Maybe it was always going to be about the grift
March 12, 2021 8:25 AM   Subscribe

Conceived as a full-time attack machine against Mr. Trump, the Lincoln Project’s public profile soared last year as its founders built a reputation as a creative yet ruthless band of veteran operators. They recruited like-minded colleagues, and their scathing videos brought adulation from the left and an aura of mischievous idealism for what they claimed was their mission: nothing less than to save democracy. They also hit upon a geyser of cash, discovering that biting attacks on a uniquely polarizing president could be as profitable in the loosely regulated world of political fund-raising as Mr. Trump’s populist bravado was for his own campaign. Then it all began to unravel.
Inside the Lincoln Project’s Secrets, Side Deals and Scandals (New York Times)
All of this is sordid enough. But some might be tempted to forgive the Lincoln Project if its efforts had in fact helped defeat Trump. But there is no evidence that they did...[2020] was a polarizing election, with voters of both parties coming out in droves along starkly partisan lines. In that environment, the Lincoln Project made the wrong arguments to the wrong voters. Beyond that, there’s little reason to think that lifelong Republican consultants were really interested in electing a Democratic president. The Lincoln Project wasn’t a failed political action committee but a successful scam.
A Fraud, Not a Lincoln: Liberals need a reckoning with the fortune they wasted on Never Trump charlatans (The Nation)
posted by Glegrinof the Pig-Man (58 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
 
You did not need to be a rocket scientist to guess that it would all end this way.
posted by 41swans at 8:27 AM on March 12 [34 favorites]




My gut tells me that with all their sound and fury last year, they changed roughly 0 votes.
posted by gwint at 8:48 AM on March 12 [8 favorites]


They also hit upon a geyser of cash,

You did not need to be a rocket scientist to guess that it would all end this way.


kind of says it all. People say, throw money at that problem, that'll solve it. But unless you've got a clear business plan, every dollar allotted ... ...
posted by philip-random at 8:48 AM on March 12 [1 favorite]


Turns out they were still Republicans all along.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:50 AM on March 12 [53 favorites]


I'm not sure how much money they got from liberals rather than from the small but very angry proportion of Republicans who hated Trump.

It's also hard to tell how much effect the Lincoln Project had-- they may have succeeded in throwing Trump off balance, whatever that means. They probably did cost him his campaign manager.

I didn't predict it, but maybe it should have been a good guess that people who have trolling as a political strategy will turn out to be a nasty bunch.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 8:50 AM on March 12 [17 favorites]


My gut tells me that with all their sound and fury last year, they changed roughly 0 votes.

My gut tells me otherwise. I think it's more akin to wartime and what inevitably happens when you've got a massive army mobilized somewhere overseas that needs to be fed, housed, armed, otherwise supplied. You can't help but have massive amounts of "spillage", black markets gorging themselves. Doesn't mean that none of the stuff ever makes it to the front lines, affects the outcome.
posted by philip-random at 8:54 AM on March 12 [14 favorites]


Jeet Heer was hammering how ineffective the ads were at actually changing minds back when there was a lot of "why can't Democrats do this!" response to each new, preaching-to-the-choir viral release. I think he was right and give him credit for being right early.

In terms of the money wasted, I'm not sure. It was definitely a waste, mind you, but at least they made anti-Trump ads, and not all the donors would have sent it to better causes. While true "liberals" donated the money to McGrath in Kentucky, and she basically aired Trump normalizing ads. I avoided that and tried to talk people I knew out of it, while I personally donated to Harrison in NC, who also raised as much money as the entire TLP and that ended up being equally useless.

I was probably too kind to the TLP types during the election, associating them more broadly with people like Tom Nichols (not great politics, but sincerely anti-Trump) than the grifters who were actually running it. Flip side: I saw many comments that these people were going to parlay their popularity into positions of influence in the Biden administration, which did not and was never going to happen.
posted by mark k at 8:55 AM on March 12 [13 favorites]


Ooooooh, *settling down for a good long read*

If all the graft and corruption were banned in politics, the only thing left would be ...
*crickets*
posted by BlueHorse at 8:55 AM on March 12 [3 favorites]


OK, so there's all kinds of grift in politics. Hell, last year I considered setting up a PAC to drum up funds from pro-Trumpers, figuring that if the old adage about a fool and their money was true there might be an opportunity. Might not even be too late.

