The Republicans of the Lincoln Project might have an advantage over Trump’s left-leaning opponents.
“100,000 Dead,” an ad from the anti-Trump super PAC known as The Lincoln Project, comes at you like a miniature horror film. It starts with a shot of seven white body bags, detailed enough that you can see the outline of limbs underneath, and the voice of President Donald Trump at a press briefing in February. The nation’s Covid-19 caseload will soon be “close to zero,” Trump says; his words repeat in an increasingly distorted voice, as the camera pulls back to reveal row upon row of body bags in the shape of an American flag. New words land on the screen with audible thumps: “100,000 dead Americans. One wrong president.” It ends with the faint sound of wind whistling, as if through a graveyard.
Down to the smallest detail, it’s a masterful nugget of compact filmmaking. And it helped draw attention to a renegade corps of Republican strategists, veterans of campaigns for George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney, who are applying their attack-ad skills to their own party’s president—and going for the kill shot, every time. “Mourning in America,” their ad released in May, starts with a pointed reference to the Ronald Reagan slogan, then blames Trump for the full range of post-Covid despair, using images of hospital hallways, decrepit buildings and an upside-down flag. (Facebook slapped the ad with a “partly false” warning label, since it assigns Trump all of the blame for relief bills that were passed by the vast majority of Democrats in Congress.) “Debt,” released in late June, starts off like a History Channel documentary about the sacrifices made during World War II, and ends with an image of a Greatest Generation member, hooked up to a ventilator.
Some of the ads are running on TV, on Fox News or in battleground states. Some are simply released online, at a rapid pace. Many are based on assumptions that may or may not turn out to be true: that swing voters will be as unforgiving as Democrats about Trump’s Covid response, for instance, or that they’ll be bothered any more by Trump’s coarse rhetoric than they were, or weren’t, four years ago. Still, the Lincoln Project is clearly getting under the skin of the president and his supporters. And the evidence is not just raging tweets; in one of those Washington funhouse mirror moments, the Trump-friendly super PAC Club for Growth just released an ad attacking the Lincoln Project founders as if they were candidates themselves.
How has one renegade super PAC managed to trigger Trump and his allies so thoroughly? Part of it is surely frustration that a group of Republicans would issue a full-throated endorsement of Joe Biden. Part of it is skill: the Lincoln Project ads are slick, quick and filled with damning quotes and unflattering photos. But part of it might just be that Republicans are better at this than Democrats. Trump may sense that these ads are especially dangerous because they pack an emotional punch, using imagery designed to provoke anxiety, anger and fear—aimed at the very voters who were driven to him by those same feelings in 2016. And history, even science, suggests that might in fact be the case—that Republicans have a knack for scaring the hell out of people, and that makes for some potent ads.
Not every Lincoln Project video peddles in fear. Some are traditional political ads, overenthusiastically produced and applied to issues that might irk the president: supporting Democrat Steve Bullock for U.S. Senate in Montana, attacking Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. Some are 30-to-60-second versions of the kind of schoolyard taunting you might expect from Trump himself. In “Shrinking,” released after the president’s disappointing rally in Tulsa, a female voice mocks the size of the crowd: “You’ve probably heard this before, but it was smaller than we expected.”
The group’s most memorable ads, though, are the ones that are self-serious and brutal. Within days of news that Vladimir Putin paid the Taliban to target American soldiers, the Lincoln Project released two ads that hammer Trump as a lackey of foreign enemies, using language that, in another year, Republicans might have used to make Democrats look weak. “Betrayal” features Dan Barkhuff, a former Navy SEAL who declares that “any commander-in-chief with a spine would be stomping the living shit out of some Russians right now—diplomatically, economically, or, if necessary, with the sort of asymmetric warfare they’re using to send our kids home in body bags.” “Bounty” starts with images of flag-draped coffins and the sound of tapping drums, then pivots to a standard attack-ad trick: carefully-spliced clips of Trump and Putin at joint press conferences, the action drawn out so that every smile and handshake looks doubly sinister.
