On Friday, the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump conservative group, released two new ads both focused on President Trump’s recent comments about arrested Jeffrey Epstein associate Ghislaine Maxwell, who, like Epstein, allegedly participated in the sexual abuse of minors. “I just wish her well, frankly,” Trump said at a press conference. “I’ve met her numerous times over the years.” The quote is repeated in both ads between darkened photos of her, Epstein, and Trump. One spot suggests Maxwell might have compromising information on Trump. The other ends with photos of former Vice President Joe Biden. “Had enough?” a narrator asks. “It’s time to return honor and dignity to the White House.” Here the video cuts to photos of former Vice President Joe Biden and ends.
As of mid-Saturday afternoon, both ads have collectively been seen well over a million times. They’re only slightly bolder than the Project’s other spots. One of the spots the Project released a month ago, called #TrumpIsNotWell, explicitly questions Trump’s physical and mental fitness; another—titled “100,000 dead Americans. One wrong president”—features rows of body bags arranged in the shape of an American flag. After Trump admitted in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last month that he’d asked officials to slow down coronavirus testing to suppress the number of reported cases, the Lincoln Project released an ad based on a clip from the rally within three days. “Every single expert told him to test more and test faster,” the narrator says darkly, “And now we know his response.”
It’s not difficult to see why these ads have been praised so widely by the president’s critics. They make the punches that Democratic officials and operatives often seem inclined to pull, and it’s been reported that the Project has had unique success in aggravating Trump and his backers. In a piece for Politico earlier this month, Joanna Weiss attributed this to the experience the Lincoln Project’s backers have built in conservative politics. “Part of it is skill: The Lincoln Project ads are slick, quick and filled with damning quotes and unflattering photos,” she wrote. “But part of it might just be that Republicans are better at this than Democrats. Trump may sense that these ads are especially dangerous because they pack an emotional punch, using imagery designed to provoke anxiety, anger and fear—aimed at the very voters who were driven to him by those same feelings in 2016.”
Of course, leaning into those fears and anxieties poses its own problems. “One ad,” Weiss noted, “accuses Trump of being played by China and ends with the image of the White House, the entire screen tinted red.” It’ll be fascinating to see how much chauvinism and xenophobia conservatives putatively opposed to Trump’s chauvinism and xenophobia engage in between now and November, but it seems doubtful that they’ll be able to beat Trump at his own game. That’s at least partially because the Lincoln Project, at odds with the Trumpist and anti-anti Trump conservative press, has sought the respect and attention of liberals—the group published what amounts to its manifesto at The New York Times in December; promotional stops by co-founder Rick Wilson, a CNN contributor, have included an appearance at Cooper Union and a highly embarrassing interview on an animated news show produced by Stephen Colbert. The task the Lincoln Project has set out for itself is to appeal to the Trump voter—or at least to appear as though it can—without alienating the MSNBC set.
Given this, it’s easy to understand progressive suspicion that the Lincoln Project is aimed at laundering the reputations of its principals as much as, or more than, it is about meaningfully contributing to the campaign against Trump. They have a lot to launder. Wilson has made bigoted remarks on social media; fellow strategist Steve Schmidt worked for George W. Bush and, having pushed Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate in 2008, is arguably among the people most individually responsible for the right’s dive into the inanity we now call Trumpism.
Many have argued that the Project should be understood as an even more ambitious effort to repair the moral standing of the Republican Party and the conservative movement in general. “The more that liberals refuse to hold right-wing operatives like the Lincoln Project brain trust accountable for their past behavior and contribution to the current state of conservatism in America,” the progressive writer Eoin Higgins recently wrote, “the more we will see the rehabilitation of such ghouls as an ongoing scheme by conservatives to push the Overton window even further right and assume the position of moderation.”
In an interview this week, The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent repeatedly prodded John Weaver, who oversaw John McCain’s 2000 presidential bid, on this question—whether the Project rejects not just Trump but Republican politics and policy as we’ve come to know them. In response, Weaver pointed out that the Project is also working to defeat certain Republican candidates down ballot and spoke vaguely about the need to move beyond “trickle-down economics.” But when asked specifically whether the Project would continue supporting Biden if elected—whether, for instance, it would help drum up support for new taxes on the rich to fund a coronavirus recovery bill—Weaver hedged. “Weaver said he couldn’t directly address this until he saw specifics,” Sargent wrote, “but said: ‘We’ll be generally supportive of trying to get this country moving forward.’”
