Many Republicans have joined the Never Trump camp, but few have previously been more important to the Party than Stuart Stevens. After working on George W. Bush’s two Presidential campaigns and serving as a consultant for several major congressional candidates, Stevens was Mitt Romney’s top strategist in 2012. He began speaking out against Donald Trump in 2016 and today is an adviser to the Lincoln Project, a political-action committee formed by current and former Republicans to prevent Trump’s reëlection. In Stevens’s new book, “It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump,” he tells the story of his long career in politics and how the party he once worked for has been subsumed by nativism, bigotry, and cruelty. But Stevens doesn’t believe that the G.O.P. was taken over by someone entirely alien to its ideology or behavior. As he writes, “How do you abandon deeply held beliefs about character, personal responsibility, foreign policy, and the national debt in a matter of months? You don’t. The obvious answer is those beliefs weren’t deeply held.”
I recently spoke by phone with Stevens, who was in Vermont. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed what a Romney Presidency might have looked like, the ethics of campaign consultants, and how we should evaluate the George W. Bush years.
Your book differs from others in arguing not that the Republican Party has gone wrong with Donald Trump, but that the Republican Party has been going wrong for a very long time. What is the difference in your mind between those two critiques, and why did you think it was important to make the latter one?
I think I wanted to believe for a long time that when Donald Trump came along he was hijacking the Party. A lot of people were wrong about Trump in 2016, but it’s hard to find somebody more wrong than I was. I predicted he wouldn’t win the primary, and I predicted he wouldn’t win the general election. In retrospect, a lot of that was that I didn’t want to believe it. He says he has ninety-five per cent Republican approval, and that’s probably an exaggeration, but let’s say it is eighty-nine per cent or so. You look at what Trump is saying, and the degree to which the Party is comfortable with it, and I don’t know what conclusion to come to other than that Trump very well suits the Republican Party. In the book, I trace the history of the Party from the post-World War Two era, and Trump is one direction the Party could have gone in. I don’t know how else to say it, but it did go in that direction.
Without getting into a question about cause and effect, and how the universe functions, and whether a different future was possible, what do you think held the Republican Party together pre-Trump, and what was attractive to you about it?
What appealed to me was a party that believed in personal responsibility, that character counts, and that was strong on Russia and free trade, and strongly pro legal immigration. It’s not just that the Party has drifted away from those principles, like parties do. As far as I can tell, the Party is actively against every one of them. We’re the “character doesn’t count” party. We’re the anti-personal-responsibility party. We’re the pro-Putin party. I think the only conclusion is that a party that said it believed in these things didn’t really believe in them. If a George Wallace type had run in the Democratic primary in 2016, would that person have won? No. Had that person by some freak accident won, would the Party establishment have coalesced around him? No. They would have said, “This isn’t what the Democratic Party stands for.”
Your book has a huge chapter about racism and the degree to which it’s always been a part of the modern Republican Party. How do you see the effect it had before Trump?
There are always these tensions. There was Eisenhower; there was McCarthy. We look at William F. Buckley now and mourn him for the loss of this erudite voice. Instead we have Sean Hannity. But we forget Buckley started out as a stone-cold racist arguing for segregation. If you go to the Bush campaign that I worked on in 1999 and 2000, when Bush called himself a compassionate conservative and was criticized on the right, he tried to articulate a different vision. Had Bush not become a wartime President, I think it’s fascinating to think what would have happened.
But the Party has existed predominantly as a white party. I think if you’re a business, and you spend sixty years appealing to one segment of the market, you get good at that and not very good at the other. What I think is really striking is that we used to admit this was a failure and talk about it. We used to talk a lot about a big tent. I go back to 2005, when Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the Party, went before the N.A.A.C.P. and apologized for the Southern strategy.
This was the same Ken Mehlman who helped run the Bush reëlection campaign, which used anti-gay-marriage initiatives to turn out Republicans in key states.
What I say about this is that we were far from perfect in Bush world. We played too much to the dark side. But we had an aspiration to be better than we were. I think that’s important. With Trump, he takes your worst self and validates that as your best self. That part of you, we all have it, that feels aggrieved, that feels cheated—the side of you that, when someone cuts you off in traffic, you have that little spirit of road rage. Trump said, That’s your best self. You should empower that. I think that that’s an important distinction.
