On the menu today: Was anyone asking for a five-part docuseries about the Lincoln Project? Whether you want one or not, Showtime unveiled the trailer yesterday. So fine, let’s talk about the Lincoln Project — its scandals, its bad decisions, its hypocrisy, how it embodies a lot of what it denounces, how it deserves no credit for Joe Biden’s 2020 victory, and how it is most useful as a cautionary tale for other ambitious minds in politics.
Let’s Talk about the Lincoln Project
Yesterday, Showtime unveiled the trailer for a five-part docuseries about the Lincoln Project, the anti-Trump super PAC formed in late 2019 by Stuart Stevens, Steve Schmidt, George Conway, John Weaver, Rick Wilson, and a handful of others.
Let’s give credit where it’s due. The lines “We’re going to have to have a talk about John,” “Why were we trying to cover it up if it didn’t matter?” and “I started to get suspicious about, where did the money go?” indicate that the series will at least spend some time on the major controversies surrounding the group: John Weaver’s pattern of sexually pursuing and harassing young men, and whether the gargantuan sums of money raised by the group were mostly going to the leaders’ own pockets. (The trailer didn’t offer any sign that the series will mention the group’s attempt to make it appear that white nationalists were supporting Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin in 2021.)
Who knows, maybe documentary filmmakers Fisher Stevens and Karim Amer hoped to get the Lincoln Project’s leaders to inadvertently expose themselves as self-important, narcissistic blowhards by following them around with cameras. Certainly, the trailer indicates that this is not quite the straightforward, heroic narrative that the Lincoln Project probably expected it would get when it agreed to the documentary.
“We have the opportunity to save the g country,” someone says, shortly before cutting to a voiceover of Wolf Blitzer announcing Biden’s victory in the 2020 election and Democrats celebrating. There’s something spectacularly arrogant about this group, which mostly ran television ads in the Washington, D.C., market designed to get Trump to throw a tantrum on Twitter, implying it was the one who put Joe Biden over the top.
How do Democrats feel about this? How does the Biden campaign feel about this? How do the labor unions and environmental groups and all the other parts of the Democratic coalition feel about a bunch of Republican and ex-Republican campaign consultants showing up and boasting, “Look at us! We’re the ones who saved the country from Trump”?
There are some signs that some figures on the left, such as Stephen Colbert, got sick and tired of folks such as Rick Wilson and Co. acting as if they were the heroes of the story, and of some liberals’ eagerness to embrace the group the moment its members started criticizing Trump.
The decision to make a documentary about the Lincoln Project, and Showtime’s decision to air it, represents something of a declaration that the Lincoln Project is important and consequential. As I write this, the first comment under the YouTube trailer is, “Nice! You know you’re doing something right when Showtime makes a documentary.” Perhaps that person is being sarcastic, but I think a lot of people believe something along those lines: Someone important enough to warrant a full documentary must be doing something consequential.
But . . . are they? Studies conducted by a Democratic group during the election indicated that the Lincoln Project’s ads didn’t really work — they may have made Democrats who already supported Biden feel better about themselves, but they were unpersuasive to undecided voters:
The PAC, Priorities USA, spent a good chunk of the cycle testing the effectiveness of ads, some 500 in all. And, along the way, they decided to conduct an experiment that could have potentially saved them tons of money. They took five ads produced by a fellow occupant in the Super PAC domain — the Lincoln Project — and attempted to measure their persuasiveness among persuadable swing state voters; i.e. the ability of an ad to move Trump voters towards Joe Biden. A control group saw no ad at all. Five different treatment groups, each made up of 683 respondents, saw one of the five ads. Afterwards they were asked the same post-treatment questions measuring the likelihood that they would vote and who they would vote for. . . .
According to Nick Ahamed, Priorities’ analytics director, the correlation of Twitter metrics — likes and retweets — and persuasion was -0.3, “meaning that the better the ad did on Twitter, the less it persuaded battleground state voters.” The most viral of the Lincoln Project’s ads — a spot called Bounty, which was RTed 116,000 times and liked more than 210,000 times — turned out to be the least persuasive of those Priorities tested.
