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The Heritage Foundation’s Racist Origins and What That History Tells Us

How Project 2025 will Destroy Public Education and Multi-Racial Democracy
by Nancy MacLean

Apr 30, 2024 | Education

From the YouTube video, Freedom to Learn

What will the prescriptions in the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025 mean for parents, public schools, and multiracial democracy? The law professor and social critic Kimberlé W. Crenshaw interviewed historian Nancy MacLean recently at a “Homeroom” webinar of the Freedom to Learn Coalition, which plans a nationwide series of events on May 3. The following slightly reformatted and expanded text is adapted from their exchange.

CRENSHAW: These wars on curricula are not new, of course; they go far back in our history. What folks might not know is that the Heritage Foundation, the main convenor of Project 2025, cut its teeth on curricular wars in the 1970s. Can you tell us about this formative history and what it reveals about the sort of organization Heritage and its 2025 partners are?

MacLEAN: The Heritage Foundation today is the 800-pound gorilla on the radical right. With an annual budget of over $100 million, and a huge, multistory office complex in Washington, D.C., it is one of the top agenda-setting organizations on the right, if not the dominant one, so it’s not surprising that it took the lead in creating Project 2025.

What people need to know is that—unlike some other groups on the right—from its outset the Heritage Foundation blended the toxic cocktail that today’s right is gulping in large doses to achieve its goals: libertarian economics; Christian nationalism; and the weaponization of racism, gender anxiety, and parental fears about sex.

Back in 1974, a year after its founding, Heritage had a staff of five people in a rented office above a garage. That’s when its co-founder, Paul Weyrich, sniffed a big opportunity in West Virginia—in a textbook fight brewing in Kanawha County, home of the state capitol in Charleston. As Weyrich said later: “The alliance between religion and politics didn’t just happen.”

Heritage worked hard to make it happen. Heritage’s then-tiny team inserted itself in a fight opened by Alice Moore, a school board member, and the wife of a fundamentalist minister. She didn’t like the new multicultural language arts textbooks the district was adopting that including some 300 titles she had not read but objected to. First, she complained about literature that had any dialogue, whether Appalachian or “ghetto,” that was not “correct” English. Then it was that the books were “filthy, disgusting trash”— also “unduly favoring blacks.” Then it was that The Autobiography of Malcolm X, an option for high school seniors, disrespected Christianity.

As with today’s culture wars, this one had interested backers from the beginning. Moore was already in the orbit of the John Birch Society and received counsel from Mel and Norma Gabler, the Texas-based couple who were transforming textbook adoption in states like their own by claiming bias over what they viewed as offensive content, such as evolution rather than creationism. Moore soon traveled to address the Christian Crusade of Tulsa on the theme “Public Schools Undermine God’s Law.”

All the while, the fledgling Heritage Foundation provided training, publicity, and links to potential allies. The result? The most violent textbook battle in U.S. history to date. Over the ensuing months, parents of one-fourth of the students in the county had kept them home to boycott the schools, some set up private “Christian schools,” gunshots were fired, Moore’s allies physically attacked supporters of the new curriculum at a school board meeting, and arson and bombings caused several schools to close. Some local protesters cut right to the chase and denounced the new recommendations as “n—–r books.” (From the start, the NAACP saw the all-white campaign against the new books as racist).

As Maya Angelou once wrote: When people show you who they are, believe them—the first time. Because what Heritage showed then is that it would bring gasoline to any fight that would help to build a bench of reactionary religious voters—a strategy which was still in its earliest stages of development. And they would not blink at violence if it seemed to help their cause. Heritage provided legal counsel to a Christian minister, Marvin Horan, who was charged with plotting school bombings. Moran was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison. (The Ku Klux Klan rallied support for Horan too, though at demonstrations, not in court).

Was Heritage ashamed of the explosion it abetted? No. Along with the anti-bussing fight then happening in Boston among Irish Catholics, it was a growth opportunity to build a movement for what they called then (and still do) “parents’ rights.” The bomber’s lawyer, James McKenna, said afterwards: “We learned … that if you pick the right fight at the right time, it can be profitable.” 