Bush clearly is a nice guy in certain ways that Trump is not a nice guy. But when you look back at the Bush Administration, and you look at what’s going on now—when you talk about contempt for science and you look at the way the Bush Administration dealt with global warming, when you look at spurning expertise and making decisions and how Iraq ended up playing out and Katrina played out, do you think that even if we see that the intentions were different and that cruelty was not the point of the Bush Administration, to take a phrase from another writer, that there were more commonalities there? And that it’s not a coincidence that the last two Republican Presidencies are ending in failure, assuming that Trump’s Presidency is ending soon?
I think the answer is, yes, those elements were there. Definitely. Look, Bush gets elected. If you look at that picture of him signing [No Child Left Behind] with Ted Kennedy behind him, I mean, today that would be submitted in a war-crimes trial in the Republican Party. It’s unimaginable that that would happen with Trump. There was that side of Bush. What happened after 9/11? Did he demonize Muslims? No, he didn’t. He defended Muslims. There’s that side of him. Obviously, Iraq was a debacle, and we can argue about how that happened, why it happened, what they believed when they went in—but it was a disaster, undoubtedly, one of the great disasters in American history.
I think we played too much on the social-conservative side, particularly, with the same-sex-marriage referendum. I think that’s regrettable. So I don’t think it’s one or the other. I think both. What I’m describing is the tension within that party, that both elements existed. Now that’s not uncommon for a party. You can look at Joe Biden and you can look at Bernie Sanders, and they exist in the same party. There’s an argument to be made that diversity is a strength, though I think the sort of know-nothingness of anti-science is not a strength. I don’t think that’s diversity. I think it’s ignorance.
I think that Bush being there as a leader made a huge difference in an ability to at least assert values of commonality that were not our worst selves. I think with Trump that has been abandoned. Then the question becomes, Do you accept that? In 2015, when I went out against Trump, I can’t tell you how many people in the Republican Party, high levels, were e-mailing me and saying, Thank you for doing this. I can’t do it because of X, Y, and Z, right up to about ten o’clock on Election Night. Then I started getting e-mails saying, Could you maybe erase that e-mail I sent? I think in many ways everything that a lot of us said about Trump in 2015 turned out to be overly optimistic.
If I had said in 2016 that it’s going to be July, 2020, and we’re going to have the worst economy ever in the history of America, the greatest decline in G.D.P. in American history, over a hundred and fifty thousand Americans dead in a pandemic in the last four months, and Donald Trump is talking about suspending elections, people would have said I’m crazy.
It’s not ideal. Let me ask you, though, about your mental state. You write about the deficit and “out of control” federal spending being a phrase Republicans use. And then you say, “But no one really believes in it any more than communicants believe they are actually eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ.” Putting the latter aside for a minute, when you say no one really believes it, are you implying that no Republicans really believe it, or that you didn’t believe it when you were working in Republican politics?
I’ve said before that I probably represented the worst of the American political system. I was a guy who was drawn to politics because of campaigns and not government. You know, I didn’t think I’d be very good at government. I briefly worked on the Hill and I was probably the world’s worst staffer, which, there’s a lot of competition for that. The process of government, which at its base level is usually pretty boring and tedious, just didn’t appeal to me. I really didn’t think about this stuff a lot. I should have thought about it more. You’re not powerless. You can have an impact on this.
The deficit line is just something people say, in the way you say when you see someone you don’t like, “It’s nice to see you.” It’s sort of like a social nicety. If you said to them, “Are you for major deficits?” They would say, “No,” and they would have passed that lie-detector test. But if you had said, “Are you willing to do what it takes to end the deficit?” The answer would have been what happened, “No.” It’s really even worse than that. If you go and you look at the last time that the deficit got wrestled under control, it was under Clinton. In part, that was because Clinton passed a tax increase. If you go back and you look at what we all predicted, and I made a million spots, we predicted economic Armageddon after the Clinton days. Instead, we had the beginning of the greatest period of growth in American history. We were wrong. I think we have to admit that and look at what happened.
Would Mitt Romney have made a good President if he had been elected in 2012?
I think Mitt Romney would have been a great President, and every day I wish that he were President.
Maybe this gets to the fundamental issue we’ve been going back and forth on. I think a lot of people acknowledge that Romney is in many ways a pretty decent, honorable man. Certainly, I think a lot of liberals think this now, and a lot of centrists think this now. At the same time, you’ve just finished talking about how Iraq was a disaster and how Republican economic policies don’t really make much sense. Romney was, essentially, running on “doubling Guantánamo,” and an aggressive foreign policy, and the Paul Ryan budget. If Romney had been elected, would his have been another Republican Presidency that ended the way the Bush Presidency did? Is that sort of more important than the fact that Romney is an honorable guy?