But in the face of frequently red states shifting blue, I don't think it's *at all* safe to assume that the Lincoln Project had no impact. Sure, you can give Georgia to Stacey Abrams and should. But Arizona?

I know lifelong Republican voters who went for Biden. Lifelong Republican *Mormon* voters, even. So lifelong Republican consultants doing so doesn't seem like a stretch. You don't even need virtuous motives for it; you might simply get more power in a less Trumpist version of the party. And the Lincoln Project gave these people a social media table to talk to each other around.

Project Lincoln saw a ton of cash come in fast and the participants had disagreements about control and pieces of the pie? Sounds like humanity to me.

I gave my money to Democratic candidates rather than donating to PL. I'm sure fellow progressives don't need my encouragement to make the same prioritization. But I don't know, maybe every once in a while we might need to be encouraged to pause on the habit of assuming every difference of degree or flavor with others who are nevertheless in broad alignment means they're fundamentally terrible.
posted by wildblueyonder at 9:06 AM on March 12 [24 favorites]


Hell, last year I considered setting up a PAC to drum up funds from pro-Trumpers, figuring that if the old adage about a fool and their money was true there might be an opportunity.

Seriously, why wouldn't someone?
posted by gottabefunky at 9:13 AM on March 12 [1 favorite]


I gave my money to Democratic candidates rather than donating to PL. I'm sure fellow progressives don't need my encouragement to make the same prioritization. But I don't know, maybe every once in a while we might need to be encouraged to pause on the habit of assuming every difference of degree or flavor with others who are nevertheless in broad alignment means they're fundamentally terrible.

Exactly. Let Republicans who can't find it in them to donate to a defund the police, Medicare for All progressive put their money in Rick Wilson's pot. Plus in an election with a person like Trump, a cult like figure, defeating him is like a war of attrition. It's just about finding that straw that breaks the camel's back and break the spell over them. That's why a lot of the advertising from them was throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. They made a LOT of ads for the money. Not all of them were winners, not even 5% were really winners, but I'm sure they changed a few people that just wanted reassurance that it was OK to vote for Biden.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 9:15 AM on March 12 [8 favorites]


I'm in general skeptical of how many votes the Lincoln Project delivered across the country, but I really do think that between TLP and Evan McMullin, the likelihood that they contributed heavily to Biden winning Arizona is fairly high.
posted by tclark at 9:17 AM on March 12 [5 favorites]


These are people who got everything they ever wanted and complained about the box it came in.

They're not mad about anything that happened. They're mad it happened in a way that made their side look gauche and boorish.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:18 AM on March 12 [12 favorites]


The enemy of my enemy is not my friend, but I can enjoy making popcorn to watch their seemingly-inevitable collapse.
posted by rmd1023 at 9:19 AM on March 12 [4 favorites]


Seen on Twitter, but can't find it now:
the enemy of my enemy is saving me time
posted by NoMich at 9:20 AM on March 12 [20 favorites]


About the Lincoln Project donations, don't miss this part from the NYT piece:

Fund-raising surged. In June, the billionaire investor Stephen Mandel donated $1 million, while Joshua Bekenstein, a co-chairman of Bain Capital, and David Geffen each donated $100,000; Mr. Geffen has since given $500,000 in total.

