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Disillusioned Republicans take on Trump with viral negative campaign ads

File photo of Donald Trump
File photo of Donald Trump JIM WATSON AFP

A young Super PAC – an independent, expenditure-only political action committee – has taken on Trump with a series of hard-hitting ads designed to turn Republican and independent voters against him and get under his skin. Their tactics seem to be working.

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“How it Starts,” an ominous video in the gritty style of retro superhero comic strips, shows “shadowy men, no badges, no ID” and heavily armed, snatching protesters off the streets of Portland, Oregon and bundling them into unmarked vehicles. The video goes on to warn that these “thugs” are only the beginning and could be coming to “your town, your neighbourhood”. “This is how freedom dies,” the video proclaims, and urges people to vote on November 3. Three days after it was uploaded to YouTube, the video had been viewed more than 860,000 times.

The slickly produced, hard-hitting clip is just the latest in a series of anti-Trump videos financed by a Super PAC called The Lincoln Project. Recent Lincoln Project videos – all under two minutes long – include “Wake Up!” a tribute to late Civil Rights hero and Congressman John Lewis that links him to the Black Lives Matter movement and shows him with both Joe Biden and Barack Obama (710,000 views in two days); “Wall,” a macabre 58 seconds with drone shots that make the shadows of Trump’s border wall look like coffins as it asserts that if the bodies of all the Americans victims of Covid-19 were lined up they would span 66 miles (more than a million views in three days); and “New,” a takedown of Ivanka Trump that mocks her for telling out-of-work Americans to “find something new” to do in the wake of the pandemic and painting her as a modern-day Marie Antoinette (1.5 million views in four days).

The organisation has a single goal: “The entire mission of The Lincoln Project is to defeat Trump and Trumpism, period,” said executive director Sarah Lenti. They intend to do that by targeting Republicans and Independents in target states and “give them the cover to vote for Biden or to sit it out".

Republican vs. Republican

But the people behind this PAC responsible for this wave of powerful, anti-Trump propaganda are not whom one might think. This is no gathering of progressives or Democrats, but instead its founders are well-known (in political circles) Republicans and former Republicans who say they are holding elected leaders accountable to protect democracy. Among the most publicly known among them is George Conway, husband of senior counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway. Despite the founder’s stellar Republican credentials, The Lincoln Project has endorsed Joe Biden for president.

They launched The Lincoln Project in December 2019 with an attention-grabbing op-ed in The New York Times saying that its aim was to transcend partisanship and protect American values from Trump, even if that means ushering in Democratic control of the Senate and expanding it in the House of Representatives. Not only did the authors say they opposed Trump, but they decried the Republican elected officials who “embraced and copied Mr. Trump’s cruelty and defended and even adopted his corruption", they wrote.  

The videos are fairly cruel themselves – not all that surprising given that The Lincoln Project founders are behind some particularly below-the-belt attack ads. One video alleges that Democratic Senator Max Celand, a triple amputee due to wounds he suffered in the war in Vietnam, was not sufficiently patriotic. Those tactics have been effective at mobilising votes for Republicans. But will they be able to make Independents and Republicans vote for a Democrat?

The group believes they can. “That’s the entire reason we’re doing this,” Lenti said. “We’re having these town hall, virtual town halls, and people are getting on and they’re asking, ‘What can we do?’”

Lenti pointed to a virtual town hall the group held on July 10. They began advertising for it just day before the event, and more than 90,000 people logged on – most of whom were disaffected Republicans and Independents. “That’s unheard of,” she said.

Triggering the president

The ads have another intended target: Trump himself. “Part of the plan here is to get in his head,” Lenti said. “When he goes crazy he gets off message and when he gets off message he stops campaigning.”

One ad in particular was shooting straight for Trump’s jugular, and seems to have hit its intended target. In a spot clearly referencing the famous Morning in America ad from Ronald Reagan’s 1984 election campaign, The Lincoln Project took Trump to task for his handling of the Covid-19 crisis. Mourning in America showed bleak images of depressed American towns while citing bleak economic and health statistics. “Under the leadership of Donald Trump, our country is weaker and sicker and poorer,” the narrator says dolefully. “If we have another four years like this, will there even be an America?” he asks, over the strains of mournful violins. In early May, the spot aired on Fox news in the Washington, D.C. media market, where Trump was bound to see it.

 

The ensuing four tweets showed that he did and that he was, indeed, needled. He said the group of “RINO Republicans” (Republicans in name only) who had repeatedly failed were trying to get even with him for their failures. He then started calling out the “loser types” individually. Within days, the PAC had raised an additional $1.4 million in donations. To date, the group has raised nearly $20 million, and the majority of donations are less than $60.

Exactly how the PAC has spent that money has come under scrutiny. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan group that tracks money in politics, nearly all of the $1.4 million raised after the Mourning in America ad was funneled back into companies owned by its founders. Almost $1 million went to Summit Strategic communications, the firm run by Lincoln Project treasurer Reed Galen and another $215,000 was paid to Tusk Digital, at the helm of which sits Lincoln Project adviser Ron Steslow. Other funds are difficult to track, as they are likely being paid to subcontractors, a tactic also used by other PACs as well as by the Trump campaign to hide spending specifics, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The Lincoln Project isn’t rushing to clarify. “We abide by all reporting requirements laid down by the FEC [Federal Election Commission] said Lincoln Project Communications Director Keith Edwards. “No one at The Lincoln Project is buying a Ferrari."

 

 

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