The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

(Washington Post staff illustration)

Your house is on fire. Do you care who the firemen are?

That is a central question of the 2020 election. Donald Trump has managed to do one thing no other president has done: Bring Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and progressives, boomers and millennials together in unprecedented numbers to try to defeat him in November. For Americans who believe the president is a raging threat to democracy, purity tests are out. Results are in.

Which explains the spectacular rise of the Lincoln Project, a group of Republican Never Trumpers who have moved rent-free into the president’s head. Their viral videos and tweets mocking his leadership, his intelligence and his patriotism — aimed both at Republican voters who are wavering and Trump himself — have attracted millions of dollars, via donors from both parties. More than 10,000 people attended a virtual town hall last month and another 80,000 watched it on a live stream. Lifelong Democrats are organizing fundraisers for the project.

The “Mourning in America” ad attacks Trump’s mismanagement of the coronavirus outbreak. “#TrumpIsNotWell” questions his mental and physical fitness. “Bounty” asks why Trump won’t confront Vladimir Putin about U.S. intelligence reports that Russia offered bounties for the killing of American soldiers in Afghanistan.

The Lincoln Project released an ad on May 4 criticizing President Trump's response to the coronavirus outbreak. (Video: The Lincoln Project)

The ads are slick, scathing and more shocking than anything Joe Biden’s official campaign has produced. The newest release, “Wake Up,” is a dark comic satire about a coma victim hearing about Trump’s last three years. “Republicans, we need to wake up. This guy was in a coma. What’s your excuse?”

“Donald Trump is so completely at odds with every institution in America and so completely at odds with anything that the Republican Party allegedly stood for: the rule of law, constitutional fealty, institutions, norms, traditions, all of those things are out the window,” says Rick Wilson, a co-founder of the group. “So you’re either going to make a choice between Trump or this country. We made the choice for the country, even if it doesn’t immediately seem to fit with all of our ideological or political priors.”

Pick your motto: Politics makes strange bedfellows. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

“I’ll be really honest with you: My time horizon is the election,” says Charlie Sykes, a conservative political commentator who is not part of the Lincoln Project but wants to see Trump voted out. “I feel like the house is burning. I want to put out the fire. I’m going to worry about the redecorating later.”

Three of the Lincoln Project founders — Wilson, Steve Schmidt and George T. Conway III — sat down last week to talk about their motives and their methodology. Wilson and Schmidt are longtime hired guns for Republican candidates (George W. Bush, John McCain and many more); Conway, a lawyer and spouse of presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway, has had a long career representing Republican clients.

Schmidt is the firebrand, furious and effusive. Wilson is shrewd and sly. And Conway is fiercely protective of the Constitution, which he feels Trump has repeatedly violated.

The three didn’t know each other well before December, when they founded the group — named after the president who “led the United States through its bloodiest, most divisive and most decisive period of our history” — but bonded over their disillusionment with Trump. Conway and Wilson were both deeply influenced by the book Trump on the Couch,” by psychiatrist Justin A. Frank.

“Trump is a narcissist and he cannot help but react to threats to his delicate psyche,” explains Conway. “He is a very sensitive, weak human being who cannot take criticism.” The other factor, he adds, is that “he can’t think ahead. He merely reacts to things. And what we do is take advantage of both of those psychological defects.”

What that means in practical terms is that the Lincoln Project ads are specifically designed to trigger the president. Whenever Trump is reacting to a Lincoln Project ad, he’s talking about things he shouldn’t be talking about. He’s explaining why he inched down the ramp at the U.S. Military Academy, or drank water with two hands. He’s shooting off a tweet about the “Mourning in America” ad, thereby raising millions of dollars . . . for the Lincoln Project.

At his first campaign rally in months, President Trump told the Tulsa crowd on June 20 that there was more to the story of his West Point commencement speech. (Video: The Washington Post)

The group approaches its task with a military precision, with a few dozen staffers churning out new videos overnight. “We don’t mess around,” says Wilson. “It’s this concept of moving faster than your enemy’s ability to decide to act in a battle.”

You can call it trolling, and it is: The Lincoln Project buys ad time in Washington and Bedminster for an audience of one. “He is a creature who exists only on television, the Chauncey Gardiner of our time,” says Wilson, evoking the movie “Being There.” “The fact that we’re able to use his mental infirmity and addiction to television to freeze him and manipulate him serves a broader purpose for the overall campaign in terms of taking him off message, disorganizing and disorienting him.”

All this is designed to help Biden, whom they endorsed in a Washington Post op-ed in April. Their unique skill is talking to conservatives in a way that Democrats can’t, with techniques that they’ve honed over many Republican campaigns. They’re also targeting “soft” Republicans who may be persuadable — such as those who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016.

“The one thing you can’t get back in politics is time,” says Sykes. “Every day that goes by that Donald Trump is off his game or distracted is a win. He can’t fix that. He can’t go back and get it. What they found is that a single video can take the president of the United States off track for a day or more and you see it play out.”

But you would be mistaken in believing the Lincoln Project was created to atone for past sins. Yes, there have been plenty of Republicans who have asked if their efforts over the past decades made a Trump presidency possible. What part did they play? What did they miss, ignore or tolerate? Republican consultant Stuart Stevens, author of the new book “It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump,” believes the president is “a natural product of the seeds of race, self-deception, and anger that became the essence of the Republican Party” over the past 50 years. “Trump isn’t an aberration of the Republican Party; he is the Republican Party in a purified form.”

