The Lincoln Project is betting that anti-Trumpism can outlast Donald Trump’s presidency. On Tuesday, Axios reported that the group of ad-making former Republicans “is weighing offers from different television studios, podcast networks, and book publishers.” Everything, it seems, is on the table: The group is currently producing a documentary about the election while studios want the Lincoln Project’s help in developing “a House of Cards–like fiction series,” definitive proof that the Golden Age of Television is behind us.
Given its status as a viral ad hitmaker, it’s not surprising that eyeball-obsessed media executives are eyeing the Lincoln Project as a partner. “As a media business, we’re putting a pretty big bet on the idea that they know how to get audiences,” United Talent Agency’s Ra Kumar told Axios. Studios, networks, and publishers need big audiences like never before, and since it was founded last December, the Lincoln Project has shown it can deliver them in the millions.
In less than a week, however, it may lose its muse. Some of the groups that have sprung up in the last four years—Run for Something, Indivisible, the Sunrise Movement, Swing Left—should have little trouble adjusting to a post-Trump future: Left-leaning politicians will still be running for office, swing districts will need targeting, climate change will remain an existential threat. But the same may not be true of the Lincoln Project. There are still giant questions about what, exactly, this group of former Republican operatives believes. What’s the point of an anti-Trump group when Donald Trump is gone?
Earlier this month, 60 Minutes’ Lesley Stahl asked the founders of the Lincoln Project to respond to criticisms that, for all the online attention their attack ads had received, they weren’t accomplishing much of anything. “I think we have hurt him, we have cut him, we have defined him, we have provoked him,” Steve Schmidt, who managed John McCain’s unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign, responded. “There was not a glove proverbially laid on him for a really long time. I think we’re amongst the first groups to effectively do that.”
The one thing you can say for certain is that the Lincoln Project is good at provoking Donald Trump and many of those close to him. He has tweeted about the group several times and ranted about it at rallies, calling its founders “real garbage” and “not smart people.” His daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner have threatened to sue them over a Times Square billboard blaming them for the Trump administration’s disastrous Covid-19 response.
As for hurting, cutting, defining—that is much less clear. “Every time Donald Trump loses his mind and throws things at the wall because a Lincoln Project ad is up, that takes the whole campaign off track,” said Rick Wilson, who once made an ad tying disabled veteran (and Democrat) Max Cleland to Osama bin Laden. “There’s one thing you never get back in a campaign. That’s a lost day.” But the idea that the Lincoln Project is throwing sand in the gears of a well-oiled machine simply doesn’t track. The Lincoln Project clearly makes Trump very mad, but so does everything else. It’s not evident that the group is moving voters, and particularly Republican voters—“independent-leaning men, those college-educated Republicans, the suburban Republican women,” as Wilson put it on 60 Minutes—into the anti-Trump camp, which has been the group’s stated purpose.
Making Trump mad has become a financial juggernaut. The Lincoln Project makes a simple promise to donors: Give us your money, and we will use it to make the president angry. Much of its spending—advertising on Fox News in Washington, D.C., (so the president can see it while he binge-watches), buying Times Square billboards in the famous battleground state of New York—is advertising for itself. These displays only bring in more money. (Representatives from the Lincoln Project did not respond to a request for comment.)
The Lincoln Project fills a void for liberals who are concerned that the Biden campaign too often goes high when Trump goes low and believe that it should more closely mimic Trump’s own tactics. The Lincoln Project’s founders argue that they get in the mud so Biden doesn’t have to, allowing him to run a positive campaign. It now sells merch and builds its audience by stealing memes from Twitter and Instagram users—an unethical practice made famous by the Instagram account FuckJerry of Fyre Festival fame.
There are few clues about what a post-Trump Lincoln Project would look like. The group excels at depicting the president as a deranged loser, but anti-Trumpism is not an ideology. The policies that the founders of the Lincoln Project have spent decades fighting for—traditional Republican stuff about small government and low taxes—are not particularly popular anywhere, but that’s especially the case among the group’s new base in the hashtag-resistance.
The comparison to Crooked Media is being made a lot, but it doesn’t make sense. That organization was also formed by former political flaks in opposition to Trump, sure. But Crooked Media positioned itself as a voice for those pining for the Obama years, and its founders were aligned with a large faction of Democrats. Crooked’s podcasts and articles and books and television show could tackle a wide range of topics: the president’s awfulness, yes, but also issues that liberal voters care about. The Lincoln Project has none of that built-in advantage. Its founders not only lack connections with the Democratic base, they have a wildly different set of beliefs from the vast majority of Democratic voters. If they did follow Crooked Media down the path of nostalgia, it would be for the presidency of George W. Bush.
The best-case scenario is that the Lincoln Project doesn’t try to square the circle. It has targeted a number of Republicans for their fealty to the president. It has decried the racist and authoritarian bent of the current GOP, while downplaying the role its founders played in the party’s transformation. It’s possible to imagine a Lincoln Project that keeps its place in liberals’ hearts by focusing on the rot at the core of the Republican Party.
It’s more likely, however, that the Lincoln Project will stake out a position as a fighting institution for the status quo, beating back the liberal left with one fist and right-wingers with the other. If the Biden administration drifts too far left—with a Green New Deal, say, or just loads of spending—we might see the Lincoln Project fighting it the way it fought Trump.
All of this is predicated on Trump losing, of course. The actual best-case scenario for the Lincoln Project, despite its own mission of defeating Trump, is for him to win.