At the Democratic National Convention in 2016, first lady Michelle Obama famously compared her party’s campaign practices to those of Donald Trump’s Republicans by saying, “When they go low, we go high.” As admirable as that strategy is, it proved a loser in the November general election to the down and dirty words and tactics of Trump, the king of transgression.
The Lincoln Project, a political action committee led by veteran Republican politicos and campaign media strategists opposed to Trump, isn’t about to let that happen in 2020 as they seek to deny the president another four years.
“When Trump goes low, the Lincoln Project kicks him in the groin,” said Kurt Bardella, a senior adviser to the project.
“I think all of us agree ‘when they go low, we go high’ was a stirring moment that made for beautiful oratory,” Bardella explained. “And in an ideal world, that sentiment would win the day. But in the real world, the world we live in today where Donald Trump is president of the United States, sentiment is not a strategy that is going to beat Donald Trump. We have seen ever since this thug insulted his way into the Oval Office, his adversaries have been reluctant to fight fire with fire.”
Not the Lincoln Project. This crew of political all stars can hit just as hard as Trump and then some.
They don’t pollute the media ecosystem with smears, libel and lies as our president does, but they are not afraid to get personal and rough in their attacks. One of the reasons their ads are resonating with voters is that just as Trump connected at a gut level in 2016 to the anger of millions of Americans who felt they were being disrespected by people in power, so is the Lincoln Project speaking viscerally to the anger millions now feel about Trump’s reckless, lying, incompetent and dangerous presidency. When you see a Lincoln Project ad on social media or one of the founders like Rick Wilson or Steve Schmidt on cable news blasting the president, you know they are every bit as angry as you are about Trump’s unwillingness to accept any responsibility for the nightmare this nation now finds itself in on his watch.
“The strategy and message to beat Trump has been there all along,” Bardella said. “I always point to one of my favorite quotes from ‘The Art of War': ‘If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him.' At the Lincoln Project, we eagerly oblige and embrace that. The most effective case against President Trump is using his own words and actions against him. ... People try to make intellectual, policy arguments against him. But this is someone who we feel is a mental midget. And so, that’s not going to work. What’s going to work is getting inside his head.”
The project got well inside Trump’s head early in May with an ad titled “Mourning in America,” which shows both the deep political knowledge among the members of the project and the keen media skills they possess.
The ad plays off of one of the greatest political ads ever, “Morning in America,” which drove the media effort of President Ronald Reagan for a second term in 1984.
Reagan’s “Morning in America” is all sunshine and blue skies with, a young family moving into suburban home with a white picket fence, men and women rushing off to work, a paperboy on his bicycle riding along a leafy street tossing papers onto front yards, a fishing boat at dawn, a farmer on a tractor and a young couple getting married. Everything is growth, smiles, images of Americana and upward movement.
“It’s morning again in America,” a narrator says in voice-over. “This morning, more men and women will go to work than at any time in our nation’s history. With interest rates about half the record high of 1980, nearly 2,000 families today will buy new homes, more than at any time in the last four years. This afternoon, 6,500 young men and women will be married.”
The Lincoln Project’s “Mourning in America” opens on gray skies, abandoned Rust Belt factories, a dilapidated urban home and two hospital workers in protective gear wheeling a gurney with a corpse on it.
“There’s mourning in America,” a narrator says in voice-over. “Today, more than 60,000 Americans have died from the deadly virus Donald Trump ignored. With the economy in shambles, more than 26 million Americans are out of work. The worst economy in decades. Trump bailed out Wall Street, but not Main Street. This afternoon, millions of American will apply for unemployment, and with their savings run out, many are giving up hope.”
It is a brilliant 60 seconds of political advertising and warfare. And its placement was pretty smart as well: during Tucker Carlson’s 8 p.m. show on Fox News, a place Trump would be sure to see it.
Within hours, Trump was deep into an early morning Twitter rant calling members of the Lincoln Project “all LOSERS.” He termed Wilson “crazed.” As for George Conway, husband of Trump aide Kellyanne Conway, Trump wrote, “I don’t know what Kellyanne did to her deranged loser of a husband, Moonface, but it must have been really bad.”
Of course, Trump’s anger only guaranteed that more people would see and hear the ad. The May 4 YouTube video has been played more than 2.9 million times as of Thursday. It seemed during that first week of May that you could not turn on MSNBC or CNN without seeing a replay of the ad and/or hearing more analysis of it. All of it free media often with the bonus of Schmidt or Wilson on-screen breathing anti-Trump fire.
The Lincoln Project attack ads keep coming, and the screen-searing intensity is not being dialed down one bit.
In an ad titled “Betrayed,” which posted on June 30, Dan Barkhuff, a Naval Academy graduate and former Navy SEAL who now works as an emergency room physician, speaks directly to the camera about his feelings on Trump doing nothing about reports that Russia paid bounties to members of the Taliban for killed American military personnel in Afghanistan.
“Mr. Trump, you’re either a coward who can’t stand up to an ex-KGB goon or you’re complicit,” Barkhuff says. “Donald Trump is unfit to be our commander in chief. ... I’m a pro-life, gun-owning, combat veteran and I can see Donald Trump for what he is: a coward. We need to send this draft dodger back to his golf courses. The lives of our troops depend on it.”
For all the change in media the last decade, that is a level of verbal engagement which is still mainly off-limits for journalists working in the mainstream press. We are not allowed to call out Trump the way the Lincoln Project ads and its founders do. It’s a legacy media convention that still mostly holds.
But given the unprecedented nature and scope of Trump’s transgressions, he does need to be called out in the direct and confrontational way Barkhuff does. And that is another bit of value the Lincoln Project brings to the conversation of the 2020 presidential election. It is one of the things I like best about the project as it speaks to and for my outrage.
“Every day we see proof from Trump that what we are doing is important,” said Wilson, author of “Everything Trump Touches Dies” and a GOP campaign strategist for decades. “And every day we see proof of the fact that this guy is a racial arsonist and totally corrupt president. This is a fight that we were made to do, and he hands us the weapons everyday for this battle.”
The battle does not end with Trump, Wilson said, explaining that the project is also involved in several U.S. Senate races.
“We’re not just opposed to Trump. Were opposed to anyone who enables Trump and Trumpism,” he added, defining Trumpism as the “nationalist populism” the president represents.
“So, we’re going to be in this fight at a lot of different levels and we’re hopefully going to continue to have an impact that ensures that the people who sold their souls to Donald Trump pay the same political price he does.”