When Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner recently threatened legal action against billboards that the Lincoln Project put up in New York City’s Time Square ridiculing them for their part in the Trump administration’s failed coronavirus response, the Never Trumpers had a characteristically caustic response.
They would teach Jared and Ivanka a civics lesson, as payback for their cruelty and indifference, the group tweeted. And then they went way further: The couple "have always been entitled, out-of-touch bullies who have never given the slightest indication they have any regard for the American people. We plan on showing them the same level of respect."
It was just the latest example of how anti-Trump Republicans have impacted the 2020 presidential race.
Indeed, as the race enters its final stretch, and Joe Biden maintains a steady lead over U.S. President Donald Trump, while some Democrats fear complacency leading to a Trump 2016 repeat, this time around the Never Trump movement are potent new allies.
While Biden is poised to out-perform Hillary Clinton’s 2016 showing with young, minority and independent voters, groups of conservatives long disillusioned with the Trump GOP are making inroads in consciously pushing older, religious and suburban voters toward Biden – or at least, away from Trump.
And that could be enough to shift the final results: in the key battleground states of Pennsylvania, Florida and Wisconsin, where Trump squeaked out victory in 2016 by margins of 0.72 percent, 1.2 percent and 0.77 percent respectively.
It’s not just the Lincoln Project Super PAC. The Bill Kristol-founded Republican Voters Against Trump (RVAT), 43 Alumni forBiden are just the most prominent of dozens of conservative political groups taking aim at Trump, from “Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden” to “Biden Republicans” to “Jewish Republicans for Biden” and “Republicans and Independents for Biden.”
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They are supplemented by a very long list of senior former officials, who served under Republican presidents and now refuse to vote for Trump, some of whom have affiliated with these groups, signed open letters or independently expressed their opinion about Trump’s unsuitability in op-eds and open letters in major newspapers.
Kristol, who was the founder and editor-at-large of the conservative The Weekly Standard (which was killed off by a pro-Trump owner in 2018), is now editor-at-large at the right-leaning but Trump-hostile venture, The Bulwark.
While these groups' final impact will only be known after the last vote is (or is not) counted, the demographics they’re targeting, and where Trump is most vulnerable, seem to be amenable to the Never Trump message.
The president’s numbers with senior voters are in free fall, undecided voters are staying away and prominent Republican Senators are publicly breaking with a president for whom absolute loyalty to him is one of his few consistent positions.
What sets the "Never Trumpers" apart from the Biden campaign or from most Democratic political action groups, is their unashamed use of sharp, fast, aggressive, tried-and-tested Republican political tactics against a Republican president. They have no qualms about fighting fire with fire.
The Never Trump group's campaign ads seethe with energy, authenticity and righteous anger because they are fueled by both betrayal (by Trump and the GOP) and hope (that Biden wins).
Many of their ads and blurbs closely track the assumptions and lexicon of good character, articulacy, the constitution and the rule of law once at home in the GOP – but showcase Trump’s distance from them. The ads often paint Trump as an existential threat stripping away the norms of American democracy, and mercilessly pick apart the president’s record through the prism of conservative values: his lack of adherence to the Constitution, to the rule of law and to family values.
Rick Wilson, a veteran GOP strategist and one of the founders of the Lincoln Project, published a book laying out the strategy earlier this year. In "Running Against the Devil: A Plot to Save America from Trump – and Democrats from Themselves," Wilson lays out the stakes. The Democrats must understand that for Trump, nothing, "including outright criminality, is off limits" in his bid for re-election.
"There is no bottom. There is no shame. There are no limits," Wilson wrote. Trump "is surrounded by cowards with frightening and tremendous skills."
The implication was that the anti-Trump camp needed hard-nosed operators who could predict the president’s attack lines from having lived in the GOP world, who could go wilder and attack Trump on a more personal level than the Biden campaign.