But Schmidt, who it’s fair to say is disgusted by Trump, is unapologetic about his life’s work. Yes, he urged McCain to pick Sarah Palin as his running mate, a decision ultimately driven by politics. But no, he’s not renouncing the Republican Party as he knew it.

“I think a good sign of being an idiot in life is believing that all virtue is vested in one of these political parties and all evil in the other,” he says. He rejects those who say he should be ashamed of the past: “The necessity for an act of atonement against conviction is self-righteous and smug at a level that beggars my ability to describe it in the English language. And I would suggest that they’re part of the problem, not so much part of the solution.”

One question, of course, is whether the Lincoln Project ads are preaching to the choir — Democrats and other Never Trumpers — or if they have the ability to sway voters who identify as Republicans.

Sarah Longwell, founder of Republican Voters Against Trump, has taken a different tack. Her group has collected hundreds of testimonials from 2016 Trump voters who are planning to vote for Biden in 2020 and is using the $13 million it has raised — a droplet in the sea of campaign spending — to air them in swing states.

Her research shows that what people found persuasive was real voices, uncut, not produced ads. She’s specifically targeting past Trump supporters (especially suburban women) with voices from people in the same state.

What’s she hearing? Things like, “I voted for Trump in 2016 and I cried and I felt I needed to take a shower” or “I’ve been watching him since I voted for him and I just can’t stand how divisive he is.”

Longwell, a lifelong Republican, admits she believed her party would stand up to Trump’s worst instincts. And she was wrong.

“There became this myth about Trump that his base is so strong and locked in and they loved him,” she says. “I knew that wasn’t true and it wasn’t true for a long time, and that there were a lot of people out there that could be persuaded if the Democrat wasn’t objectionable to them. I knew that Bernie Sanders was never going to fly with these people, but Joe Biden had always surfaced as somebody in our research that if it was him, there was a bunch of people who could be persuaded to vote for him.”

The once-mocked ‘Never Trump’ movement becomes a sudden campaign force

This approach is not a knock on the Lincoln Project, Longwell says — ultimately, they’re all working for the same goal.

And that goal, says conservative commentator Rick Tyler, means alliances with ideological opponents are important in the short term — especially with voters who feel left behind by today’s Republican Party. “There’s no philosophy,” he says. “There’s no belief. There’s no core. It’s just about Trump and his popularity.” The value of the Lincoln Project is that it keeps reminding voters of all persuasions why Trump shouldn’t be reelected.

“Right now you’ve got to kill the alligator closest to the boat, the one that’s going to kill you, and that is Donald Trump,” says Tyler. “Now, we can all view Joe Biden as another alligator or Nancy Pelosi as an alligator. I think they’re little alligators and they’re a quarter mile down the river. You don’t have to worry about them at all. But there’s this giant alligator who’s going to eat the boat.”

The White House, predictably, takes exception with this assessment.

“The so-called Lincoln Project is an absolute slap in the face to the legacy of our 16th President and the more than 62 million forgotten men and women” who voted for Trump, says White House spokesman Judd Deere. “This partisan organization, made up of elitists who favor the Swamp, are threatened by this President and his bold leadership to put America first.”

The president, of course, has made it clear he is NOT HAPPY with the group. He tweeted that the “so-called Lincoln Project is a disgrace to Honest Abe. I don’t know what Kellyanne did to her deranged loser of a husband, Moonface, but it must have been really bad.” He proceeded to dismiss the founders — there are several of them — as “all LOSERS.”

Their history working for Republican candidates is anathema to some progressives; Trump’s base is similarly incensed by what they see as a betrayal to the president. Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show” cartoon “Tooning Out the News” skewered Wilson’s résumé and the group’s finances.

Trump’s campaign and conservatives have aggressively attacked the Lincoln Project as a moneymaker for the founders: Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel criticized it for “profiting off attacking President Trump.” In the last quarter, the group raised almost $17 million, which is targeted for expanded media buys. Are the founders getting rich? No, they say, at least no more than any other high-profile campaign operation. It’s politics as usual, or as close as this year comes to it.

“As far as I can tell, and I’m not part of this, they’re not doing anything different than any other political action committee,” says Sykes. “And yet it’s fascinating to me the amount of energy that is being spent to discredit them, which again, I think is a credit to how effective they are. They have touched an incredible nerve out there.”

Now the group has expanded its operations to Senate races around the country — targeting Susan Collins, Joni Ernst, Thom Tillis and Lindsey O. Graham — to drum out Republican enablers. The group has also pledged to pour money into vote-by-mail education and assistance.

“You can’t take your foot off the gas, but he’s going to lose and he’s going to lose big,” says Conway. “The reason why I’m confident of that is not because of the polls, but because of his essential nature, his self-destructive nature. He doesn’t know how to handle the current situation. He can’t lie his way out of it anymore. And if we keep the pressure on, keep doing what we’re doing, he’s going to dig himself deeper.”

This story has been updated to clarify the number of people who watched the Lincoln Project’s town hall.

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