The Lincoln Project is producing the strangest and most memorable ads in the 2020 election cycle because it has a unique goal: to troll the president. Founded by Republicans who hate the Trumpian takeover of their party, the super PAC has so far been focused on creating ads that don’t really persuade voters, but do rile up Trump and entertain journalists and political insiders. The ads air in Washington, D.C., which is not a locale where you can reach swing voters who could shift the Electoral College. But Washington is the place to run ads if you want to get Trump to see them and get steaming mad.
Leading members of the Lincoln Project include George Conway (a longtime fixture of the conservative legal establishment and husband of presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway), Steve Schmidt (senior campaign strategist for John McCain in 2008), John Weaver (who oversaw McCain’s 2000 bid), and Rick Wilson (a veteran of many Republican campaigns). These are men who have a visceral hatred for Trump, seeing him as an interloper who has ruined their party. They also have skill in the art of negative campaigning. Wilson infamously created an ad in 2002 that questioned the patriotism of Georgia Senator Max Cleland, who lost both his legs and his right forearm in the Vietnam War.
The sensibility behind the Cleland ad has been brought to a string of no-holds-barred attacks on Trump, to the admiration of some Democrats. “Democrats could learn a lot from them,” argues Democratic strategist James Carville, himself a man not known for pulling punches. He added that the Lincoln Project is “mean” and “they fight hard. And we don’t fight like that.”
After Trump’s disappointing rally in Tulsa, Okla., where fewer than 7,000 supporters showed up, the Lincoln Project released an ad titled “Shrinkage” that derided Trump’s sexual aptitude. “Turnout in Tulsa?” a female voice asked. “A dud. You’ve probably heard this before, but it was smaller than we expected.” The narrator continued to needle Trump, saying, “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.”
If the goal of these ads is to annoy Trump, they are working. In early May, Trump went off on a tirade against the ads, saying they were the work of “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.” He also described Conway as a “deranged loser of a husband.”
Writing in The Atlantic, conservative writer Andrew Ferguson, no fan of the president, criticized the Lincoln Project for fighting Trump with Trumpian means. He described the ads as “personally abusive, overwrought, pointlessly salacious, and trip-wired with non sequiturs.”
This ethical critique has merit, but the real problem with the Lincoln Project is political. To the extent that the ads articulate any political vision, it is a desire to return to the hard-line military aggression of the George W. Bush era.
On Tuesday, the Lincoln Project released an ad addressing accusations that Trump hasn’t protected American troops in Afghanistan from a bounty on their lives supposedly placed by the Russian government. The ad, titled “Betrayed,” features Dr. Dan Barkhuff, a physician and former Navy SEAL. “Months ago, Donald Trump learned the Russians were paying a bounty for dead American soldiers in Afghanistan and chose to do nothing about it,” Barkhuff said. “Any commander in chief with a spine would be stomping the living shit out of some Russians right now—diplomatically, economically, or, if necessary, with the sort of asymmetric warfare they’re using to send our kids home in body bags.” He added, “Mr. Trump, you’re either a coward who can’t stand up to an ex-KGB goon, or you’re complicit. Which is it?”
Some liberals were quick to applaud the ad. It was retweeted and quoted by Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe, former Bill Clinton adviser Paul Begala, and Mother Jones magazine D.C. bureau chief David Corn. Clara Jeffery, editor in chief of Mother Jones, tweeted, “this one might be the most yowza ad yet.” She went on to argue that the Lincoln Project and other Never Trump endeavors were valuable because they can “assail Trump from the right, speak in ways that a left candidate/group cannot convincingly, and provide a permission structure for wavering folks who feel the tug of party loyalty.”
The claim that the ads could win over Republicans seems, at best, speculative. The main way they are distributed is via Twitter (where they are retweeted by the already convinced) and in very small TV markets picked to maximize the chance of Trump’s seeing them. In other words, the game seems to be more about taunting and revenge than persuasion. Andrew Ferguson makes the fair point that “like a Trump rally, the ads work exclusively on the predispositions of the faithful.”
But if persuasion of disaffected or marginal Republicans voters isn’t the goal, is there anything motivating the ads other than the desire, understandable enough, to get Trump’s goat?
Barkhuff’s hard-line comments about launching “asymmetric warfare” offer a clue. On the merits, the idea of escalating the proxy war in the Middle East by taking out bounties on Russians is absurd. The war in Afghanistan has long lost whatever strategic rationale it ever had. In fact, from the moment George W. Bush failed to capture the escaping Osama bin Laden, the American occupation has made no sense. Still, a permanent occupation of Afghanistan is what the American national security establishment seems to want. Barkhuff’s ad functions as a way of co-opting opposition to Trump and channeling it into support for a war effort that is otherwise indefensible.
This suggests that these ads should be seen as an attempt to stake a claim in Joe Biden’s victory so that if he becomes president he’ll give hawkish Republicans a seat at the table. Biden already has a tropism toward bipartisanship, especially in foreign policy. He voted for the Iraq War and has been criticizing Trump from the right for not being sufficiently hard-line on Venezuela and China.
By creating ads like this, the Lincoln Project is creating an impression that will prove useful to foreign policy hawks if Biden wins: that Trump’s defeat was due in part to disaffected Republicans who didn’t like Trump’s questioning of national security orthodoxy.
One further objective might be to help the Republican Party rehabilitate if Trump goes down in defeat. The argument then will be that not every Republican went along with Trump, that many opposed him in their hearts, that he wasn’t a true Republican at all. Variations of these arguments were used to help the GOP refurbish its reputation after George W. Bush’s presidency ended in disaster.
Progressives would do well to keep a skeptical eye on the Lincoln Project. The ads needling Trump are often entertaining, but they are pushing a sinister agenda.