One tweet describes President Donald Trump’s campaign as a “criminal enterprise.” An ad — with the hashtag #TrumpIsNotWell — shows the president struggling to walk down a ramp, and another mocks the size of the crowd at Trump’s rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, saying, “You’ve probably heard this before, but it was smaller than we expected.”
They’re all from a political action group called the Lincoln Project, and according to co-founder Reed Galen, they’re meant for one specific audience: Trump himself.
“We have what we call ‘an audience of one’ strategy, which is clearly aimed at the president,” Galen told me.
The Lincoln Project is made up of former Republicans who are avowed “Never Trump” conservatives. The group brought in $16.8 million between April and June of this year, much of which came from donors giving $200 or less. But most of the ads are digital, never reaching television screens.
And a lot of that money has been spent on ads like this one, posted to Twitter following the president’s decision to commute the sentence of former campaign associate Roger Stone.
Trump’s campaign manager is a felon.— The Lincoln Project (@ProjectLincoln) July 12, 2020
His deputy campaign manager is a felon.
His national security advisor is a felon.
His foreign policy advisor is a felon.
His personal lawyer is a felon.
His long time advisor is a felon.
It’s not a campaign, it’s a criminal enterprise. pic.twitter.com/3U2VZNcaiL
The “#TrumpIsNotWell” ad appears to have so incensed the president that he spent several minutes of his June 20 rally speech in Tulsa discussing his ability to drink water and walk down a ramp.
The Lincoln Project’s primary purpose is, as the founders wrote in a December 2019 New York Times op-ed announcing the project, “defeating President Trump and Trumpism at the ballot box and to elect those patriots who will hold the line.” As former Republicans, the members of the Lincoln Project believe their ads can destabilize the president and appeal to Trump-skeptical conservatives, giving them room to vote against Trump and for Joe Biden.
In a text, Lincoln Project communications director Keith Edwards told me the project had no plans beyond defeating Trump. “We are focused [on] making sure Trump is a one-term president and ensuring Biden takes the oath of office in January. We’re not thinking of anything beyond that.”
But some observers have argued that the campaign operatives responsible for the Lincoln Project are, through their deep ties to the pre-Trump GOP, indirectly responsible for his rise. Lincoln Project board members helped George H. W. Bush win office in 1988 and George W. Bush win reelection in 2004, as well as down-ballot races where their ads often featured the same kind of fearmongering they now appear to abhor.
In short, many of those behind the project worked on Republican presidential campaigns and, before Trump, often sounded very much like Trump.
So do the operators who helped create the current iteration of the Republican Party hold the keys to stopping it?
Defeating Trump, Republican-style
The Lincoln Project was founded by eight former Republican operatives, most prominent among them George Conway (married to White House counselor Kellyanne Conway), former Republican political strategist Rick Wilson, former New Hampshire GOP chair Jennifer Horn, and Steve Schmidt, best known for his work on Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign (where he helped select Sarah Palin as McCain’s vice president).
As former Republican political strategists, the backers of the Lincoln Project believe they have a unique understanding of how Trump, and ideally Republicans more broadly, think. Their television ad buys have largely been centered on Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Washington, DC, making it clear that their goal is to get many of their ads before Trump himself.
Galen told me that if they were Democrats, their ads might be more easily dismissed by Trump and the GOP more broadly. “I think it’s the idea that the apostates are taking on the head of the GOP church [that] is the unique thing that [Trump] probably can’t understand and certainly his people don’t know how to react to.”
The ads themselves are often dark and strident, in some ways mirroring Republican attack ads the strategists behind the Lincoln Project may have once used against Democrats. In Galen’s terms, the ads “[speak] to Republican voters with Republican language and Republican iconography.”
For example, in 2002, Lincoln Project founder Rick Wilson worked on the Senate campaign for Republican Rep. Saxby Chambliss and helped produce an ad against then-Sen. Max Cleland that implied Cleland opposed the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and thus was leaving America vulnerable to terror.
