Washington: Rick Wilson apologises for running late for our phone interview: it’s been a frantic morning for the veteran Republican ad-maker and his colleagues at the Lincoln Project.
The anti-Trump group has just released its latest advertisement, slamming the US President for suggesting that the November 3 election may need to be delayed. In the half hour since the ad — titled We Will Vote — went live, it has already racked up more than 250,000 views online.
That’s nothing unusual for the operatives at the Lincoln Project, who have been pumping out attack ads at a prolific rate over recent months.
“We push really fast all the time,” Wilson says. “We drive ourselves and our team very hard because we think we are pursuing a worthwhile endeavour and we know it works.”
The group’s co-founders include Steve Schmidt, who ran Republican nominee John McCain’s 2008 campaign, and conservative lawyer George Conway, the husband of top Trump aide Kellyanne Conway. Having spent most of their adult lives working to get Republicans elected, they are now producing some of the toughest anti-Trump ads on the airwaves.
Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s campaign has released three advertisements that have reached more than 1 million viewers on YouTube. The Lincoln Project has put out 44 — including what many strategists believe has been the most compelling ad of the campaign so far: Mourning in America, which painted an apocalyptic picture of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, has been viewed 3.3 million times.
Democratic strategist James Carville has said that Democrats could learn a lot from the Lincoln Project’s tactics. “They’re mean, they fight hard,” Carville said. “And we don’t fight like that.”
Pollster Rachel Bitecofer, who is advising the Lincoln Project, agrees. “In general, Republicans campaign to the heart and Democrats to the head,” she says. “Democrats tend to target their ads to an idealistic version of the voter — someone who is intellectual and nuanced. Republicans talk more to the electorate that actually exists.”
A unique feature of the Lincoln Project is that many of their ads are aimed at an audience of one: the President of the United States. In May, the group released an ad designed to foment tension between Trump and his campaign chief, Brad Parscale, accusing Parscale of profiteering from his campaign role. Two months later, Trump sacked Parscale.
“Never before in the history of campaigning has an outside group been able to get a campaign manager fired,” Wilson says. “Our ads have a proven and demonstrable effect at influencing his behaviour.”
The Lincoln Project’s founders are not afraid of attention and not inclined to modesty. Some Democrats grumble that they are taking undue credit for Trump’s falling poll numbers, and diverting fundraising from the party. Republicans loyal to Trump have labelled them cynical grifters out to make a quick buck.
Their ads are not to everyone’s taste. They can be crude and innuendo-laden, mirroring the tactics Trump uses to smear his opponents. There’s no room at the Lincoln Project for Michelle Obama’s dictum: “When they go low, we go high.”
One effort, in the style of a National Geographic documentary, portrayed Trump as “Impotus Americanus” — ridiculing his hair, orange skin tone and weight. Another ad suggested Trump was in mental and physical decline. Another, ridiculing the crowd size at a Trump rally, said: “You’ve probably heard this before, but it was smaller than we expected — and it sure wasn’t as big as you promised.”
Wilson says that trying to defeat a president as unconventional as Trump requires unconventional tactics. “We’re not just trolling Trump for the sake of it,” he says. “Every day he is worried about us and freaking out about us is a day he’s not attacking Joe Biden. If we’re in charge of his head, we’re in charge of his campaign.”
A changed landscape
At the start of this year, the idea that anti-Trump Republicans could be playing an important role in the election seemed far-fetched, even laughable.
The Never Trump movement — an assortment of right-leaning campaign consultants, intellectuals, foreign policy figures and lawyers — failed in its mission to keep Trump off the ballot in 2016. After Trump’s shock victory, they watched in horror as the Republican Party united behind a man they believed to be a phony conservative and wannabe demagogue.
“Never Trumpism is not dead, but it is on life support,” conservative scholar David Azerrad wrote last year. “Were it not for the news media’s eagerness to amplify the voices of those who hate the President, the movement would have long since been relegated to the more obscure corners of the internet.”
Wilson says: “I can’t tell you the number of articles saying that conservatives who opposed Donald Trump were irrelevant dinosaurs.”
The low-water mark for the movement came with Trump’s impeachment trial in January. Despite damning testimony from career public servants about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, none of the 197 Republicans in the House of Representatives voted for impeachment. Just one of the party’s 53 senators – Mitt Romney — voted to convict the President.
Now the Never Trump movement is on the offensive and enjoying a renewed sense of relevance. Jerry Taylor, the president of the centrist Niskanen Centre think tank, points not just to the Lincoln Project but to Republican Voters Against Trump, a separate political action committee. Then there is 43 Alumni for Biden, a group of former George W. Bush staffers campaigning for the Democratic nominee.
“I would not underestimate their ability to move votes,” Taylor says. “The Never Trump groups don’t need to convince the majority of the Republican Party to jump ship. They only need to pry off 2 per cent of the vote Trump won last time around. That’s certainly not impossible. If it’s a close race, they could make a difference.”
Sarah Longwell previously led the Log Cabin Republicans, a group that works within the party to promote equal rights for gays and lesbians. After passionately opposing Trump’s nomination, she is now the strategic director for Republican Voters Against Trump.
Longwell says two developments have boosted the possibility of prying centre-right voters away from the President. First, there has been Trump’s erratic handling of the COVID-19 crisis. Second, the Democrats chose a “reasonable, rational” nominee who is acceptable to voters in the political centre.
As much as they disliked their party’s nominee, in 2016 many anti-Trump Republicans could not cross the Rubicon and vote for Hillary Clinton. This time around most are advocating a vote for Biden. It would have been a different story had the Democrats put Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist, on the ticket.
The centrepiece of RVAT’s efforts is video testimonials from self-identified Republicans who say they will vote for Biden. Some recent examples include Tommy, an evangelical Christian from Texas who believes Trump is a false prophet and Louise, a “Reagan Republican” from Georgia who fears her party has morphed into a cult of personality. The ads are less slick and more down-to-earth than those of the Lincoln Project.
Longwell says the ads — featuring ordinary people speaking in their own words — resonate with voters who distrust the media and political elites. “We are trying to create a permission structure for people who identify as Republican to vote for a Democrat,” she says. “The one thing people still trust is people like themselves.”
Another difference from 2016 is that many prominent Never Trumpers have comprehensively broken with the Republican Party, not just its nominee. The Lincoln Project is running ads attacking Susan Collins, a moderate Republican senator in a tight re-election race in Maine, as a Trump stooge. Their premise is that the party needs to be burnt to the ground if it wants to have a hope of flourishing again.
“Trump isn’t an aberration of the Republican Party; he is the Republican Party in a purified form,” Stuart Stevens, a Lincoln Project adviser and former senior strategist on Romney’s 2012 campaign, writes in his new book, It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump. “He is the logical conclusion of what the Republican Party became over the last 50 or so years, a natural product of the seeds of race, self-deception and anger that became the essence of the Republican Party.”
This makes it hard to predict what will become of the Never Trump Republicans if Biden wins in November. Having abandoned their political tribe, they have not necessarily found a home in the increasingly progressive Democratic Party.
“Progressives would do well to keep a sceptical eye on the Lincoln Project,” Jeet Heer wrote in left-wing journal The Nation, accusing the group’s founders of wanting to return to “the hard-line military aggression of the George W. Bush era”.
Rick Wilson says criticism from the right and left doesn’t bother him. “Our goal is not to get people to love us — it is to defeat Trumpism and his filthy enablers. We’re going to keep punching hard every day.”
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Matthew Knott is North America correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.