America just keeps perfecting its approach to oligarchy.
posted by doctornemo at 9:22 AM on March 12 [3 favorites]


This is no surprise, really. And the folks who warned it would be no surprise were often (predictably) chided as overly partisan or ideologically pure and not particularly serious or pragmatic about politics. And were proven correct, yet again.
posted by flamk at 9:22 AM on March 12 [8 favorites]


Remember that Trump did worse than down ballot republicans. I would be surprised if none of that difference was due to the efforts of TLP.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 9:31 AM on March 12 [9 favorites]


This disappoints me, as it looked for a while that these might be a last hold-out of sane, moderate Republicans that the centre and left in the U.S. could work with in the future. Discovering that they're not is like hearing of a relict population of thylacines and then discovering that it's just a pack of dogs with stripes painted on them.
posted by e-man at 9:32 AM on March 12 [6 favorites]


You don't even need virtuous motives for it; you might simply get more power in a less Trumpist version of the party.

As someone who followed a range of political commentators on Twitter over the last four years, including people who would retweet LP stuff, like Jennifer Rubin or Tom Nichols, this was how I saw the LP group. I always assumed that they wanted to show people still in the party that they had some juice. I think historians may say that one of Trump’s mistakes was to over exert his grip on the Republican Party - because of his malignant, sociopathic narcissism, he essentially squeezed off lots of graft at lower levels and made enemies of these kinds of consultants. Everything had to be about him, so there wasn't the usual crumbs left over at the lower tiers of Party operation (and corruption). Because consultants like those in LP didn’t have a role in TrumpWorld, they had to create their own audition to others in the Republican Party to show that they could still have an effect. So, if they push Trump out and demonstrate his weaknesses, they can come back in, essentially. Again, that’s just my read on their motivation.
posted by Tchozz at 9:32 AM on March 12 [14 favorites]


The group was founded by four veterans of Republican politics: Steve Schmidt, John Weaver, Reed Galen, and Rick Wilson. They were all men with a reputation for political hardball. Wilson, for example, created the infamous 2002 ad accusing Democratic Senator Max Cleland, a veteran who had lost his legs and an arm during the Vietnam War, of being soft on terrorism.
I have previously alluded to the case of Max Cleland. Had I known that the guy behind that was one of the LP principals, I would have been willing to bet on this kind of outcome.

The episode just goes to show that workers of the Long Con can cheat liberals who think they're smart, if there's a big enough demand for something that no legit supplier will fill.
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 9:33 AM on March 12 [4 favorites]


I gave money to Republican Voters Against Trump, a much more dignified and sensible organization that didn't get as much publicity as it deserved.

They mostly made short video clips of Republicans and ex-Republicans explaining why they were against Trump. Most of them were voting for Biden. Some of them had hated Trump from the beginning, some liked him and then got disgusted by him late in the game.

The idea was to make Republicans who were opposed to Trump feel less alone and, I suppose, to amplify whatever doubts about Trump some Republicans were feeling.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 9:34 AM on March 12 [17 favorites]


The enemy of my enemy are just a bunch of grifters?

Who couldda known?
posted by JackFlash at 9:36 AM on March 12


Yes, the voter distaste for Donald Trump in the 2020 election was entirely driven by the Lincoln Project, and not 4 years of Donald Trump. You've cracked the code.

They saw a wave and they rode it all the way to the bank on the backs of liberal donors who thought a catty Times Square billboard mocking Jared and Ivanka was the peak of political activism. Saviors of the republic.
posted by figurant at 9:46 AM on March 12 [8 favorites]


McResistance.
posted by deadaluspark at 9:48 AM on March 12 [5 favorites]


What's that saying about there being no honor among thieves?

Oh yeah: there's no honor among thieves.
posted by Saxon Kane at 9:49 AM on March 12 [3 favorites]


And were proven correct, yet again.

About what? I don't recall anyone even vaguely left of center cheerleading these people, just quite a few who enjoyed their ads, and hoped they'd convince some Trump voters to stay home. Maybe they didn't (I find that to be far from a safe conclusion, but whatever), but so what? I don't see evidence that the money was coming largely from liberal sources. The article says that more than $30 million came from donations of less than $200, are we to assume that's largely money that would have gone to good progressive causes? I'm not sure why.
posted by skewed at 10:00 AM on March 12 [9 favorites]


Wait, I thought we weren't supposed to believe anything published in the New York Times.
posted by biogeo at 10:11 AM on March 12 [1 favorite]


There are people that believe that Biden doesn't have the mental capacity to tie his shoelaces, and at the same time they think Trump is a sublime genius. They think AOC wants to ban hamburgers and wind turbines don't work in the cold (we must warn Denmark of this, what if it gets cold there?).