This reply shouldn’t have surprised. Whether they say so straightforwardly or not, the conservatives of the Lincoln Project will not generally be supportive of progressive policy. And this has troubled some who speculate that the group and the broader NeverTrump camp of moderate Republicans could hold political sway postelection. “If Biden wins, organizations like the Lincoln Project will have newfound influence and options,” Columbia political analyst Lincoln Mitchell recently wrote for CNN. “They will be well positioned to be a conservative counter to the progressives who would like to see a President Biden tack left once elected.”
But there’s something profoundly odd about the notion that moderate Republicans might exert a “newfound” influence on Democrats under Biden. Biden served in the last Democratic Cabinet alongside four Republicans whom President Obama either appointed or retained, including two Republican secretaries of defense. Republicans in Congress ensured that Democratic policy would reflect the right’s premises on public spending, debt, and the size and role of government. They were able to do so because Democrats in general sought Republican input and because Democratic moderates and conservatives, representing moderate and conservative constituencies, either agreed with them or were unwilling to overrule them, even when the party presumably could have, with its legislative supermajority early in the administration.
Concessions to the right under Obama were the product not only of Obama’s particular political disposition but the conciliatory disposition of the Democratic Party as a whole, which survives today even though the party has recently been pulled left on a variety of policy issues. Biden has promised to seek common ground with Republicans proudly and repeatedly—although it should be said that he has, in recent weeks, finally started to signal an awareness that Republicans aren’t going to be eager to support his policy agenda. But most voters and just about all Democratic leaders, including those who acknowledge that measures like eliminating the legislative filibuster will be necessary to enact many Democratic priorities, profess a commitment to bipartisanship as a general value and are invested in the rhetoric of national reconciliation. Given this, procedural reforms under Biden that weaken Republicans might be seen even by non-Republicans as divisive opportunism—an impression that could politically damage Biden and Democrats. Granted, that would be a better problem to face than the one they now have, which is that pivotal moderate Democrats still oppose overruling Republicans and procedural reforms in the first place.
The Lincoln Project’s critics on the left are correct about the GOP. The Republican Party is a purely malignant force in American politics and American life. It has no positive contributions to make, its major policies are not supported by the majority of the American public, and it would not be as powerful or as radical as it is were it not for the advantages the design of the federal government grants to conservatives. Those advantages, left in place, will prevent Democrats from meaningfully addressing our most significant problems as a country and society, including an environmental crisis that threatens all civilization. Much of what ails us cannot be fixed without structurally disempowering the GOP as an institution—its incapacitation is the only plausible and morally defensible remedy to polarization and partisan gridlock we have. Many progressives now take all these things for granted. But the leaders of the Democratic Party, the political press, and most voters, including most Democratic voters, simply do not—even now, as over a hundred thousand Americans have been killed by the coronavirus thanks, in large part, to the arrogance and stupidity of Republican policymakers.
If most non-Republicans remain insufficiently hostile towards the GOP as a whole in the post-Trump era, that will have much less to do with the Lincoln Project and the activities of particular NeverTrump Republicans now than the influence of generations of propaganda about how politics ought to work and the structural factors on which the Republican Party depends. None of that will be undone by tweets about how the Lincoln Project is a grift: At some point, progressives will need to take advantage of all we’ve seen pressure campaigns can do these past few weeks to convince Democratic leaders and ordinary voters to think as they do about Republicans and the implications of sharing power with them.
We’ve seen recently how naturally this approach to partisanship tends to come to the right. The president has been mouthing off recently about how Democrats destroy cities and want to abolish the suburbs; this week Congressman Louie Gohmert responded to a House vote on removing Confederate statues from the Capitol with a resolution that would ban the Democratic Party from the House absent a name change. “A great portion of the history of the Democratic Party is filled with racism and hatred,” he said in a statement. “Whether it be supporting the most vile forms of racism or actively working against Civil Rights legislation, Democrats in this country perpetuated these abhorrent forms of discrimination and violence practically since their party’s inception.” It might be observed that one could say the same of the Republican Party’s most recent history and present. And one could. But few in national politics do. Republicans really are better at this kind of thing.