The Lincoln Project is practicing what Wilson preached, pushing out ads addressing Trump directly, teasing him about how his own inner circle has turned against him, creating sarcastic mash-ups of fawning pro-Trump Fox News clips, and often using the president’s own words against him, from his disastrous Charlottesville false equivalence between neo-Nazis and anti-Nazi protestors to his disparaging comments about women, encouraging voters to think about their own daughters when voting.
Kristol, once dubbed a "renegade Jew" by David Horowitz in Breitbart for a last-ditch attempt to push a third party challenger against Trump in 2016, founded RVAT in May 2020.
Kristol has taken what appear to be a tamer, but quietly lethal, approach: collecting testimonials of Republicans who have lost faith in the president. The group acts as a kind of foil for the right-wing "Walk Away" campaign which pushes stories of disaffected Democrats.
RVAT’s ads have made headlines with devastating, insider accounts from former Trump officials including Miles Taylor, former chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security, and Olivia Troye, who served as an aide to Vice President Pence on the White House Coronavirus Task Force, who has dissected Trump’s deliberate obfuscation of the threat of COVID-19 to the lives of Americans.
Taylor and another former Trump DHS staffer, Elizabeth Nueman, slammed Trump for his cruelty, lawlessness and unwillingness to deal with white supremacy, which the department now lists as the greatest domestic threat facing the U.S.
RVAT’s latest video brings those three together with a clip from Trump's former National Security Adviser John Bolton warning that America won’t survive four more years of Trump.
These ads pack an extra punch in that they come from inside Trump’s own ranks, and speak to the qualms many GOP voters already have with their candidate, particularly focused around Trump’s character. Taylor says in one ad that Trump wasn’t interested in issues of national security, he only "wanted to exploit the Department of Homeland Security for his own political benefit," adding that Trump was "one of the most unfocused and undisciplined senior executives I've ever encountered."
And when rising GOP star and Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, in a virtual town hall, excoriated Trump’s failings as a conservative and as an ethical individual, RVAT quickly turned his comments into the voiceover for one of their ads.
It was tailor-made for them: Sasse hit Trump for his "deficient behavior, not just as a Republican but as an American," and went to list those deficiencies: "the way he treats women," his “flirting with white supremacists," the way “he kisses dictators butts" and "spends like a drunken sailor."
Biden has already banked impressive endorsements from iconic Republicans with serious currency in conservative circles. Their name-recognition and weighty record – from former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Cindy McCain, former Gov. John Kasich, former Gov. Tom Ridge (first Homeland Security head), sitting Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker to dozens of former Republican national security officials – is particularly effective with the older conservative voters target group.
These endorsements also serve to disable the punch of Trump’s bombastic and unsubstantiated attacks on Biden as a "radical Marxist" or a Trojan horse for a progessive movement hell-bent on "purging American values," while substantiating the charge that Trump consistently empowers America’s racists and violent bigots.
Trump’s billion-dollar campaign has been so unsuccessful in fighting the attacks on his own character, and in humiliating his opponent, that Biden’s favorability ratings are higher a week out from the election than they were six months ago.
Several leading lights of the Never Trump movement are Jewish, and that has been an effective entry point to target the potentially significant Jewish vote in several key battleground states.
Kristol himself starred in an ad alongside actor and comedian Billy Crystal produced by the Jewish Democratic Council of America, directed by Rob Reiner, targeted to Florida’s older Jewish voters. The ad, "2 Bills 4 Biden," underscores the appeal to older Jewish voters of crossover support and consensus-building around Biden.
And speaking of older Jewish comedians, 94-year-old comedian Mel Brooks debuted his first-ever political ad last week, endorsing Joe Biden: "Why? Because of this coronavirus. And Donald Trump’s not doing a damn thing about it."
The cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic is heavy: 8 out of 10 of the 230,000 Americans who’ve died of the virus have been over 65. But Trump’s approach to undecided seniors is faltering.
