its strategic guile and its anti-democratic actions.
Still, the Democrats could halt the Overthrow Project with a single landslide election, and end it if they obtained control of all branches of the federal government for several consecutive presidential and midterm elections.
Actually, the Overthrow Project could even be upset by Donald Trump’s failure to keep his promises to the so-called white working class. If its labor-market troubles and those of other citizens in red states continue, their voters could become politically more active—and in ways that could hurt the Republican Party.
Although some may move further toward the totalitarian right, others might join the now ongoing liberal-left protest movements. However, these movements must transform themselves into a nationwide set of relatively like-minded local and state organizations before they can recruit enough disenchanted Republicans and independents to join them.
Above all, these organizations need to figure out how to persuade enough of the politically passive citizenry, particularly whites, to vote, and to vote Democratic, in the next election.
In order for their message and their proposed policies to be persuasive, significant ideological and class differences would have to be overcome or set aside. At election time, they would have to create a ground game that can also persuade disenchanted voters—and non-voters—to support them.
These tasks may be made a little easier by some systemic and self-destructive obstacles the Overthrow Project will face in the future. For one thing, many Democratic programs cannot be fully eliminated, and the federal government usually continues to grow regardless of which party is in power. In addition, the business community will realize that it cannot flourish or even survive without help from even the most hated federal agencies.
Sooner or later, the Republicans should discover that decimating the government will likely result in a mass of unintended consequences. For example, redistributing tax funds to the rich from the large number of middle- and working-class Americans could seriously damage the consumer economy on which the rest of the economy depends. Defunding programs that enable the poor and the working class to survive will further increase family breakups, domestic violence, drug addiction, suicide, and other human tragedies that even the Overthrow Project cannot totally ignore.
If the global economy continues to stifle the country’s economic growth, Trump’s protectionist fantasies notwithstanding, politics could become yet more adversarial. The resulting spread of governmental paralysis to state and local governments would also affect the Overthrow Project.
As always, much depends on the voters. If they continue to blame government for the decline in their standard of living, the Overthrow Project may muddle through. If, however, enough of the voters decide that private enterprise is making their lives miserable, they might realize that politics can help them. These voters could demand a governmental safety net that is securely anchored with entitlement, job creation, income support, and other programs that benefit them instead of the business community.
If the Republicans want to avoid the possibility of a long-term Democratic takeover of the government, they might not only have to call off the Overthrow Project but even participate in creating that safety net.
Herbert Gans is a Professor of Sociology at Columbia University.