Whatever mind control bullshit is being used here, it's plainly effective. So you have someone like Rick Wilson defect, he tells you he knows all of their tricks, and he's willing to use them on your behalf. You can say fuck Rick Wilson and I will nod in agreement, fuck that guy. But saying his strategy doesn't work is just ignoring the evidence - millions of brainwashed cultists who think Trump is a living god and democrats eat babies.
posted by adept256 at 10:37 AM on March 12 [22 favorites]


A significant part of the Arizona win was thanks to Navajo Nation and Tohono Oʼodham Nation voters.

I'm always dismayed by the overly reductionist approach: "The Lincoln Project wasn’t a failed political action committee but a successful scam." As they say on MetaFilter, ¿por qué no los dos? I am far more inclined toward "all of the above", myself: lots of scam, some failed PAC, a dash of actual idealism, a handful of actual voters convinced, a whole heap of incompetence, a tangle of all the many problems that arise from obliviousness and a sense of entitlement. It doesn't have to be just one thing.
posted by kristi at 10:56 AM on March 12 [43 favorites]


Mr. Geffen has since given $500,000 in total

Wouldn't even buy Kurt Leadbelly's guitar /hamburger
posted by riverlife at 10:56 AM on March 12


Not all of them were winners, not even 5% were really winners, but I'm sure they changed a few people that just wanted reassurance that it was OK to vote for Biden.

At minimum there’s an assumption here that the ads could not be net counterproductive.
posted by atoxyl at 10:57 AM on March 12


The argument that centering Trump in any way was the worst way to advertise makes a lot of sense to me. That shit was saturated.
posted by atoxyl at 10:58 AM on March 12


years ago, I had an epiphany (aided and abetted by some quality literature and smart, thoughtful acquaintances) that "the ends justify the means" is bluntly wrong, particularly in a world populated with weapons of mass destruction. The more thoughtful (and yes subversive) phrase that I started running with was "the means are the end". That is, if you use raw violence to achieve your ends, you'll end up with people adept at raw violence running things. Likewise, if you use love, compassion, generosity to achieve your ends ...

Lately though, informed by recent events and more reading, discussing, I hit upon a sort of merging of the two notions. Something along the lines of, "the means are the ends except in times of war; because in war, extreme means (ie: annihilating the enemy) are justified because well, if you don't use them your enemy will annihilate you". Blah blah blah -- none of this is simple. I do think that culturally speaking America's past four years have been a time of war. And history tells us that wars make for odd/improbable alliances (ie: America and the USSR in WW2, Trump and Putin of late).

But now, these past almost two months, things seem to have changed somewhat. Now, the lead story in very many places is more likely to be Meghan and Harry than anything to do with Trump. Now, we're maybe back to the means being the thing; the ends will take care of themselves if we get them right. So the Lincoln Project? Let them wallow in their complicated poisons, maybe see them in court sometime down the line ...
posted by philip-random at 10:58 AM on March 12 [6 favorites]


At minimum there’s an assumption here that the ads could not be net counterproductive.


I think there is definitely a plausible argument that to the crucial audience, TLP just kept the focus on Trump and fed the victimhood narrative he loves so much. But again, so what? I can easily think of better uses for that $87 million that went into TLP, but it wasn't "our" money to spend, this mostly came from the donor class, plus $30 mill in small donations that I don't really believe were going to be spent on ideologically superior projects.
posted by skewed at 11:06 AM on March 12 [4 favorites]


I'm completely inexpert in this area, but is there any reason for thinking that TLP ads helped enthuse Dem votors and got them out in some way? My personal perspective is that they were fun and snarky and enjoyable to consume and there was some schadenfreude effect in smart Republicans eating their own and actually saying the mean and nasty but true parts out loud, as compared to the Dem messaging which was uniformly vague and non-focused. That helped me get happy and enthused that someone was going after the dickhead, in the same way I was cheering when Biden snarked on Trump in the first debate.
posted by Cocodrillo at 11:30 AM on March 12 [8 favorites]


it wasn't "our" money to spend, this mostly came from the donor class, plus $30 mill in small donations that I don't really believe were going to be spent on ideologically superior projects.

