Some of these criticisms were attempts to describe what seemed to be a real collapse in conservative opposition to Trump; others were written by authors who, whether on the left or the Trumpist right, were eager to discount the importance of this constituency. Nevertheless, reports of the Never Trump movement’s death turn out to have been exaggerated. In recent weeks, as the coronavirus has continued to tear through the United States, as Trump has continued to behave erratically, and as his poll numbers have continued to slide, Never Trumpers have gained a new significance as part of the political coalition that could help defeat Trump’s reelection effort, and may just prove to have longer-term governance implications. They have also enjoyed an attendant flood of publicity—some of it flattering, some of it tinged with fear and irritation, but nearly all of it acknowledging the faction’s renewed relevance.
The recipient of most of this attention has been the Lincoln Project, a group founded by George T. Conway III—an aggressive Trump critic and the husband of the Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway—and Rick Wilson, Steve Schmidt, and John Weaver, three formerly Republican political operatives. As the organization rolls out ad after no-holds-barred ad against the president, it has garnered criticism from both the left and the pro-Trump right.
The project is “little more than the most brazen election-season grift in recent memory,” wrote a contributor to the conservative National Review, complaining that the ads are “advancing Democratic narratives.”
Meanwhile, writers on the left—many of whom have spent the past several years hoping for the political irrelevance of Never Trumpers—are starting to warn against letting the group become too influential. “The ads needling Trump are often entertaining, but they are pushing a sinister agenda,” Jeet Heer argued in The Nation—namely, “a desire to return to the hard-line military aggression of the George W. Bush era.”
With slightly fewer than 100 days left until the presidential election, how much success the Never Trump campaign is having is unknowable. Yes, the president’s support is eroding, but—given the White House’s failure to contain the coronavirus and Trump’s own erratic behavior—the reason for that is as overdetermined as a variable could be.
One can measure impact in other areas, however. To the extent that the Lincoln Project is aiming to personally troll the president, the ads seem to be working: The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump’s recent firing of his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, was provoked in part by a breathy Lincoln Project ad hinting that Parscale was accumulating personal wealth at the expense of the campaign. In a Twitter exchange with one of us, Conway argued explicitly that the organization’s goal was to “manipulate” the president, presumably to disorient him and throw his campaign into chaos. In an interview with the other, Rick Wilson made similar comments, suggesting that some of the ads are designed to keep the president personally off balance and thereby induce mistakes.