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.
Watch as The Washington Post’s White House Bureau Chief Philip Rucker and National Investigative Reporter Carol Leonnig discuss their new book, “A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America.” Subscribe to The Washington Post on YouTube: https://wapo.st/2QOdcqK
He consciously storms in an tells a lie. And the result of telling that lie: he won the moment. He won the day. As much as we may say ..
Are they actually out of control or is all this strategic planning from a president who may be completely shameless, but a president none the less.
I wouldn’t use the phrase “strategic planning”
.. or by design.
It’s very much by design in that moment. And Trump is reacting in that moment to try to win the day without thinking about the long-term ramifications or without following following a plan that has been carefully crafted.
But are there long term ramifications? He may live there another 4 years.
He might because what he is doing, day to day, is winning as he defines winning, which is galvanizing his supporters, making them even more loyal, more fierce in their adoration of him and mobilizing them for the election. And he does this largely by gut.
His lawyers can put together a 10 month plan about how to deal with the Mueller Investigation but he’s going to act every 24-hours how he thinks is in his best interests in that moment given the news cycle and what he’s hearing on Fox News and what Sean Hannity or whoever else is telling him at night.
Then what has actually been the cost of this circus or all these lies?
I’ve been literally sitting here thinking about what that is for so long. Here’s what I think is most worrying to as a professional journalist and Phil and I talked about it a lot.
The falsehoods that he’s injected into our bloodstream are repeated again and again on Fox News and amplified and believed. People are absorbing them and thinking that that is true:
That Robert Mueller was out to get him.
That FBI agents have an insurance policy to make sure he wasn’t elected. That’s not actually what the texts are about.
There were people really worried at the FBI that President was .. forgive me .. very worried about Donald Trump the candidate.
There were people at the FBI who were very concerned about the Russian contacts from the Kremlin to sort of minions in the campaign. Super anxious about that.
But he’s been able to inject into our either and into a lot of the country the assumption that the FBI had a tainted investigation to try, not only unmoore him and keep him from being elected, but to surveille which .. you know.. nobody wiretapped Donald Trump. But I literally meet people who say: “You know they wiretapped Donald Trump”
And I’m like “No they didn’t.”
It’s just amazing and that is..
We’re no longer in Walter Cronkite days. The consequence is people don’t agree on facts. And Phil and I have an extra job in addition to bringing you facts and that extra job is something the Post also takes really seriously with is now we got to show you how we made the cake. We’ve got to show you how we did the reporting or else you’re not going to believe us. And that’s our new chore.
The truth matters, but only if you hear it.
I want to talk more about the show that he puts on.
You talk in the book about a phone call the president had with Anthony Scaramucci, who was press secretary for famously 11 days.
Anthony, “The Mooch”, goes on Bill Mahr one night and says “I’ve known Donald Trump for 20 years. This is all an act. This is a show he’s putting on.”
And afterwards the President calls him on the phone and says: “Why did you do this. I can’t believe you did this.” And Anthony says “It’s the truth. You know it.”
And Trump says “You’re right. It’s all an act. I can’t believe they believe it.”
Yeah, you know, Trump is, first foremost, a showman and he learned this in real estate cause he wasn’t just a real estate developer he was a tabloid sensation because he made himself a tabloid sensation. He posed as his own publicist to leak gossip about himself into page 6.
So much of his energy and time and time and resources in New York as he was rising through the business ranks was built around the show — built around creating a Trump persona, the Trump brand, “The Apprentice”– and becoming president I think in Trump’s view is the capstone of that. He acutally lays out that career are in a tween in which ..
The South Carolina senator once put a lot of effort into cultivating an image of a reasonable, sober, sensible, moderate Republican, willing to reach out across the aisle, willing to stick up for his principles, willing to denounce Donald Trump. But today, there is no position he won’t abandon, no U-turn he won’t perform, no lie he will not tell.
Narcissists get away with bad behavior because they have no shame in who they hurt.
There are several kinds of success stories. We emphasize the ones starring brilliant inventors and earnest toilers. We celebrate sweat and stamina. We downplay the schemers, the short cuts and the subterfuge. But for every ambitious person who has the goods and is prepared to pay his or her dues, there’s another who doesn’t and is content to play the con. In the Trump era and the Trump orbit, these ambassadors of a darker side of the American dream have come to the fore.
.. What a con Holmes played with Theranos. For those unfamiliar with the tale, which the journalist John Carreyrou told brilliantly in “Bad Blood,” she dropped out of Stanford at 19 to pursue her Silicon Valley dream, intent on becoming a billionaire and on claiming the same perch in our culture and popular imagination that Steve Jobs did. She modeled her work habits and management style after his. She dressed as he did, in black turtlenecks. She honed a phony voice, deeper than her real one.
She spoke, with immaculate assurance, of a day when it might be on everyone’s bathroom counter: a time saver, a money saver and quite possibly a lifesaver. She sent early, imperfect versions of it to Walgreens pharmacies, which used it and thus doled out erroneous diagnoses to patients. She blocked peer reviews of it and buried evidence of its failures.
This went on not for months but for years, as Holmes attracted more than $900 million of investment money and lured a breathtakingly distinguished board of directors including two former secretaries of state, George Shultz and Henry Kissinger; a former secretary of defense, William Perry; and a future secretary of defense, James Mattis. What they had before them wasn’t proof or even the sturdy promise of revolutionary technology. It was a self-appointed wunderkind who struck a persuasive pose and talked an amazing game.
She was eventually found out, and faces criminal charges that could put her in prison. But there’s no guarantee of that. Meantime she lives in luxury. God bless America.