I don’t think that all Republican Presidencies end badly. I don’t think that the Bush Forty-one Presidency ended badly. I think that the W. Bush Presidency is the tragedy of Iraq. I think Mitt Romney is someone who has a proven record of being able to bring people together and being able to solve problems in a practical way not driven by an extreme ideology. I believe that we would have had more control on deficit spending, because you would have had someone who actually could have done something about it, who would have actually believed in it. Unlike Donald Trump who says, “I’m the king of debt,” and can’t pass anything because he can’t bring people together.
It’s interesting why Mitt Romney picked Paul Ryan, and it’s a very personal choice and I don’t want to speak for the senator, but I think he picked him as a governing choice. I mean, he said as much. I think it’s correct. He had no experience on Capitol Hill. He thought that having that experience would be important. Paul Ryan was someone who was well liked across the aisle. I think, together, they could have brought a lot of economic sanity to the country. I think they would have tried. Is it possible in America today to bring the budget down? I think so. I don’t know anyone on the conservative side that can do the same with any credibility.
But Paul Ryan helped pass the Trump tax cuts, which, as you say, were deficit-exploding. He was the one who shepherded it through the House.
Yes, yes. I think when not combined with cuts in the budget, it creates huge deficits that we have. If cutting taxes was a unified theory for Republicans, which it is in a certain class of Republicans, I think it’s proved to be a very false religion. I don’t think that what we invested in cutting taxes has proved to be accurate.
I’m less convinced that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan and a Republican Congress would have gotten responsible about the federal budget in this alternate universe we’re talking about. Bush also had a budget-busting tax cut. It just seems very integral to what the Republican Party is, completely independent of Donald Trump.
Well, you can’t argue with that, O.K.? Whether or not Romney could have taken the Party in a more productive, rational fiscal policy, we’ll never know. I say this in the book, and I think it’s pretty much inarguable, the idea of so-called trickle-down economics has proved to be nonsense.
Do you think Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney and George W. Bush think it’s nonsense?
I can’t speak for them.
How do you understand his 2012 campaign—that Romney met with Trump—and things like this?
Listen, both those candidates had fifty per cent favorables. Romney got a lot of criticism for not going far enough on stuff. If you go back to the foreign-policy debate, he was criticized for not trying to make Benghazi the center of all evil. In the Republican primary, I remember this well, there was one of those awful raise-your-hand questions: Who believes Barack Obama is a socialist? Mitt Romney was the only person who didn’t raise his hand.
He did write a book called “No Apology,” presenting Obama as some sort of foreign-policy radical.
I think there were huge failures with Barack Obama’s foreign policy. I really don’t know how anybody would argue with that. You could argue that those failures were inevitable, but you can’t look at Syria, the greatest human-rights tragedy in the post-World War Two world, and not think that it was a tremendous, horrible failure. You can sustain two beliefs. I can. One, that Barack Obama is a decent human being, and if Barack Obama were President today the country would be better off. I say that without hesitation, while admitting that there were failures. I think that there was a failure on Obamacare not to be able to come to some greater ability to have both parties support part of it. And probably what we should have done on Obamacare is divide it into pieces. I think it’s governmentally problematic when you have one party pass it.
He did pass a version of Mitt Romney’s health-care plan, but let me ask you, Are you in touch with Romney?
I talk to Senator Romney some. Mainly about books we’re reading and just stuff going on in mutual friends’ lives. You know, the impeachment, for example, I had no idea how he would vote. The stuff that I talk to him about is more like personal stuff.
Do you think that Romney or Bush will endorse Joe Biden? Do you think that they should?
I would be very surprised if they do. I think, particularly, for an ex-President the roles that they play—I mean, there’s a lot of talk about why didn’t President Obama weigh in more in the primary. I think it is a unique role that has serious gravity.
I would be very surprised if Senator Romney endorsed him. My experience with Romney is pretty much that on the record and off the record is the same these days. What he said is that he intends to do what he did last time. I think that’s what he’ll do.
Does that disappoint you in any way?