It will be interesting to see if that report ends up in the documentary. It raises the question of just how the Lincoln Project defined success — was the goal to persuade undecided voters, or did it just want to make sneering ads that would thrill progressive grassroots donors who would then contribute more money to the Lincoln Project? Yes, the Lincoln Project ads made Trump angry, but how big of an accomplishment was that? What did that change? As that Colbert interview with Rick Wilson sarcastically jabbed, “Wow, Trump is not usually so sensitive! How did you get under Trump’s thick, rhino-like skin?”
There are some fascinating aspects of the Lincoln Project, but focusing on those aspects wouldn’t make such a flattering documentary. Considering how suddenly and vehemently the likes of Steve Schmidt, John Weaver, and Rick Wilson turned on longtime allies . . . just how committed were those consultants back when they were running the campaigns of GOP candidates? If you can turn on a dime and unleash cannon fire on your old friends, were you ever all that committed to anything? For all the group’s talk about “saving the country,” haven’t these guys proven themselves to be mercenaries?
There’s a line at the end of the trailer from Stu Stevens, “It’s not about ideology. It’s about money. It’s about power.” Whom is he describing? Trump and his inner circle, or the Lincoln Project itself?
Then again, maybe the documentary will acknowledge that the Lincoln Project isn’t as morally distinct from its foes as its members like to believe. There’s a quote from an unseen woman, “I feel like I’ve become a victim of what I was fighting against.” Maybe the filmmakers couldn’t ignore the ironies piling up so high — accusations of grifting, accusations of sexual misconduct, sexist and homophobic language, as well as claims from several witnesses that one founder saw the organization as vehicle to achieve “generational wealth.”
Back when Rick Wilson wrote Everything Trump Touches Dies, Washington Post book reviewer Carlos Lozada wasn’t afraid to point out that Wilson embodied a lot of what he denounced:
[Wilson writes] in the crudest terms. First there is Trump, whom Wilson never ceases to insult. “A monster from the laboratory of a jackass mad scientist . . . the living, s—-y embodiment of a culture that’s more Real Housewives and less Shining City on a Hill . . . a self obsessed Narcissus in a fright wig” with a “Liberace-meets-Saddam decorating style” — and all that’s just on Page 86. He also trashes the Trump fans within the base he helped shape: “I know you’re in an oxy stupor much of the time, so I’ll try to move slowly and not use big words.” Wilson attacks Reince Priebus, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz and Mike Pence, and he says Newt Gingrich “started twerking [for Trump] faster than a five-buck stripper.” Such sexualized put-downs abound in Wilson’s book. White House adviser Stephen Miller “needs to spend a week getting laid.” Wilson finds Trump campaign adviser Carter Page “reeking of late-stage virginity.” And the white-nationalist alt-right movement is a bunch of “pudgy white boys from lower-middle-class suburbs who couldn’t find a woman’s clitoris with a GPS and a magnifying glass.”
Maybe some people find this funny or edgy, perhaps on Twitter, where Wilson has nearly 450,000 followers. But it’s just revolting, even more so at book length. Oblivious, Wilson then laments the “fashionable cruelty” of the Trump era, with its “endless stream of dick-joke-level insults.” Write what you know, I suppose. He concludes that our outrage politics are “juvenile, repellent, and self-limiting.” So is his book.
The Lincoln Project guys may not have been so effective at selling a candidate, but they were indisputable all-stars at selling themselves. Working on those Republican campaigns all those years meant they all had thick rolodexes of reporters and media people, and they offered several big mainstream-media outlets exactly the story that they wanted to hear: Longtime Republican strategists, who worked for the Dark Side of the Force all those years, suddenly had an moral awakening and were ready to redeem themselves by Doing the Right Thing™ and helping elect Democrats. It’s like Severus Snape being a good guy all along!
Finally, I hope the documentary does mention that Lincoln Project stunt that put together five staffers in khakis holding tiki torches and attempted to tie Glenn Youngkin to the violence in Charlottesville in 2017. Even the Terry McAuliffe campaign couldn’t run away from the stunt fast enough: “What happened today in Charlottesville is disgusting and distasteful and the McAuliffe campaign condemns it in the strongest terms. Those involved should immediately apologize.” That moment may have cost McAuliffe the election by ensuring that the final days of the campaign would be spent discussing this stupid, racially incendiary dirty trick instead of anything else. In a way, the episode represents the distillation of the Lincoln Project down to its essence: desperate for attention, angry, clumsy, and self-defeating.