The president has systematically downplayed the severity of the pandemic, and of measures like mask-wearing whose aim is to protect vulnerable populations like seniors. His latest ploy is to accuse journalists of trying to throw the elections because they’re covering "COVID, COVID, COVID."
Trump has been reduced to playing defense with seniors; his low-energy offerings include a video where he calls them his "favorite people in the world." At other times, he actively sabotages his appeal to any seniors who retain their sense of self-worth, mocking Biden’s health, age and capacities with ads that photoshop his head onto the body of a wheelchair-bound nursing home resident, or with ads that call him a zombie with a "corpse-like appearance."
Recent polls show Biden with an enormous lead over Trump among Americans 65 and over: 26 percent in his favor, according to the mid-September NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. Trump won these voters by some five percent in 2016, and the shift of this demographic drastically erodes Trump’s chances of winning in key states like Florida and Pennsylvania.
While Kristol and RVAT are hyping Biden as a principled, moderate candidate whom conservatives can support, the Lincoln Project has been taking a different tack, using mockery, sarcasm and ultra-quick response times to Trump gaffes and revelations to target the thin-skinned president personally.
The group runs its ads on Fox News, and initially funneled the millions it was raising into ad buys in DC to sharpen their aim at the so-called "audience of one": Trump himself.
They’re aimed as much at throwing Trump off his game and getting under his skin as they are about changing voters’ minds. The ads are geared at isolating Trump from his Republican base, while attacking his ego in order to distract him and force him to lash out.
And their riling works. Trump has been triggered, periodically attack-tweeting the group’s founding members, reserving particular animus for George Conway, whom Trump dubbed as his former adviser Kellyanne Conway’s "husband from hell."
Trump has blasted Fox News for running their ads and has been quick to scorch the Republicans who have turned against him and joined the Never Trump ranks.
How far the Lincoln Project preys on his attention was exposed this week when Trump went off-topic addressing a rally to call out the "sicko RINOs" who "do the ads" as "real garbage" and "not smart people." In a typically swift riposte, the Lincoln Project tweeted the clip, with a put-down of their own: "Say our name, coward." Trump had provided them yet another helpful branding and amplification opportunity.
The Lincoln Project has even built coalitions with progressive groups to push out the vote: It held a town hall with a panoply of Black American groups including the NAACP and expanded its mission in the fall to targeting individual GOP senators in tight races over their ties to Trump and even and joined up with Vote Common Good, a progressive group, to focus on peeling white evangelicals and white Catholics away from Trump.
U.S. conservatives have never invested so much energy and resources in getting a Democratic president elected. The elephant in the room is what happens after November 3rd.
A Trump loss will spark a heated battle for the soul of the Republican Party. Will it push the same Trumpism, recast in the style of Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton or Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, adorned with various QAnon and other conspiracists representing the party in Congress? In that case, Never Trumpers still won’t find room at the inn.
Will the GOP go for a Nikki Haley, Ben Sasse collage of more traditional GOP values infused with Trumpist inflections? Or will there be a total cleaning of the slate, and a revival of classic conservatism?
For the Never Trump crew, there is no debate about what direction is necessary: Burn Trumpism down.
Bill Kristol recently offered an analogy between Trump's GOP and politics in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall: he commented that while Trump supporters shouldn’t be totally purged from the GOP or government, there must be "a clean break" from Trumpism to define it as a deviation.
Kristol believes only a complete electoral rout of the GOP "open[s] up the possibility for a re-making of the GOP and of conservatism itself.”
There is one more open question. Will the last few months of energetic bipartisanship, in the name of challenging Trump, leave any lasting mark on the American political landscape? Can it be effective as a counterpoint to the poisonous partisanship of four Trump years?
If, as rumored, a President Biden appoints a moderate Republican like John Kasich to his cabinet, then the spirit of Project Lincoln may end up being more than an intense, but fleeting, unicorn moment.