No. I think Mitt Romney has been heroic. I think the eternal shame of most of these Republicans is going to be, why didn’t we follow Mitt Romney? I mean, Mitt Romney went out [against Trump] in March of 2016, and, had the Republican Party rallied around him, we could have saved ourselves from this incredible debacle and disgrace and humiliation.
Did you ever figure out what his whole Secretary of State flirtation thing was? Do you think that was just trying to be an adult in the room?
I pretty much know what it was about, because I talked to him then. I think it’s pretty much what you would think—that there’s a greater duty to the country, and I think he thought that, out of respect for the office and the process, he should talk to Donald Trump. I think he’s very glad that he was never asked to be Secretary of State, because I think it would have been the shortest Secretary of State tenure in history. I don’t think he would have lasted two months.
Why are Southerners attracted to Donald Trump?
It’s a question I’ve asked myself a lot, because in many ways Donald Trump is the caricature of the rich Yankee that we’re always warned about, who has no manners, no respect for anyone, including women, who is crass, and values money over everything. That’s Donald Trump, and he’s pretty much wildly popular with a lot of polite Southerners. I think that there is a perception of Donald Trump as a fighter that appeals to a Southern Scotch-Irish tradition that loves to fight. I think there was a sense that he was politically incorrect and would tell the establishment, “Screw you.” At the same time, in a lot of these states he did worse than Mitt Romney did. In many ways, Mitt Romney was an unusual fit being a Mormon and also being from Massachusetts. I think that there’s a lot of reluctance.
I’ve found the Roy Moore thing both the most inspiring and depressing event, because you say, “What would it take to get white Republicans to vote for a Democratic moderate?” You say, “O.K., what if the Republican was a child molester?” [In 2018, the Democrat Doug Jones defeated Moore in the race for a U.S. Senate seat, after Moore denied reports that he had made sexual advances toward underage girls in the seventies.] The positive is—and not for the first time—that Alabama was saved by African-Americans and saved by, particularly, African-American women. And saved by evangelicals. You know, one of the things that drives me absolutely crazy is we talk about evangelicals and say Trump is popular with evangelicals, and that’s not true. Trump is popular with white evangelicals.
Same with the way we talk about the working class.
The Lincoln Project ads have obviously been very effective in getting a lot of press. Do you think that they’re aimed more at élites to signal the Republican opposition to Trump, or are you really trying to get voters to switch? I’m not saying the first is necessarily unimportant, but what’s the goal?
I think there are multiple purposes here, and I think the purposes are shifting as the Lincoln Project starts spending more money on television. I think, in part, they’ve existed to give permission to others to say what needs to be said that isn’t being said. Look, I’m just kind of a backup singer in the Lincoln Project. It wasn’t my creation. I’m playing rhythm guitar on this thing. But not having a client is very liberating. You don’t have to worry that if you go too far, it’s going to blow back on your client, because you don’t have a client. I think that part of the role that the project has been able to play is to say what people are thinking, but you really can’t say that out loud. You say it out loud, and I think that’s positive, and I think it moves the needle of discussion. I think that it helps the Biden campaign.
I know that Trumpworld gives every indication of being obsessed with the Lincoln Project, and then it’s a joke when they attack us. Are you crazy? I mean, we’re not running for President. That’s a day that they’re not focussed on the Biden campaign.
Let’s say I’m a little bit of a cynical person, and let’s say I’m, like, look, these Lincoln Project ads have been really good, but the people who are doing it are these former Republican operatives like Steve Schmidt, who was working for Howard Schultz a year ago, and John Weaver, who got in trouble for agreeing to do lobbying for Russia a year ago. It’s all these operatives, and they’re coming together to make money off anti-Trumpism. Why is that too cynical?
There are none of us that couldn’t be making a gazillion dollars working for Trump. The idea that you’re going to go out and run against your own party and that’s going to be beneficial financially is nonsense. Look, we’re political consultants. We even joked about this. “How is it that we became the conscience of the Party?” We’re supposed to be the hacks. We’re supposed to be the people who say, do anything. We don’t confuse ourselves with role models. We don’t confuse ourselves with being candidates. We’re operatives. We’re all appalled at what’s happened in the Republican Party. We have a few skills that we developed over the years, and our choice is one of three things: support Trump or say nothing; O.K., not going to do that. Be quiet; really don’t like that. Or try to use these skills that we have to make a difference.
You sound like Liam Neeson in “Taken.”
