The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Seven bleak takeaways from Showtime’s ‘The Lincoln Project’ miniseries

Keith Edwards and Stuart Stevens in “The Lincoln Project” miniseries on Showtime. (Showtime)

Showtime’s “The Lincoln Project” is not for the faint of heart. The five-part miniseries, which debuts Friday, is an intimate, bare-knuckled take on the 2020 presidential campaign through the eyes of the Lincoln Project, a super PAC created by Republican political consultants to defeat Donald Trump. As an inside look at the world of political messaging, it’s fascinating. As an inside look at the future of democracy, it’s terrifying.

In the last two months before the election, filmmakers followed the key players of the organization as they created the viral ads that attracted millions of clicks, followers and dollars. The ads attacked Trump and his followers with a ferocity that liberals cheered. The goal was to persuade a tiny sliver of Republican voters to vote for Joe Biden.

And it worked — until it didn’t. The Lincoln Project won the battle and lost the war; instead of taking a victory lap, it was riddled with infighting, betrayals, financial disputes and charges of inappropriate sexual advances by one of the co-founders.

Even for political junkies, the documentary is revelatory for the way it depicts brutal truths of modern campaign warfare. It posits that anyone who thinks the election result battles were confined to 2020 hasn’t been paying attention to the dystopian ads for the midterms this year. Democracy is at risk, and no one knows that better than the founders of the Lincoln Project because they helped lay the groundwork. Now they’re frightened; as co-founder Stuart Stevens ominously put it: “I’ll never look at 1930s Germany and wonder how it happened again.”

Here are the takeaways from the series:

These guys are not liberals’ perfect heroes

The Lincoln Project was co-founded by longtime political consultants who worked for decades to elect Republican candidates. They developed, as they like to joke, a “particular set of skills” that they deployed to devastating effect.

Did they create Trump? No, but they freely admit that they manipulated the modern political landscape that made Trump a viable candidate — exploiting race and fear for political gain. They opened a Pandora’s box and made elections not just about policy differences, but about motives, patriotism and loyalty.

Then Trump happened, and they were horrified. The remorse is palpable, as is their determination to preserve whatever is left of democracy. Too little too late? Better late than never? Democrats embraced the Lincoln Project ads as if they were long-lost friends; the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

“There’s nothing noble about us in the least; the cause is noble,” says Stevens. “You don’t have to think we’re good people. You don’t have to agree with us. You don’t have to like us. But we’re useful.”

Trump was easy to troll

Early on, the Lincoln Project understood that the best way to attack Trump was to get under his very thin skin, and it was ridiculously effective.

The group specifically targeted the president by buying ad time on Fox News, knowing that Trump watched the network incessantly. They knew he couldn’t stand being called a “loser,” and so that’s exactly what they did. A more sophisticated candidate might have rolled with the punches; Trump reflexively hit back.

The president went on Twitter calling them “losers” and repeated the insult to White House reporters. That free publicity resulted in $2 million in donations to the Lincoln Project in 24 hours.

And they didn’t just target the president. After debating the best way to use a prime billboard in Manhattan’s Times Square, the group decided to mock Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. The billboard depicted the smiling couple dismissing New Yorkers suffering from covid-19 — which Kushner waved off as “that’s their problem,” in a March 2020 meeting with business leaders, reported Vanity Fair.

Predictably, the couple threatened to sue the Lincoln Project, demanding that the billboard come down. The group responded with delight, pointing out that Kushner had, indeed, expressed that sentiment and they were White House officials. The Lincoln Project immediately raised $1.5 million and put a copy of the billboard on a boat circling Mar-a-Lago. Said co-founder Rick Wilson: “It’s offensive that they think we’d be intimidated.”

The Lincoln Project’s plan for preserving the union: Drive Trump out of office by driving him nuts

The group was about more than viral ads

It was the social media ads — specifically “Mourning in America” — that catapulted the Lincoln Project into the national spotlight. Behind the scenes, the operation functioned less like a media shop and more like a traditional campaign war room.

The staff — by then a combination of veteran consultants and young idealists — formed a rapid response team to react in real time to every twist in the final weeks of the campaign with the mantra “Look for the weak spot every day.” They calculated that Biden would need to flip 4 million GOP voters to win. It was a sophisticated numbers game, backed by polls and data that was overshadowed by viral ads that got more than 200 million views on YouTube.

There was no shortage of egos in the room

The Lincoln Project was a profane, testosterone-heavy workplace. There were egos, clashes, backstabbing — just like most political campaigns. Plus a pandemic. Staffers were exhausted, frustrated, excited, marginalized, hopeful and angry — the series shows them high-fiving one day, threatening to quit the next.

In short, the series is a crash course in modern political consulting. Cockeyed optimists need not apply.

It’s the money, stupid

One subtext: America’s campaign finance system is broken, and there’s no fix in sight.

Political consultants used to get a fee from the campaign; now they form political action committees and get a percentage from media buys — a multimillion-dollar enterprise with few rules. The Lincoln Project paid Facebook $450,000 for just seven days of advertising; the group raised a total of $90 million to defeat Trump. There was even talk that it would spin off into a high-powered media company after the election, which did not happen.

Trump supporters called the founders grifters and “self-serving RINOS” — charges they called ridiculous in light of Trump’s fundraising. But, inevitably, there were questions about where the Lincoln Project spent the money and who got rich — disputes that ended in accusations, denials and finger-pointing among the leadership. They were united when it came to Trump; they fell apart when it came to dividing the spoils.

John Weaver became a huge problem

John Weaver, one of the co-founders, is an offstage character in the miniseries, discussed but not followed by any cameras. When the series begins, he’s recovering from a heart attack and essentially ignored by the other principals who reject his request to pour $10 million into Texas. It isn’t until 2021 that the New York Times reported he had made online sexual overtures to a number of young men while offering help with their careers in politics. (Weaver issued an apology and stated that he believed his interactions were consensual; he left the organization.)

The other founders immediately disavowed him and any knowledge of his actions. Former staffers claim the founders must have known and buried it. There were more resignations; Weaver became the flash point for all the pent-up grievances within the organization.

The fall of John Weaver, a Lincoln Project co-founder whose political career was shrouded in mystery

Trump lost, Trumpism won

The Lincoln Project staff recognized early on that Trump’s claim of a rigged vote — long before Election Day — was more than rhetoric. It was the groundwork for what in the series they repeatedly call a “coup.” So the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021, was shocking but not surprising, but the ability for the group to weigh in was crippled by internal battles and the fact that the political team was dismissed after the election.

At its core, the miniseries is about Trumpism as much as it is about the Lincoln Project. A stripped-down version of the organization still exists, fighting, say the founders, for the future of democracy. The political well has been poisoned; the digital age of misinformation may be the downfall of the American experiment, they warn. The pot calling the kettle black? Sure, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong.

What it all means for 2022 — and 2024 — remains a question this documentary cannot answer.