As the Trump presidency recedes into history and while Trumpism as a political force is in abeyance between elections, it is urgent for his opponents to have an honest reckoning with their own past. Anti-Trump forces threw their whole might into defeating him and the fact of victory doesn’t mean that every tactic was effective or necessary. Indeed, some of the anti-Trump manifestations, like the cults that grew around former FBI director James Comey and special counsel Robert Mueller, seem especially dubious and counterproductive.
The hopes pinned on such stalwart establishment figures to bring down Trump now seem like pipe dreams, as the focus on potential Russian collusion yielded at best partial evidence and almost no real political results. In the end, Trump was defeated in the normal way most political figures are, by his opponents’ stitching together a larger political coalition and winning at the ballot box.
Even in the realm of electoral politics, there were some dubious bets. Many Democrats fantasized about the potential of Never Trump Republicans to break Trump’s hold on the GOP. Over the last five years, erstwhile Republicans like David Frum, Charles Sykes, and William Kristol have won a surprising new audience among liberals eager to hear their anti-Trump message.
The pitch the Never Trump Republicans made was often based on a compelling redemption narrative. They had worked inside the GOP and knew all its dirty tricks. Now, like Dr. Frankenstein, they saw the evil they had created and were committed to destroying it. Since they understood the monster better than anyone, they could be trusted to lead the charge.
That was the argument the Lincoln Project, a political action committee formed in late 2019, made to donors. The group was founded by four veterans of Republican politics: Steve Schmidt, John Weaver, Reed Galen, and Rick Wilson. They were all men with a reputation for political hardball. Wilson, for example, created the infamous 2002 ad accusing Democratic Senator Max Cleland, a veteran who had lost his legs and an arm during the Vietnam War, of being soft on terrorism.
Writing in Mashable in November 2020, shortly before the presidential election, Rebecca Ruiz asserted,
The Lincoln Project is arguably a liberal’s dream. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime reversal of fortunes. Accustomed to being at the mercy of Republican operatives, liberals now get to watch them use those same dreaded tactics in an effort to elect a Democrat president. Even better, their team of brawlers insists on aiming the punches directly at the president and those who push his agenda, which Democrats haven’t done with the same consistent fearlessness.
The Lincoln Project released a slew of anti-Trump attack ads, many just for social media, although some also aired on television. These ads were notably personal, sometimes focusing on Trump’s verbal slips, with suggestions that he was suffering from impaired mental health. They certainly had the ability to get under Trump’s skin, leading the former president to rail against the group as “LOSERS” and “RINO Republicans.”
Trump perhaps felt threatened by a group that used his own tactics. If the Lincoln Project was politically anti-Trump, it was also stylistically Trumpian. Fighting fire with fire made sense given the emergency of the Trump era.
Countless liberals bought the Lincoln Project’s line, spreading its message on Twitter and donating profusely. In a little over a year, it collected an astonishing $87 million in donations.
Much of that money was wasted. As it turns out, the Lincoln Project was Trumpian not just in using harsh rhetoric but also in being a con game. An extensive report published on Monday by The New York Times makes clear that the organization was run by mountebanks of a rare order.
According to the newspaper, “The behind-the-scenes moves by the four original founders showed that whatever their political goals, they were also privately taking steps to make money from the earliest stages, and wanted to limit the number of people who would share in the spoils. Over time, the Lincoln Project directed about $27 million—nearly a third of its total fund-raising—to Mr. Galen’s consulting firm, from which the four men were paid, according to people familiar with the arrangement.”
That $27 million was only the beginning of the elaborate shell game. The Lincoln Project also had intimate financial ties with the contractors it paid money to. Reed Galen collected a commission on the $13.3 million the Lincoln Project paid to one ad maker. The governance of the organization was an ethical disaster, with contractors who got paid also getting seats on the board of directors. The nominal management of the organization was often kept in the dark about the financial dealings of the four founders.
Beyond the self-dealing, the Lincoln Project covered up serious sexual harassment allegations against one of the founders, John Weaver. The New York Times spoke “to more than 25 people who received harassing messages, including one person who was 14 when Mr. Weaver first contacted him.” People at the Lincoln Project knew about some of these allegations, although not the one about the 14-year-old, as early as January 2020.
Jennifer Horn, a New Hampshire Republican who was listed as one of the cofounders of the Lincoln Project even though she was excluded from decision making, told the Times, “When I spoke to one of the founders to raise my objections and concerns, I was yelled at, demeaned and lied to.”
All of this is sordid enough. But some might be tempted to forgive the Lincoln Project if its efforts had in fact helped defeat Trump. But there is no evidence that they did. As The Washington Post reported in an election postmortem, “Despite pleas by ‘Never Trump’ voices, the president secured a larger share of Republican voters nationally, 94 percent in 2020, than four years ago, when he won 88 percent and third-party candidates received more support.”
An online panel conducted by Civis Analytics evaluated the effective of a range of anti-Trump ads. As The Daily Poster reported in November, “In the document’s review of 65 Democratic-aligned ads on air as of election day, the Lincoln Project’s two tested ads ranked 52nd and 53rd for persuading voters to support Biden.” Other Lincoln Project ads tested as not just ineffective but as positively counterproductive: They persuaded viewers to vote for Trump.
The ineffectiveness of the ads should be no surprise. Twenty twenty was a polarizing election, with voters of both parties coming out in droves along starkly partisan lines. In that environment, the Lincoln Project made the wrong arguments to the wrong voters. Beyond that, there’s little reason to think that lifelong Republican consultants were really interested in electing a Democratic president. The Lincoln Project wasn’t a failed political action committee but a successful scam.
In 1973, as he was sworn in as president, Gerald Ford said, “I am a Ford, not a Lincoln. My addresses will never be as eloquent as Mr. Lincoln’s.” Echoing these words, we can say that despite their lofty evocation of the Great Emancipator, these consultants were frauds, not Lincolns.