In a 2015 interview with HuffPost, Wilson said the ad “was built ugly. The ad was built to look like it was primitive and quick and knocked off instantaneously. It is an ugly ad. ... We knew back then that saying the words ‘against the president’s vital homeland security efforts’ [would work]” against Cleland.
In Politico, Joanna Weiss argued in favor of the Lincoln Project’s ethos:
The secret of fearmongering is a willingness to go there, and that’s where the Republicans of the Lincoln Project might have an advantage over Trump’s left-leaning opponents. The group’s founders aren’t calibrating their ads around a Democratic base that mistrusts the military, delves into nuance or shies away from causing offense. That leaves ample room for dog-whistle symbols that range from clichés to horror-movie tropes: One ad accuses Trump of being played by China and ends with the image of the White House, the entire screen tinted red.
And at least one ad appears to have resulted in a major shake-up at the Trump campaign. According to the Wall Street Journal, campaign manager Brad Parscale was replaced in part because of this ad, which implied Parscale was using Trump to get rich.
The Lincoln Project’s purpose: Irritate Trump?
The criticisms of the Lincoln Project are numerous. Some have pointed to the group’s finances, noting that while the group has raised millions of dollars (particularly after Trump attacked the Lincoln Project on Twitter), much of that money has gone to what seem like extremely high ad production costs and to firms run by members of the Lincoln Project’s board. As detailed by Open Secrets:
The Lincoln Project reported spending nearly $1.4 million through March. Almost all of that money went to the group’s board members and firms run by them. The super PAC spent nearly $1 million with Summit Strategic Communications, a firm run by Lincoln Project treasurer Reed Galen. Another $215,000 went to Tusk Digital, a company run by Lincoln Project adviser Ron Steslow. Both companies received little business from other federal committees since Trump’s inauguration.
That seven-figure spending, noted earlier by campaign finance expert Rob Pyers on Twitter, comes as the group spends relatively little on direct political activity. The super PAC shelled out $364,000 to Galen and Steslow’s companies to run independent expenditures opposing Trump and his Republican allies in Congress. But just 52 percent of that money went to buying and placing ads, with the rest spent on producing the ads themselves.
The notion that the Lincoln Project is a scam PAC created purely to enrich its board found credence with Trump allies, including Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel, who described the group as such in a scathing Daily Caller op-ed in April.
As the Daily Beast’s Lachlan Markay detailed, that isn’t exactly true. Instead, the Lincoln Project uses a complex subcontractor arrangement to move money to external companies hired to work on ads, since political groups don’t have to disclose their subcontractors. It’s a strategy also used by the Trump campaign, and it means the financial dealings alone aren’t enough to show that the group isn’t actually doing something.
But what, exactly, is that something?
If the point of the Lincoln Project is in part to draw the ire of the president and his allies, then mission accomplished. Attacks on the Lincoln Project (and on Never Trump Republicans more broadly) have mounted from a host of right-leaning outlets, many of which deem them “insignificant” while devoting significant space to denouncing their efforts.
The right-leaning group Club for Growth even made an attack ad aimed at the Lincoln Project, calling it “bad for America”:
Then there’s the president himself, who tweeted a denunciation of their efforts in early May (which, of course, only drew more attention to them).
A group of RINO Republicans who failed badly 12 years ago, then again 8 years ago, and then got BADLY beaten by me, a political first timer, 4 years ago, have copied (no imagination) the concept of an ad from Ronald Reagan, “Morning in America”, doing everything possible to....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 5, 2020
But irritating the president, a notoriously thin-skinned person, isn’t much of an achievement. And as HuffPost’s Kevin Robillard argued, making ads that get a lot of attention on Twitter might be a good way of making an audience already predisposed to dislike Trump share them, but it’s less likely to get the attention of voters, the vast majority of whom are not on Twitter.
“Good political ad makers & managers are operatives who put aside what personally appeals to them or the Twitterverse & go with the message that moves voters,” Anne Caprara, a Democratic operative who now serves as the chief of staff to Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, wrote on Twitter on Thursday night. “But while YOU may think that fancy new anti-Trump ad is so hard hitting & cathartic (‘OMG THIS AD!’) - the voter you need to persuade might find it offensive or off putting or just dumb.”