One Heritage staffer, Connie Marshner, later described the West Virginia uproar as both the start of the school choice movement and a precursor to the Tea Party—airbrushing from history how segregationists’ massive resistance to Brown v. Board of Education and the Milton Friedman-led attack on public schools had earlier paved the way. For her part, Alice Moore told a Tea Party gathering in 2010 that “the indoctrination of kids for 35 years, this is what led us to the election of [Barack Obama].”

CRENSHAW: Given this history that you just laid out, how did the Heritage Foundation get to Project 2025? Why did they see this plan as necessary? And what version of American society does it envision?

MacLEAN: The question of why the Heritage Foundation and its donors and allies in Project 2025 see something this audacious as necessary now is incredibly important—and telling of how far-right, indeed, authoritarian, the project is.

In the half-century since Heritage went to battle over multicultural textbooks in West Virginia, it has helped link, train, and equip an ever larger and more radical political right. That right has now captured one of our two major political parties and turned it against the factual universe, the Constitution, and basic measures to promote an inclusive, fair society.

But what’s most crucial to understand is that most of the public still rejects the radical right’s agenda. In fact, repeated historical experience—as I show in Democracy in Chains—proved to their strategists that the vast majority of Americans deplore the kind of society desired by Heritage and funded by obscenely rich donors like those convened by the fossil fuel CEO Charles Koch. Elected officials who are accountable to voters again and again have stopped short of carrying out the full horrific donor agenda—from Ronald Reagan forward.

Rather than reconsider their unpopular agenda as any democratic movement would, instead, they concluded that they needed to shackle democracy, in ways we’ve seen roll out especially since the 2010 midterms, including voter suppression, extreme gerrymandering, efforts to destroy labor unions and powerful public health advocates like Planned Parenthood, and capture of a supermajority on the Supreme Court by the Federalist Society.

But even all that proved not to be enough for those who seek to take away our freedoms. The wrecking ball that Donald Trump is and proved to be in the White House did not satiate the donors and operatives—especially in the fossil fuel sector. The federal civil service, the media, some courts, and ordinary citizens held in check many of the worst measures of the first Trump administration. That is why Heritage and its partners put so much precision into the plans contained in Project 2025: to ensure that if a Republican president is elected in November, such checks and balances will be disabled from day one—permanently, not just for a single term.

Heritage and its partners openly admit that they plan to model America on the dictatorship of Viktor Orbán in Hungary. Why is Orbán their model? Because he showed them how to use elections to undermine democracy and ensure perpetual power for his team. How? Orbán purged the civil service and refilled it with obedient loyalists. He got the Constitution altered. He completely dominates. And this is what Heritage wants to see happen in the United States. On March 8 of this year, Heritage’s CEO, Kevin Roberts, hosted Orbán for a several-hour in-person meeting with U.S. allies at Heritage’s headquarters. Roberts called Orbán “not just a model for conservative statecraft but the model.” If a Democrat had done such a thing, the right would have called it treason.

Project 2025 is so determined to empower Trump that it would turn the FBI into a kind of personal police force for the President. Goodbye, impartial justice, to the degree we have ever had it.

CRENSHAW: What do parents, in particular, need to know about Project 2025 and its threats to public education and their children’s well-being?

MacLEAN: Think for a moment about the most radical threats to public education and students’ well-being you’ve seen come out of Republican-dominated states like Florida, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Arizona. Then imagine what would happen if the federal government nationalized this wrecking ball agenda and inflicted it on every state of the union. That’s the kind of tsunami Project 2025 seeks to set in motion.

Here are just a few key elements of the plan—again, agreed to by over 100 organizations on the right and underwritten by the most radical libertarian and Christian nationalist donors, men like Charles Koch, on the one hand, and the Federalist Society’s court capturer Leonard Leo, on the other. These figures are working together with billionaire right-wing donors like Jeff Fass in Pennsylvania, members of the DeVos family in Michigan and the election-denying Uilhein family in Illinois.

Their goal is to privatize schooling in the service of the interests of hedge fund investors, who salivate at the $800 billion sector that is public education, and of religious extremists, who will be rewarded with tax dollars going to their faltering private schools at the expense of state education budgets that are already under stress. Such tax-funded private religious schools are free from any regulation or public accountability for curriculum, learning outcomes, or equal access for all students and teachers. You can forget about accommodations for students with special needs—and any hope common sense gun reform measures to prevent more school shooting.