Yeah. Well, look, I mean, I don’t think society should look at the total gestalt of the political system and say, “You know, the people I really admire are consultants.” That would be a pretty sick society. You could argue whether or not we’re a necessary evil, but I don’t think that people are going to look at Jeffersonian democracy and say the problem with that Constitution is it didn’t have enough about political consultants. We’re an aberration of a system that has evolved, but it is our system, and we are good at some stuff.
Either Donald Trump is going to be elected President or he’s not. I hope he’s not. We are trying to employ that which we know how to do to achieve that goal. We’re not confusing it with personal nobility. We’re just guys and women that know how to do some stuff, and we’re trying to do it to beat Donald Trump.
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.
And then, as though to prove the point again, at 12:46 a.m. on Tuesday, Trump went ballistic on Twitter — at me.
In a four–tweet screed, he attacked me and my colleagues at the Lincoln Project as “LOSERS,” “loser types,” “crazed” and “a disgrace to Honest Abe.” About me, he said, “I don’t know what Kellyanne did to her deranged loser of a husband, Moonface, but it must have been really bad.” Ten hours later, on the tarmac at Joint Base Andrews, Trump was still enraged, ranting about us for nearly two minutes in front of the media.
What triggered his ire was a 60-second online ad we released Monday. Entitled “Mourning in America,” it’s an inversion of President Ronald Reagan’s famous 1984 reelection campaign ad, “Morning in America.” Reagan’s ad took credit for the resurgence of the American economy. Our ad puts the blame for the government’s failures in responding to covid-19 right where it belongs — on Trump. He dithered for 10 weeks, from January to mid-March, misleading the public about the severity of the crisis, pretending that the virus would never take hold here. History will record that each day of delay cost American lives.
It may strike you as deranged that a sitting president facing a pandemic has busied himself attacking journalists, political opponents, television news hosts and late-night comedians — even deriding a former president who merely called for empathy and unity in response to the virus. It may strike you as nuts that Trump bragged about his supposed Facebook ranking in the middle of a virus task-force briefing, asserted that millions would have died were it not for him, boasted that “the ‘Ratings’ of my News Conferences etc.” were driving “the Lamestream Media . . . CRAZY,” and floated bogus miracle cures, including suggesting that scientists consider injecting humans with household disinfectants such as Clorox.
If so, you’re not alone. Tens of thousands of mental-health professionals, testing the bounds of professional ethics, have warned for years about Trump’s unfitness for office.
Some people listened; many, including myself, did not, until it was too late.
Now, it’s more obvious than ever. Trump’s narcissism deadens any ability he might otherwise have had to carry out the duties of a president in the manner the Constitution requires. He’s so self-obsessed, he can only act for himself, not for the nation. It’s why he was impeached, and why he should have been removed from office.
And it’s why he reacts with such rage. He fears the truth. He fears being revealed for what he truly is. Extreme narcissists exaggerate their achievements and talents, and so Trump has spent his life building up a false image of himself — not just for others, but for himself, to protect his deeply fragile ego. He lies endlessly, not just in the way sociopaths do, which is to con others, but also to delude himself. He claims to be a “genius,” even though he apparently can’t spell, can’t punctuate, can’t do math and lacks geographic literacy, and even though his own appointees have privately called him a “moron,” an “idiot,” a “dope,” and “dumb.” Now, God help us, he fancies himself an expert in virology and infectious diseases.
But the jig is up. When Trump lied and claimed credit for “the greatest economy in the history of our country,” even though it wasn’t, and even though he inherited a strong economy, and goosed it up with trillions of dollars in debt, it didn’t matter to most people. The economy was good — so what? The debt? That won’t come due for decades.
When he tried to obstruct the Mueller investigation, that didn’t move them either. The rule of law and the violation of a presidential oath are abstractions; the Dow Jones industrial average and the unemployment rate aren’t. And when he used his presidential power to try to extort a foreign ally into smearing a political opponent, not enough cared then, either.
Now it all matters, painfully and concretely. Trump’s lying, his self-regard, his self-soothing, his lack of empathy, his narcissistic rage, his contempt for norms, rules, laws, facts and simple truths — have all come home to roost. Now he sees his poll numbers fall accordingly, and lashes out with ever-increasing anger. For deep in his psyche he knows the truth. Because he fears being revealed as a fake or deranged, he’ll call others fake or deranged. Because he fears losing, he’ll call them losers instead.
And while Trump’s mind roils in rage, too many Americans are losing their lives. That’s the losing that matters, to everyone but him.