(Robillard also noted that the group had spent just $2.4 million on television advertising as of early July, much of that spending coming on ads broadcast on Fox News in Washington, DC, aimed at the network’s most famous viewer: Donald Trump.)
Galen and others supportive of the Lincoln Project have argued that it is giving Republicans, as one Democratic strategist told Robillard, “a safe space for Republicans to express their concerns about the president.”
However, the Lincoln Project has recently sworn to go after not just Trump but Republican members of Congress who are supportive of the president, including Sen. Ted Cruz and and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. In an ad posted online last week, it argues that viewers can “never, ever” trust those members again.
In doing so, the Lincoln Project may gain support from Democrats but lose credence with anti-Trump conservatives who have not disavowed the party or its policy priorities writ large, conservative writer Henry Olsen argued in the Washington Post (in a piece titled “Never Trumpers are Democrats in Republican clothing”):
The year’s Senate races offer a fresh indication of their real motives. The project’s newest television ad names 15 Republican senators whom voters should oppose, including 13 up for reelection. Their sin? Backing Trump on matters such as impeachment. The fact that nearly all Republican voters both approve of Trump’s job performance and opposed impeachment doesn’t seem to matter to those who claim to represent true Republican values.
“Frankly, all they do is make me angry”
Liberals who oppose the Lincoln Project object to its core conceit: Trump, and Trumpism, is a cancer on the Republican Party, and by removing him and his ideas, things can perhaps go back to normal. In the conservative group’s mindset, Republican presidential candidates like John McCain and presidents like George W. Bush exemplified the best of American conservatism, while Trump is an aberration: a former reality show host with divorces, affairs, and affronts to “traditional morality” aplenty.
But as historian Eric Foner argued in 2016, Trump can be seen as “the logical conclusion of a lot of things the Republican Party has been doing” for decades, with predecessors like Richard Nixon’s “law and order” presidential campaign, rife with racist implications, and populist appeal as a businessman railing against Washington corruption. To many liberals, Trump isn’t an aberration; he’s the culmination of a decades-long political project.
The Lincoln Project and its GOP exiles, writer Eoin Higgins argued on July 12 in the newsletter Welcome to Hell World, are an example of a “memory hole” in action: Everything that happened before Trump (like the Iraq War or the existence of the Bush administration or the killing of Trayvon Martin) has been forgotten by liberals allying with the group and sharing their ads in service of getting Trump out of office.
The fact is that the coalition is made up of people who until very recently were happily ensconced in the GOP—meaning that it’s not the policies pursued and beliefs espoused by Trump that are the issue. It’s just his delivery. This is not an abstract issue. The president is part and parcel of the entire Republican project and its logical conclusion after five decades of cultivating an increasingly enraged white base filled with economic and cultural grievances for which the GOP has blamed on the uneven but inexorable march to greater equality in American society.
Higgins also detailed examples of Lincoln Project members using offensive and bigoted language on Twitter — for example, founder Rick Wilson repeatedly calling people “retards,” attacking Muslims, and mocking news coverage of Trayvon Martin’s killing in 2012.
This week, Ben Howe, a video editor who worked with the Lincoln Project, was pushed out after the news outlet the 19th emailed the Lincoln Project evidence of tweets in which Howe had called people “vaginas” and “twats.” He also had defended in graphic language the 2014 police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, saying he would have shot Brown as well. Alex Griswold, formerly a writer at the Washington Free Beacon, argued that Howe had used no less incendiary language on Twitter than Wilson had.
There is no way that taken as a whole, Ben Howe's Twitter history is more offensive or vitriolic than Rick Wilson's. https://t.co/8dEygL01pp— Alex Griswold (@HashtagGriswold) July 14, 2020
Higgins told me the Lincoln Project’s ads were an appeal to liberals who believe that conservatives are their ideological opponents but not their enemies. “The commercials are part of a general effort by LP to present Trump as an aberration, a mistake, something out of the right-wing mainstream,” he said, “rather than the logical endpoint of the GOP and the direct ideological heir of the movement that began in earnest with Ronald Reagan.”