That’s a lot of assumptions about where else the money could have been spent. If the argument is “one had to be a sucker to donate to this, so that money would have gone to grifters anyway” - well, maybe.
posted by atoxyl at 11:47 AM on March 12


Only white men at the top, and female staffers underpaid:
Yes, they’re dyed-in-the-wool Republicans, all right.
posted by BostonTerrier at 12:31 PM on March 12 [3 favorites]


I think one thing the ads certainly did was piss off the Tangerine Tyrant enough to rage-shit himself several times. But yeah, I saw this coming down the pike. There was going to be graft, sexual harassments, back-stabbing, all the things that GOP operatives excel at. It's just the way they're hard-wired.
posted by Ber at 12:38 PM on March 12 [3 favorites]


Enemy of my Enemy. "That first 'enemy guy' must be a real nice guy", said no one ever.

But no one knew how to fight 45th that shall not be named, *in the media.* I hope some strategists take note if 2024 turns out unpleasant that one prong is to goad 45 into utter irrational rants that go on to full on delusional. Yeah what Ber said.
posted by sammyo at 12:40 PM on March 12


The Lincoln Project has been showing up in my Twitter feed regularly because I follow some people who follow them - not a lot of my personal connections do, but some "liberal" public figures I follow do. I don't know how much of that is to keep tabs on what they're doing, and how much is because they genuinely think it is an organization worthy of support.

But anyway, I finally bothered to mute them when they started reposting Trump's latest public statements to their Twitter, accompanied by weak hot takes. And I'm like ...

... they really need Trump, don't they?
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 2:05 PM on March 12 [3 favorites]


Enemy of my Enemy.

I keep seeing this here, alongside it's refutations. There's a reason this ancient maxim is so tenacious, but it doesn't even apply here. These are enemy defectors. I'll drag out another catchy phrase from that pool, 'know your enemy'. If you have an enemy defector, what a gift, invite them in. Learn their secrets. Do you have to adopt their strategies now that you know them? I don't think that was ever the bargain. I think slamming your doors for the sake of purity is a missed opportunity.
posted by adept256 at 2:05 PM on March 12 [3 favorites]


I think slamming your doors for the sake of purity is a missed opportunity.

Sure, but that doesn't mean you should give them a red cent.

PSA: Don't give Republicans money if you aren't a Republican. Plenty of actual Republicans will be giving them money.
posted by aspersioncast at 2:16 PM on March 12 [2 favorites]


I don't ... do you think people here are donating to the Lincoln project?
posted by adept256 at 2:26 PM on March 12 [3 favorites]


> adept256: "These are enemy defectors"

I mean, if I recall my Cold War-era spy stuff correctly, defectors were often viewed with a certain amount of suspicion and skepticism and subjected to fairly detailed scrutiny before they were to be trusted.
posted by mhum at 3:13 PM on March 12


Turns out lefties can be quick to latch onto any straw of hope. I'm so old I can remember when some folks here were gaga for Michael Avenatti to run for president.
posted by JackFlash at 3:35 PM on March 12 [5 favorites]


PSA: Don't give Republicans money if you aren't a Republican. Plenty of actual Republicans will be giving them money.

Yeah, that was my basic attitude towards them. Run all the ads you want, fellas, but don't expect a dime from me.
posted by praemunire at 6:32 PM on March 12 [10 favorites]


I don't really understand the condemnation of TLP for raising and spending a whole bunch of cash that could, hypothetically, have been spent on something else.