Stoking fear is a tried-and-true tactic of political advertising, stemming back to the Lyndon Johnson campaign’s 1964 anti-Barry Goldwater ad “Daisy.” But many of the most indelible ones have stemmed from the Republican camp, and over time, they’ve grown increasingly blunt. Ronald Reagan’s 1984 “Bear” ad used a grizzly as metaphor for the Soviet nuclear threat: “Isn’t it smart to be as strong as the bear—if there is a bear?” the voice over intoned. That ad inspired George W. Bush’s “Wolves” from 2004, which accused John Kerry of being soft on terrorism. George H.W. Bush’s infamous 1988 Willie Horton ad linked Michael Dukakis to a prisoner who committed brutal crimes on a weekend pass, flashing the words “Kidnapping,” “Stabbing,” and “Raping” on the screen. (The ad has since been scorned, not just for exploiting racial stereotypes, but also for paving the way for tough-on-crime bills that had lasting social repercussions.)
The secret of fearmongering is a willingness to go there, and that’s where the Republicans of the Lincoln Project might have an advantage over Trump’s left-leaning opponents. The group’s founders aren’t calibrating their ads around a Democratic base that mistrusts the military, delves into nuance, or shies away from causing offense. That leaves ample room for dog-whistle symbols that range from clichés to horror-movie tropes: One ad accuses Trump of being played by China, and ends with the image of the White House, the entire screen tinted red.
Research shows there’s a reason these ads could be effective with Republicans voters: Conservatives are an especially fear-prone group. In a 2008 paper in the journal Science, researchers subjected a group of adults with strong political beliefs to a set of startling noises and graphic images. Those with the strongest physical reactions were more likely to support capital punishment, defense spending and the war in Iraq. A 2011 paper in the journal Cell found a correlation between conservative leanings and the size of the right amygdala, the portion of the brain that processes emotions in response to fearful stimuli. In her book Irony and Outrage, University of Delaware professor Dannagal Young points out that liberals and conservatives respond differently to entertainment rhetoric: Liberals have a higher tolerance for open-ended ambiguity, while conservatives look for closure and want problems to be solved.
That research helps explain why some attack ads move the needle with the right populations—and why some, in retrospect, don’t. Take the Hillary Clinton campaign ad, “Mirrors,” which aired about a month before the 2016 election. Hailed, in certain circles, as an instant classic, it showed a series of young girls looking at their own reflections as Trump’s voice played in the background, saying things like, “I’d look her right in that fat ugly face of hers.” Mother Jones deemed the ad “powerful”; Bustle called it “brilliant.” But it didn’t convert the white suburban women Clinton’s advisers surely hoped to reach, because it not only preached to the choir, but spoke in the language of the choir. It was too subtle, Young might say, asking viewers to connect the dots, rather than hammering in a dramatic point. And it played to voters’ conscience and values—the kinds of things voters have to think about—rather than their raw emotions.
Trump’s ads, by comparison, have required little thought; the dots are pre-connected in thick Sharpie ink. His first 2016 ad, “Great Again,” touted his willingness to utter the words “RADICAL ISLAMIC TERRORISM,” which the ad displayed in all caps over images of masked fighters and photos of the San Bernardino shooters. (The same ad pledged that Trump would “cut the head off ISIS.”) His campaign’s fear-stoking 2018 anti-immigration ad, featuring an illegal immigrant convicted of murder and caravan footage that evoked an invasion, was so incendiary that many networks, including Fox News, refused to run it.
The Lincoln Project, too, knows how to deliver an unsubtle message, and Trump has given them some useful raw material. Recent news footage makes him look weak and despondent—as when he descended from a helicopter after his Tulsa rally, a MAGA hat drooping from his hand like a dead trout. (The Lincoln Project’s ad sets the scene to “Jurassic Park” theme music, played badly on melodica.) The image of Trump holding up a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, intended as a metaphor of strength, now plays as shorthand for tone-deaf insincerity. Another ad, “#Trumpisnotwell,” mashes recent video of Trump gingerly walking down a West Point ramp with 2018 footage of him climbing onto Air Force One, with toilet paper apparently stuck to his shoe. In a line straight out of the Trump playbook, the ad suggests that the media is hiding information about his health. “The most powerful office in the world needs more than a weak, unfit, shaky president,” the narrator says, over echo-y tones of slasher-movie music.
It’s enough to inspire a presidential tweetstorm, or six. Lately, Trump and his surrogates have tried to fight back, calling the Lincoln Project founders “RINOS,” painting the group as elitists who think of Trump fans as deplorables. Trump has offered counter-images: This week, he retweeted a meme of himself in an Uncle Sam pose, pointing menacingly at the camera, between the words “In reality, they’re not after me, they’re after you. I’m just in the way.”
But the genius of the Lincoln Project ads is that they’re quite specifically after Trump, using his own favored tools of shamelessness and fearmongering, and turning them back on their source. Who knows? It could actually work.
