For all the chaos of the past four years, the Trump era has been one of enormous lucidity. Our technocratic elite have all but lost their previously well-manicured sheen of respectability: Corporate executives, star athletes, principal figures in major cultural institutions, and members of both political parties have, as of late, become remarkably forthright in expressing an open disdain for the American way of life. In this way, the ugliness of our contemporary politics is not new, per se; it’s just more honest.
The Lincoln Project is perhaps the most poetically absurd of these revelations. Fueled by a toxic cocktail of smug satisfaction and oblivious incognizance, fed by approving accolades in the legacy media and an influx of Strange New Respect from MSNBC pundits, the sneeringly self-congratulatory brainchild of jaded Bush-era Republican consultants has fashioned itself as the Principled Conservative antidote to Trump and Trumpism. In doing so, its founders—former GOP functionaries George Conway, Steve Schmidt, John Weaver and Rick Wilson—have revealed a more authentic public persona, one that is more accurately reflective of their own sniffingly paternalistic egomania.
What is the point, exactly, of such an endeavor? In their introductory New York Times silo in late 2019—a 1000-word screed comparing themselves to heroic Union soldiers at the frontlines of the Civil War and invoking Abraham Lincoln, the group’s namesake, as their “guide and inspiration”—Conway et al. promised to pursue a political agenda “aimed at persuading enough disaffected conservatives, Republicans and Republican-leaning independents in swing states and districts to help ensure a victory in the Electoral College” for the Democratic presidential candidate, paired with “congressional majorities that don’t enable or abet Mr. Trump’s violations of the Constitution, even if that means Democratic control of the Senate and an expanded Democratic majority in the House.”
But it’s difficult to take them at their word. In the nine months since its official launch, the Lincoln Project has instead become notorious for its consistently cheap, vapid and substanceless lines of attack against the president and the conservative movement writ large, delighting its progressive base and mystifying anyone so naïve as to actually believe that the group’s sanctimonious appeals to decency, civility and moderation—purportedly aimed at “persuasion,” and “transcend[ing] partisanship,” according to their Times Op-Ed—were anything other than a self-serving grift.
If the organization were as seriously committed to swaying Republican-leaning Trump skeptics away from supporting the president’s reelection bid as they ostensibly claim to be, one would expect them to couch their political vision in terms that these voters could understand. Such an approach might involve appealing to conservative principles—pointing out Trump’s heterodoxy on trade and foreign policy, perhaps, or attacking the president’s overzealous use of executive orders from a constitutionalist perspective. Instead, however, viewers have been subjected to an unending stream of videos accusing Trump of being a crypto-Klu Klux Klanner, mocking his mannerisms and his word pronunciation, and coyly suggesting the inadequate size of his genitalia, all in a manner demonstrative of the rankly ad hominem partisan vulgarities that the Lincoln Project supposedly defines itself in opposition to.
This tired, formulaic bile is profoundly unlikely to successfully convince on the fence voters in the middle of the country to swing away from Trump, but it is enormously impressive to a certain genre of overeducated progressive suburbanite, who has flocked to the group en masse. Despite nominal claims to the contrary, it’s increasingly clear that this elite demographic—which has been repelled by the president since he came down the escalator to announce his candidacy in 2015, and would never have even dreamed of voting for him in the first place—is the true audience for the Project’s schtick.
To a certain extent, this is just good business: Spoon-feeding cheap anti-Trumpisms into the eager mouths of #TheResistance is a lucrative endeavor, soliciting contributions to the tune of $54 million as of October 14. It’s no wonder, then, that the organization’s mission has progressively expanded from ousting Trump from office to planning to stay active throughout a Joe Biden presidency—“to do all that we can,” explains co-founder John Weaver, to “make sure” that Biden “is able to clean up the mess that Trump has created with the help of his enablers.” (Read: Every elected Republican save for Mitt Romney—just look at their recent efforts to oust David Perdue, the most milquetoast and mainstream of Republicans, from his Senate seat in Georgia).