I didn't give them any money. But I never begrudged them the donations they got. All the talk about what other stuff could or should have been done with that money is meaningless. It was money that people willingly, deliberately gave to this particular group that was coming from a certain POV and doing a certain type of campaigning -- and they gave it to TLP because they liked how TLP rolled.

One can be mad that it didn't go to some other cause one might think was more worthy, but, well, the donors sent that money to the TLP because TLP appealed to them more than [Insert True Progressive Cause Here] did. The money was not fungible, and there's no point in talking about it as if it was.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 9:06 PM on March 12 [8 favorites]


Well...the money doesn't just "get spent." It gets directed into their pockets and those of their friends: salaries and consulting fees and the like.
posted by praemunire at 9:23 PM on March 12


Sure. As is the case with any political consulting/campaign shop... anywhere on the political spectrum.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 10:16 PM on March 12


Yes, but if the choice is between some suburban Republican buying a better grade of steak for a few months and a Lincoln Project person drinking in some sweet sweet grift, I think many of us would consider the former preferable. That is, the donations are putting money into the personal pockets of people we find to have objectionable politics--just a little less objectionable than the person they oppose. Especially if they honestly could give a rat's ass about Trump but see the opportunity to enrich themselves.
posted by praemunire at 11:34 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]


Not long after the election outcome was formally decided I stopped paying any attention to the TLP gang. I didn't like or trust them one bit before or during Trump, and don't like or trust them one bit since Trump.

I don't think they were set up as a grift, per se, just looks that way from a certain angle (or several) because that is how Repubs roll, whatever the situation. They are always on the make, even when doing some good.

I do think they really really really wanted Trump out, and understood and accepted that the price for that was a Dem presidency and Congress. Don't forget that these folks play the long game. They knew how much damage he had already done and could go right on doing to their comfortable pre-Trump gig. A term or three of Dem rule is not going to hurt them anywhere near as much as another term of Trump. (Of course, Dem rule won't actually hurt them at all. They will still make nice bank.)

Also can't tell if the endless campaigning 'advice' delivered unto Dems by TLP, particularly by Wilson, is deliberately misleading, or they just genuinely don't get the constraints the Dems have to operate under by at least trying to be the adults in the political system. Both sides cannot play the same game as the Repubs. Somebody has to try applying some brakes on the Repub driven descent into unrestrained greed, corruption, madness, and violence. If the Dems try to play the Repubs at their game it will just hand the whole show over to the Repubs, who are far better at it, mostly because they have no empathy, shame, or remorse, which attribute is the single most potent weapon in raw power games. After Trump there is no denying that the Repubs have no bottom to their cesspit, that they can and will always be prepared to dive ever deeper, and many of them will enjoy greatly doing so.

All that said, when I was listening I did pay close attention to what the likes of Wilson and Schmidt in particular had to say. They might be self-serving hypocrites and opportunists, interested only in saving and enriching themselves, but they are not complete fools when it comes to understanding and manipulating the political process. There are lessons to be learned from them, one way or another. Mostly the kind of way that a near fatal bite from a death adder wakes you the fuck up to hard reality.
posted by Pouteria at 1:32 AM on March 13 [3 favorites]


Yes, but if the choice is between some suburban Republican buying a better grade of steak for a few months and a Lincoln Project person drinking in some sweet sweet grift, I think many of us would consider the former preferable.

I get that. I guess I just don't understand the obsession with other people's choices.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 2:48 PM on March 13


do you think people here are donating to the Lincoln project?

I'm old enough to remember back a few short months ago when a number of people on this very site were at the very least considering it.
posted by aspersioncast at 10:01 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]


Well, sure, he was a soulless, shit-eating, slavering attack dog, but he was my soulless, shit-eating, slavering attack dog.

Why did you ask?
posted by mule98J at 6:31 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]


I'm old enough to remember back a few short months ago when a number of people on this very site were at the very least considering it.

Are you assuming there are no Republicans or Republican-lites on this site? I don't think that is a safe assumption.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:50 AM on March 15 [2 favorites]


Grifting? Not so much.
posted by 2N2222 at 7:38 PM on March 26 [3 favorites]


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