Things are looking down for the Donald.
For a long time, Republicans have brandished the same old narrative to try to scare their way into the White House.
Their candidates were presented as the patriarchs, protecting the house from invaders with dark skin.
With Nixon, it was the Southern Strategy, raising alarms about the dismantling of Jim Crow laws.
With Reagan, it was launching his 1980 campaign on fairgrounds near where the Klan murdered three civil rights activists.
With Bush senior, it was Willie Horton coming to stab you and rape your girlfriend.
With W. and Cheney, it was Qaeda terrorists coming back to kill us.
With Donald Trump, it was Mexican rapists and the Obama birther lie.
For re-election, Trump is sifting through the embers of the Civil War, promising to protect America from “troublemakers” and “agitators” and “anarchists” rioting, looting and pulling down statues that they find racially offensive. “They said, ‘We want to get Jesus,’” Trump ominously told Sean Hannity Thursday night.
But Trump is badly out of step with the national psyche. The actual narrative gripping America is, at long last, about white men in uniforms targeting black and brown people.
In the last election, Trump milked white aggrievement to catapult himself into the White House. But even Republicans today recognize that we have to grapple with systemic racism and force some changes in police conduct — except for our president, who hailed stop-and-frisk in the Hannity interview.
The other scary narrative is about our “protean” enemy, as Tony Fauci calls Covid-19, which Trump pretends has disappeared, with lethal consequences. With no plan, he is reduced to more race-baiting, calling the virus “the China plague” and the “Kung Flu.” Nasty nicknames don’t work on diseases.
The pathogen is roaring back in the South and the West in places that buoyed Trump in 2016. Texas, Florida and Arizona are turning into Covid Calamity Land after many residents emulated their president and scorned masks and social distancing as a Commie hoax.
Is Trump’s perverse Southern Strategy to send the older men and women who are a large part of his base to the I.C.U.?
The president showed off his sociopathic flair by demanding the repeal of Obamacare — just because he can’t stand that it was done by Barack Obama. Millions losing their jobs and insurance during a plague and he wants to eliminate their alternative? Willful maliciousness.
And this at the same time he has been ensuring more infections by lowballing the virus, resisting more testing because the numbers would not be flattering to him, sidelining Dr. Fauci and setting a terrible example.
The Dow fell 700 points on the news that Texas and Florida are ordering a Covid-driven last call, closing their bars again, and the virus is revivifying in 30 states.
In 2016, the mood was against the status quo, represented by Hillary Clinton. But now the mood is against chaos, cruelty, deception and incompetence, represented by Trump. In light of our tempestuous, vertiginous times, Joe Biden’s status quo seems comforting.
It is a stunning twist in history that the former vice president was pushed aside in 2016 by the first black president and put back in the game this year by pragmatic black voters.
Bill Clinton was needy; he played a game with voters called “How much do you love me?” Do you love me enough to forgive me for this embarrassing personal transgression, or that one?
But Trump has taken that solipsism to the stratosphere, asking rallygoers in Tulsa to choose him over their health, possibly their lives, recklessly turning a medical necessity into a tribal signifier. I wasn’t surprised that so many seats there were empty, but that so many were filled.
In a rare moment of self-awareness, Trump whinged to Hannity about Biden: “The man can’t speak and he’s going to be your president ’cause some people don’t love me, maybe.”
It’s not only the virus that Trump is willfully blind about. A Times story that broke Friday evening was extremely disturbing about Trump’s love of Vladimir Putin. American intelligence briefed the president about a Russian military intelligence unit secretly offering bounties to Taliban-linked insurgents for killing coalition troops in Afghanistan, including Americans. Yet Trump has still been lobbying for Putin to rejoin the G7.
Trump had a chance, with twin existential crises, to be better after his abominable performance in his first three years. But then, we’ve known all along that he is not interested in science, racial harmony or leading the basest elements of his base out of Dixie and into the 21st century. Yes, the kid from Queens enjoys his newfound status as a son of the Confederacy.
A Wall Street Journal editorial Thursday warned that he could be defeated because he has no message beyond personal grievances and “four more years of himself.”
But Trump has always been about Trump. And the presidency was always going to distill him to his Trumpiest essence.
I asked Tim O’Brien, the Trump biographer, what to expect as the man obsessed with winning faces humiliating rejection.
“He will descend further into abuse, alienation and authoritarianism,” O’Brien said. “That’s what he’s stewing on most of the time, the triple A’s.”