And why even stop there? The high-profile progressive donors who fund the group are hardly going to accept its dissolution in the face of the looming Joe Biden presidency. Now that the Rick Wilsons, George Conways, and Steve Schmidts of the world have sufficiently demonstrated their willingness to act as neutered house pets, trotted out occasionally to make all the right noises about principal and character as the domesticated “good conservatives” (i.e., the ones that are inoffensive to the sensibilities of New York Times readers), they have earned a lifetime tenure among the Left’s useful idiots. There will always be more attack ads to run, more phallic dimensions to impugn. It will never end.
Never mind the fact that Biden ran on the most left-wing agenda in contemporary American history, and openly talks about “transforming” the country. Supporting him unquestioningly, the neo-Lincolnians sniff—whilst pocketing some 90% of their received donations—is the morally virtuous position for every right-thinking patriotic American. It’s the principled move, we are informed: Taxpayer-funded abortion on demand, higher taxes, and an expansion of the regulatory state, left-wing Supreme Court justices, unconstitutional gun laws, open antipathy towards religious liberty—you know, all the things that principled conservatives are supposed to favor.
Were they simply running an old-school grift aimed at hauling in pallets of Democratic cash, the Lincoln Project’s founders could be forgiven as the sort of conventionally cynical political operatives that one encounters in perpetuity in Washington, D.C.
But the Project’s motivations transcend economic self-interest. The unhinged fury that initially drove this most doctrinaire iteration of Never-Trump to repudiate everything its adherents ever claimed to believe in is the result of something more fundamental: A profound hatred for what Donald Trump symbolizes, which is most obviously a clear rebuke of decades of stagnantly ineffectual leadership from the self-appointed gatekeepers of the American conservative movement.
For the Lincoln Project’s proponents, many of whom were influential heavyweights of one kind or another in the pre-2016 Republican Party, the possibility of having been wrong about the bitter cocktail of issues that led to Trump’s ascendance is unconscionable. It can’t be true; it mustn’t be true.
So, they reason, it isn’t; the Trump phenomenon is not the result of their shortcomings—it’s the result of the electorate’s. The true cause of Trumpism is not any defect in their outmoded socio-political consensus; it’s the latent bigotries and know-nothing parochialisms of the voters who deposed them in favor of a 70-something reality television personality with no political experience to speak of. Take a passage from It Was All A Lie, the new book from top-GOP-strategist-turned-Lincoln-Project-denizen Stuart Stevens:
There is nothing strange or unexpected about Donald Trump. He is the logical conclusion of what the Republican Party became over the last fifty or so years, a natural product of the seeds of race, self-deception, and anger that became the essence of the Republican Party. Trump isn’t an aberration of the Republican Party; he is the Republican Party in a purified form.
Stevens, in particular, is a uniquely bitter man—I once had a phone conversation with him that, while intended to be a brief networking call, gave way to an unbroken 90-minute rant about the state of the contemporary GOP in which I uttered less than one full sentence—but his anger is, in one way or another, shared by all of his co-conspirators. There is a universal fury, directed towards everyone but themselves—Stevens’s only flaw, he writes, is not recognizing how horrible his fellow conservatives were earlier—at the fact that their stranglehold over the Republican Party and movement conservatism more broadly has been broken.
The idea that voters, having been underserved by their political leadership for nearly a generation, would have justifiable reason to support an anti-establishment candidate is unthinkable to the founders of the Lincoln Project. They, by their own estimation, know what’s best; and an electoral rejection of their ever-prudent judgment must therefore necessarily reflect poorly on the electorate.
In keeping with the candidly honest nature of our contemporary moment, members of the group no longer even attempt to hide their own profound distaste for the voters they had previously claimed to speak for; one need only look to examples like that of Rick Wilson’s now-infamous CNN appearance wherein he put on a faux-Southern drawl to mock the “credulous boomer rube” demographic that supposedly forms the heart of the Trump base. (A particularly ironic line of attack, given Wilson’s own history).
This collective anger, directed primarily at the fact that the voters they had always thumbed their nose at were capable of reducing their power, has led to a comical inverse of the cult of personality that the Lincoln Project always accuses Trump supporters of engaging in. So unhinged are the group’s architects that they have renounced nearly every position they ever purported to hold. One could even be forgiven for doubting their commitment to such positions in the first place.
And they wonder how we got Trump.
Nate Hochman (@njhochman) is a senior at Colorado College and a Young Voices associate contributor. His work has appeared in National Review, City Journal, Spectator USA, The American Conservative, and a variety of other outlets.