Theranos was perhaps an outlier in the scope of its deceptions, but not in the deceptions themselves. In an article titled “The Ugly Unethical Underside of Silicon Valley” in Fortune magazine in December 2016, Erin Griffith tallied a list of aborted ventures with more shimmer and swagger than substance, asserting: “As the list of start-up scandals grows, it’s time to ask whether entrepreneurs are taking ‘fake it till you make it’ too far.”
Republican leaders need to mount an intervention.
Up to now I have not favored removing President Trump from office. I felt strongly that it would be best for the country that he leave the way he came in, through the ballot box. But last week was a watershed moment for me, and I think for many Americans, including some Republicans.
It was the moment when you had to ask whether we really can survive two more years of Trump as president, whether this man and his demented behavior — which will get only worse as the Mueller investigation concludes — are going to destabilize our country, our markets, our key institutions and, by extension, the world. And therefore his removal from office now has to be on the table.
I believe that the only responsible choice for the Republican Party today is an intervention with the president that makes clear that if there is not a radical change in how he conducts himself — and I think that is unlikely — the party’s leadership will have no choice but to press for his resignation or join calls for his impeachment.
It has to start with Republicans, given both the numbers needed in the Senate and political reality. Removing this president has to be an act of national unity as much as possible — otherwise it will tear the country apart even more. I know that such an action is very difficult for today’s G.O.P., but the time is long past for it to rise to confront this crisis of American leadership.
Trump’s behavior has become so erratic, his lying so persistent, his willingness to fulfill the basic functions of the presidency — like
- reading briefing books,
- consulting government experts before making major changes and
- appointing a competent staff — so absent,
his readiness to accommodate Russia and spurn allies so disturbing and his obsession with himself and his ego over all other considerations so consistent, two more years of him in office could pose a real threat to our nation. Vice President Mike Pence could not possibly be worse.
The damage an out-of-control Trump can do goes well beyond our borders. America is the keystone of global stability. Our world is the way it is today — a place that, despite all its problems, still enjoys more peace and prosperity than at any time in history — because America is the way it is (or at least was). And that is a nation that at its best has always stood up for the universal values of freedom and human rights, has always paid extra to stabilize the global system from which we were the biggest beneficiary and has always nurtured and protected alliances with like-minded nations.
Donald Trump has proved time and again that he knows nothing of the history or importance of this America. That was made starkly clear in Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’s resignation letter.
Trump is in the grip of a mad notion that the entire web of global institutions and alliances built after World War II — which, with all their imperfections, have provided the connective tissues that have created this unprecedented era of peace and prosperity — threatens American sovereignty and prosperity and that we are better off without them.
So Trump gloats at the troubles facing the European Union, urges Britain to exit and leaks that he’d consider quitting NATO. These are institutions that all need to be improved, but not scrapped. If America becomes a predator on all the treaties, multilateral institutions and alliances holding the world together; if America goes from being the world’s anchor of stability to an engine of instability; if America goes from a democracy built on the twin pillars of truth and trust to a country where it is acceptable for the president to attack truth and trust on a daily basis, watch out: Your kids won’t just grow up in a different America. They will grow up in a different world.
The last time America disengaged from the world remotely in this manner was in the 1930s, and you remember what followed: World War II.
You have no idea how quickly institutions like NATO and the E.U. and the World Trade Organization and just basic global norms — like thou shalt not kill and dismember a journalist in your own consulate — can unravel when America goes AWOL or haywire under a shameless isolated president.
But this is not just about the world, it’s about the minimum decorum and stability we expect from our president. If the C.E.O. of any public company in America behaved like Trump has over the past two years —
- constantly lying,
- tossing out aides like they were Kleenex,
- tweeting endlessly like a teenager,
- ignoring the advice of experts —
he or she would have been fired by the board of directors long ago. Should we expect less for our president?
That’s what the financial markets are now asking. For the first two years of the Trump presidency the markets treated his dishonesty and craziness as background noise to all the soaring corporate profits and stocks. But that is no longer the case. Trump has markets worried.
.. The instability Trump is generating — including his attacks on the chairman of the Federal Reserve — is causing investors to wonder where the economic and geopolitical management will come from as the economy slows down.
- What if we’re plunged into an economic crisis and we have a president whose first instinct is always to blame others and
- who’s already purged from his side the most sober adults willing to tell him that his vaunted “gut instincts” have no grounding in economics or in law or in common sense. Mattis was the last one.
We are now left with the B team — all the people who were ready to take the jobs that Trump’s first team either resigned from — because they could not countenance his lying, chaos and ignorance — or were fired from for the same reasons.
I seriously doubt that any of these B-players would have been hired by any other administration. Not only do they not inspire confidence in a crisis, but they are all walking around knowing that Trump would stab every one of them in the back with his Twitter knife, at any moment, if it served him. This makes them even less effective.
Indeed, Trump’s biggest disruption has been to undermine the norms and values we associate with a U.S. president and U.S. leadership. And now that Trump has freed himself of all restraints from within his White House staff, his cabinet and his party — so that “Trump can be Trump,” we are told — he is freer than ever to remake America in his image.
And what is that image? According to The Washington Post’s latest tally, Trump has made 7,546 false or misleading claims, an average of five a day, through Dec. 20, the 700th day of his term in office. And all that was supposedly before “we let Trump be Trump.”
If America starts to behave as a selfish, shameless, lying grifter like Trump, you simply cannot imagine how unstable — how disruptive —world markets and geopolitics may become.
We cannot afford to find out.