When I asked him about the ads themselves, he said, “Frankly all they do is make me angry by pretending there’s any major difference between Reagan [or] George W. Bush and Trump other than style.” He added, “I’m clearly not the target audience.”
He compared efforts to create alliances between liberals and the Lincoln Project to those who suggest alliances between the left and alt-right figures. “I find it unacceptable for mainstream liberals to ally with this group of bigots. Doing so is dangerous as it both drives the Democratic Party even further to the right and mainstreams the abhorrent views of the group’s leaders to an audience of presumably more left-leaning folks.”
The Lincoln Project did not respond to a request for comment on members’ past offensive remarks, as of this writing.
The Lincoln Project has a distinct focus: Beat Trump. As Galen told me, “You can’t beat the guy with high-mindedness. You can’t beat the guy with platitudes. You can’t beat the guy with calling him names.” He added later during our conversation, “it is our job to prosecute the case against Donald Trump. We will do things that will, in our mind, boost Joe Biden’s prospects and image with ... Republican and independent voters.”
But the Lincoln Project appears to hope defeating Trump and securing the White House for Biden would restore some semblance of order. Trump is the problem, not the Republican Party, not movement conservatism, not the conservative organizations and super PACs to which many of those who stand behind the Lincoln Project once belonged.
Galen told me that, over the next few weeks, the Lincoln Project will be rolling out ads aimed at “soft Republicans who maybe were never comfortable with Trump but weren’t going to vote for Hillary Clinton, and conservative-leaning independents, who, again, maybe never really liked the guy.” To get an idea of how these ads might prove effective with those audiences, I spoke to Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and professor of ethical leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, and Christopher Federico, a researcher on political psychology.
After viewing some of the Lincoln Project’s ads, Haidt said they were powerful because they focus on moral characteristics that tend to be held by conservatives, like group loyalty, respect for authority and tradition, and a sense of sanctity or purity. He told me that the ads make the “intuitively compelling conservative case” that “Trump has violated conservative morality, over and over again.”
He added, “The fact that the message comes from people who identify as Republicans is extremely important, it makes the message much more sincere. It is conservatives expressing conservative values, rather than liberals in some ad agency trying to simply push conservative buttons.”
Federico agreed, telling me, “A major factor in partisan politics is what we call ‘partisan motivated reasoning’ — a tendency to interpret the world, new information, and persuasive messages in ways that support one’s prior identity. If it is clear to a person that a message is coming from the out-party (i.e., to a Republican that a persuasive message is coming from Democrats or liberals), a ‘perceptual screen’ will go up and the information or message will be disregarded or heavily counter-argued.”
In his view, the backers of the Lincoln Project being former Republicans helped turn off the “perceptual screen”: “In other words, it sends a signal from folks with ties to the Republican or conservative in-group that it does not make you a bad Republican or a bad conservative to oppose Trump.”
But I wondered if the perception of these ads by some observers — praiseworthy and effective efforts to take down a bad president — was also a product of a certain psychology. As the Atlantic’s Andrew Ferguson put it, “like a Trump rally, the ads work exclusively on the predispositions of the faithful.” In other words, are people who oppose Trump praising these ads as uniquely effective or, in Weiss’s words, as proof that “Republicans are better at this than Democrats,” an example of motivated reasoning on behalf of people who, again, hate Trump?
Haidt told me, “In general, people say they like mavericks — people who show independence and think for themselves — but mostly or only when the maverick comes from the other side. We’re not so fond of people on our own side who depart from the team’s position.”
But by going after conservative members of Congress, the Lincoln Project may lose Trump-skeptical Republicans. By its very nature, the group has already lost the support of Trump’s most vociferous critics on the left; it appeals most to moderates who hate Trump and are active on Twitter. In some ways, the Lincoln Project is aimed at itself.