To take a full accounting of Donald Trump’s corrosive effect on our politics, you need to look at his enemies. After the president’s disappointing (for Trump fans) rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a political action committee calling itself the Lincoln Project jumped into the fray, as it tends to do, with both feet. It released not one but two video ads ridiculing the president.
The first was about Trump’s claim at the rally that he asked his “people” to slow down the pace of coronavirus testing. Trump’s spokesperson later said the remark was “in jest,” and the president himself told an interviewer it was “semi–tongue in cheek.” But it is the job of the president’s opposition nowadays to pick and choose what to believe. The Lincoln Project chose to believe his first remark, drawing the implausible inference that the president actually wanted to slow testing, which would only inhibit the reopening of the economy, the one thing he doesn’t want to do. I think I’ve got that right.
The voice-over of the first ad was male and stentorian; that of the second was female and mocking. The second commercial was called “Shrinking.” “Hey Donald,” the announcer said. “Turnout in Tulsa? A dud. You’ve probably heard this before, but it was smaller than we expected.” Cut to a shot of Trump bringing his palms together. “It sure wasn’t as big as you promised. Honestly, we’re not surprised … We’ve seen that you’re shaky, you can’t keep your polls up … sad, weak, low energy. Just like your presidency. Just like you.”
When the project’s Twitter account announced the ad’s debut, it made sure to tag Stormy Daniels.
“Shrinking” was in the spirit of another recent Lincoln Project product, called “Trump Is Not Well,” from earlier this month. That ad used footage from Trump’s speech to the graduating class at West Point. Over pictures of the president holding a glass of water with two hands, the voice-over suggested he was suffering from some kind of disability that rendered him unfit for high office, evidently based on the theory that our nation’s commander in chief must be able to sip water with one hand.
The Lincoln Project’s ads—personally abusive, overwrought, pointlessly salacious, and trip-wired with non sequiturs—are familiar: They are undertaken with all the relish the president shows when he jokes about the mental hiccups of “Sleepy” Joe Biden, just as four years ago, he happily implied that Hillary Clinton suffered from some nameless disease. One reason Trump does this is to annoy his opponents; now his opponents’ supporters are returning the favor.
The ads’ intended audience may be a surprise. In December, the PAC’s organizers published a manifesto in The New York Times, to mark their group’s launch. The headline read: “We Are Republicans, and We Want Trump Defeated.”
“The 2020 general election, by every indication, will be about persuasion,” the organizers wrote. “Our efforts are aimed at persuading … disaffected conservatives, Republicans and Republican-leaning independents in swing states and districts.” As for the name, they said, “We look to Lincoln as our guide and inspiration.”
The claim to the mantle of Abraham Lincoln was truer than the organizers knew. Long before he was made a martyr and then a myth, Lincoln was a small-time politician on the Illinois prairie, with a talent for what one of his biographers, Douglas Wilson, called “attack journalism.” Throughout his early career, he filled the columns of party newspapers with scurrilous, usually anonymous assaults on his political adversaries. Lincoln used every tool in the demagogue’s kit—slander, innuendo, mockery. Factual accuracy didn’t restrain him, on those rare occasions when facts were at issue.
Lincoln knew his audience. His readers, Wilson wrote, were “basically partisan.” “They tended to take delight in any and all hits against their political opponents. The seductive appeal of demagogy is, of course, that meanspirited and unfair arguments do score points.”
Such arguments, in other words, thrill those already on board, and only those. The Lincoln Project’s ads are not, as the manifesto claimed, “about persuasion.” Like a Trump rally, the ads work exclusively on the predispositions of the faithful. Try to imagine the “disaffected conservatives” or “Republican-leaning independents” whom the Lincoln Project says it hopes to win over. They straddle their fences, scroll through their timelines, leaning first this way then that … Biden, Trump … Trump, Biden … until at last they come upon a Project Lincoln ad and they discover—can it be?—that the president’s genitalia aren’t functioning nearly as well as the world thought!
“By God,” they might cry. “This is the last straw! We need Joe Biden to restore the soul of America!”
But probably not.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the Lincoln Project isn’t quite what it told us it wanted to be, given how many politicos fly under false colors in the Trump era.
The project’s board of advisers includes a few figures who might be described as “famous for Washington”—and famous for doing the things that all professional Washington operatives do. In a report last month, the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign-finance watchdog group, wrote that the Lincoln Project is engaging in practices similar to those of pro-Trump PACs.
“The Republican super PAC has amassed a substantial war chest,” the report said, “but it has come under scrutiny for funneling money to its advisory board members and spending relatively little airing political ads to influence voters. The group also hides some of its vendors by stealthily paying subcontractors, making it difficult to follow the money. 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.” This is, indeed, similar to what all PACs have done from the day of their invention.
Who are these swamp creatures? The political consultant Steve Schmidt guided John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign to a thunderous loss, and then quickly repaid his old boss by relating unflattering confidences to the authors of a gossipy campaign book. (The book’s depiction of Schmidt, by contrast, was highly favorable.) Another political consultant, Rick Wilson, was the creator of a campaign ad questioning the patriotism of Democratic Senator Max Cleland, a Vietnam veteran and a triple amputee; McCain called the ad “reprehensible,” and most Republicans agreed.
George Conway, another project adviser, was for decades a well-connected stalwart of the further reaches of the conservative movement, where he met and married Kellyanne Conway, now a counselor to Trump. More recently he has drawn attention not only as an energetic anti-Trump activist but also as one-half of the most mysterious marriage in American history. The political consultant John Weaver is known for directing McCain’s first losing presidential campaign, in 2000, after which he went to work for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. (He gingerly returned to the GOP fold by signing on to the fugitive presidential campaigns of Jon Huntsman and John Kasich, in 2012 and 2016, respectively.)
The uneven pedigree of this motley crew hasn’t kept mainstream publications from referring to the Lincoln Project as a “conservative PAC.” This misnomer affords the group the privilege of having their cake and eating it too: Coming from Republicans, their attacks may appear fresh, principled, and transpartisan, while remaining stale, unprincipled, and partisan. Like many unhappy former Republicans, the leaders of the project have crossed over from being “never Trump” to being “never Republican,” taking aim even at such GOP moderates as Cory Gardner and Susan Collins. Their most recent ad, called “How a President Leads,” is an unabashed valentine to Joe Biden.
Which is fine! But they’d do better, for the sake of history and intellectual honesty, to leave Lincoln out of it. Lincoln ripened, history shows us, and grew away from the young pol he’d been on the Illinois prairie. The circle of his sympathy expanded, his soul deepened. Such growth is unlikely to overtake the Lincoln Project while it peers obsessively at the object of its hatred. This is an old story: We become what we behold. The project partakes of the spirit of a famous Republican president, all right. But he’s not Lincoln.