The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Does the Lincoln Project have a secret agenda? The answer is surprising.

(Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Should progressives and liberals view the Lincoln Project Republicans as full-fledged converts, or as temporary allies of convenience, or as an ideological Trojan horse virus that will co-opt the Democratic Party from within if allowed to ride anti-Trump sentiment into the party’s good graces?

The Never-Trump Republicans who founded the Lincoln Project are highly skilled at marshaling such sentiment. Their videos brutally attacking President Trump routinely go viral, turning them into heroes among the “Resistance glitterati.”

But this has unleashed a counter-narrative: The Lincoln Project is working to insulate conservatism from blame for Trump so it can rise again. Its condemnations of Trump don’t acknowledge the GOP’s culpability for creating the conditions for his rise. Allowing the group influence over a Joe Biden presidency will cripple his ability to rescue the country.

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I had a long and spirited conversation about all these criticisms with John Weaver, a co-founder and leader of the Lincoln Project. First, a few highlights:

  • The group will spend tens of millions of dollars in swing states through Election Day, most focused on turning GOP voters against Trump and on Senate races, Weaver said.
  • That includes a major expenditure on communicating with voters about vote-by-mail.
  • The group is preparing to vehemently oppose efforts by GOP senators to obstruct and stymie Biden’s agenda, should he win the presidency, Weaver confirmed.

The Lincoln Project’s declared mission is “defeating Trump and Trumpism at the ballot box.” That includes a pledge to elect Democrats over Republicans who, like Trump, do not “support the Constitution.”

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And the group — which includes George Conway, a Post columnist and husband of Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway — has regularly attacked Trump for his assaults on democracy and the rule of law, while working to defeat GOP senators who enable those attacks.

But how deep does this commitment to democracy really run? One test is whether the Lincoln Project is breaking permanently with the GOP embrace of voter suppression, gerrymandering and other anti-democratic tactics.

Pressed on this, Weaver insisted the break is genuine. He told me the Lincoln Project is committed to ensuring that the “drive-by Jim Crowism in many parts of the country is put to an end.”

After towering civil rights icon John Lewis passed away, the Lincoln Project released a video extolling his role in the struggle for voting rights and linked it to today’s protests against police brutality, declaring that Americans can honor his legacy this fall by “exercising the right to vote.”

But will the Lincoln Project remain committed to concrete expansions of voting rights after Trump is gone? Weaver said yes, noting it will keep advocating for automatic voter registration and a restored Voting Rights Act, and continue fighting efforts to “make it difficult for black people or poor people to vote.”

“No more of that,” Weaver said.

But for the Lincoln Project, this is also a means of rescuing the GOP from itself. This will force it to "actually compete for votes,” Weaver told me, adding that the GOP will be a “better party for the country if everyone participates.”

If not, Weaver said, “it will die.”

And so, Weaver said, the Lincoln Project will undertake a large communications push to encourage voter participation this fall, including educating people about vote-by-mail.

“We’ll put out spots about it and encourage people to vote absentee,” Weaver told me. But this isn’t just about Trump: Bigger turnout puts a bigger GOP loss within reach, which makes it more likely that Republicans “will have their own internal reckoning.”

The GOP’s role in Trumpism

The Lincoln Project’s efforts to get right on racial issues have also included scalding attacks on Trump’s racism and support for the Confederacy, such as this “Flag of Treason” video.

But this raises another question — whether the Lincoln Project accepts the GOP’s own role in laying the groundwork for the moment. That includes the “Southern Strategy,” toleration of the Confederate flag, and a less blatant anti-immigrant sentiment that Trump made more explicit.

The 'Southern Strategy' was created to bring disaffected whites into the Republican Party, says historian, professor and author Carol Anderson. (Video: The Washington Post)

Pressed on this, Weaver made an interesting concession. He allowed that he helped elect Jeff Sessions to the Senate in the 1990s. Given Sessions’s racially charged history and his longtime role in building a U.S. nativist movement, Weaver allowed this had contributed in its own small way to pushing the GOP toward a Trump takeover.

“I have my own atonement to do every day about that,” Weaver told me. “Did I contribute to putting a brick in the road to where we are today? Yeah, I did.”

In Weaver’s own telling, conceding complicity in creating conditions for Trump’s rise is crucial to remaking the GOP. Which sheds light on how that might hopefully remain a Lincoln Project goal in a salutary way.

The Lincoln Project under a Biden presidency

Another major test of the Lincoln Project’s intentions will come if Biden wins the presidency: Will it revert to a traditional GOP donor-friendly advocacy posture, one that drives opposition to the Democratic economic agenda?

As former Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer somewhat jokingly predicted, the Lincoln Project might run “ads attacking President Biden for raising taxes on oil companies in early 2021.”

“We’re not gonna do that,” Weaver told me when pushed on this criticism. Weaver insisted the group would actively work against Republicans who obstruct a Biden presidency, which would face a deeper crisis than in 2009, when Republicans tried to obstruct Obama in hopes of profiting off continuing economic misery.

“He will have a mandate to clean up the mess that Trump has created with the help of his enablers,” Weaver said of a Biden presidency. “That shouldn’t be held up. We intend to do all we can to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

I asked Weaver what the Lincoln Project would do if a President Biden and a Democratic Congress tried to raise taxes on the rich to help fund a multitrillion-dollar rescue effort. Weaver said he couldn’t directly address this until he saw specifics, but said: “We’ll be generally supportive of trying to get this country moving forward.”

Indeed, in Weaver’s telling, binding the “wounds” of the Trump era, as the group’s mission puts it, includes working against Republicans who try to prevent Biden from addressing our deep crises, particularly among Trumpist Republicans such as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) who use this to position themselves for 2024.

“We will not stand on the sidelines if an attempt to bind the wounds is held up,” Weaver told me. “We plan on participating in that debate.”

I asked Weaver whether the Lincoln Project recognizes that Trump has driven the country into a deep hole not just through assaults on the rule of law, but also via his embrace of conventional GOP plutocracy, and whether a remade GOP must drop its orientation toward tax cuts for the wealthy as a cure-all.

“Trickle-down economics has proven not to work,” Weaver said, allowing that “growing and growing" inequality is a big reason the American people are losing faith in government, which is often said to have helped Trump’s rise.

If the Lincoln Project has a broader agenda, then, it appears to be burning down as much of the GOP that helped bring us Trump as possible. Obviously, we should approach all this with a trust-but-verify skepticism, but Weaver has now planted markers for us to judge the group against.

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