Project 2025 would also make educational censorship the law of the land. All of America would be subjected to the type of “Don’t Say Race” and “Don’t Say Gay” laws enacted in Florida and other Republican-run states. It would abolish the Department of Education. It would send federal tax dollars to fund Christian private schools. It would stop Head Start preschool for low-income families. It would end requirements that federal funds support schools serving students from low-income families.

Oh, and if all that were not radical enough, Project 2025 would reward libertarians and conspiracy theorists by prohibiting the Centers for Disease Control from recommending the vaccination of schoolchildren or requiring any other public health measures in schools.

CRENSHAW: I know you and others on this beat, including groups like Accountable, are calling out the full range of existential threats to a century’s worth of popular achievements on just about every front imaginable—all the social movement wins that have brought greater fairness, security, and sustainability to our society, from Social Security and Medicare to equal employment and protection of our air and water quality and action to stop climate collapse.

How, though, would you sum up the specific threats to civil rights, human rights, and democracy writ large? What do people need to know and share?

MacLEAN: You know you are dealing with authoritarians when their plan would force government employees and programs to stop using common words. Project 2025 does this with dictatorial vengeance.

Not only would the plan immediately halt all federal diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs–and make previous willing participation “per se grounds for termination of employment.” If its counsel is adopted, no one in government will be allowed to talk about or collect data on race, gender, or “sexual orientation.” Nor will they be able to speak about “gender identity, gender equality, abortion, reproductive health, or reproductive rights” in their work.

It goes further. The plan would prohibit the Equal Economic Opportunity Commission (EEOC) from collecting employment data based on race, on the basis that the mere existence of such “data can then be used to support a charge of discrimination under a disparate impact theory.” Of course, there is no way to prove unfair treatment without such data, so that means the overthrow of fair employment practices.

Project 2025 would further curtail reproductive freedom by rescinding abortion pill approval, punishing providers by withdrawing federal health funding, and restricting clinics that provide contraception and STD testing. Further, it would “rescind regulations prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, transgender status, and sex characteristics.” And “proudly state that men and women are biological realities that are crucial to the advancement of life sciences and medical care and that married men and women are the ideal, natural family structure.” No wonder many commentators draw parallels with classic fascism. They fit.

CRENSHAW: Last question: how seriously we should take this threat? Is this Project 2025, “the Conversative Promise” as its subtitle reads, just grandstanding?

MacLEAN: No. This plan is deadly serious—and “deadly” is not hyperbole. Consider its climate and public health aspects. Project 2025 would completely halt action on the climate collapse that is already underway and taking human lives and extinguishing species the world over.

How likely are its measures to be acted upon? The arc of past practice suggests that if Republicans win the presidency, most if not all will go into effect. Reagan implemented over fifty percent of Heritage’s recommendations from that period; the first Trump administration implemented well over sixty percent.

Recall that Heritage and its allies on the right see this as a do-or-die moment: they are desperate to control an America that is growing away from them, demographically and ideologically. That is why priority #1 of Project 2025 is to gut the federal civil service—to get rid of employees who are trained for and committed to their assigned missions and replace them with as many as 50,000 diehard Trump loyalists who will do whatever it takes to transform this country into one that none of us would recognize and that we certainly wouldn’t want to live in or bequeath to our kids and grandkids.

They’re not hiding it; they’re promising it. Says the project director, Paul Dans: “Our goal is to assemble an army of aligned, vetted, trained, and prepared conservatives to go to work from Day One to deconstruct the Administrative State.”

If you don’t believe this could happen—that it will happen if MAGA wins—just look to states behind the red curtain where MAGA Republicans control the legislature and the governorship to see how they want to remake America: book bans, gag orders, political control of schooling at every level, the return of child labor, the criminalization of abortion, the outlawing of homosexuality, the freeing of gun owners and manufacturers from any restraints,

the spread of once-cured diseases like measles—even the revocation of heat protections for farm laborers and other outdoor workers to save them from, literally, dying of heat exhaustion.

This is real, people. It is breathtaking. And its cruelties would be catastrophic.

The election this November is not a just contest between two old white men. It is referendum to decide what kind of country we will become: a land where MAGA takes away our freedoms or a land where the people—all the people–still hold the power to shape the future.

Nancy MacLean is the William H. Chafe Distinguished Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University and the author of the award-winning bestseller Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America (Penguin Books), which was updated with a new preface last year.

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