The Issue Is Trump

Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Gary Cameron/Reuters)
Take the Lincoln Project at its word.

About the Lincoln Project — those irrelevant people we can’t stop talking about — a few thoughts.

First — before we even really get started — we should dismiss the contemptible smear that something foul is afoot because there is money to be made in the 2020 campaign. Political consultants get paid for their work, as do journalists, radio hosts, cable-news commentators, the people who print up signs and bumper-stickers, etc. I don’t work for free. I do not know very many critics of the Lincoln Project who work for free, either.

That being said . . .

My friend (and boss) Rich Lowry, who wrote a good book about Abraham Lincoln, objects to the appropriation of Lincoln’s name. But I think this choice gets right to the point: What is the Republican Party, and what does it wish to be: the Party of Lincoln, as it sometimes likes to call itself; or the Party of Donald Trump, Roger Stone, Fox News, “deep state” kookery, etc.? It is going to have to pick one, because it cannot be both of those things at the same time. It is no more absurd for Rick Wilson et al. to appropriate the legacy of Abraham Lincoln — and it’s certainly less consequential and less repugnant — than it is for the contemporary Republican Party to do so.

In fact, this would be a fine time to have a debate about Lincoln and the Republican Party’s admirable patrimony — and whether contemporary Republicans deserve to be associated with it or even desire to be.

Our friend Steve Stampley (who wrote a very nice review of The Smallest Minority for which I am grateful) insists that the Lincoln Project is a “grift,” a pretty serious charge coming from a former Hill staffer and campaign manager. Not only a grift, he insists, but “the most brazen election-season grift in recent memory.” (Is 2016 within “recent memory”?) This charge is based in part on the fact that the Lincoln Project raises money mostly from Democrats, which is not surprising for an organization that is, at the moment, trying to defeat an incumbent Republican president and several of his Republican allies.

The politicians for whom Stampley worked earlier in his career have taken in a good deal of money from people associated with Google, Comcast, Morgan Stanley, Deloitte, etc. — are we to understand this as somehow discrediting, that Senator Roger Wicker and others are only shield-bearers for their secret corporate overlords? I do not think that. It costs money to run a political campaign, and campaigns rarely say “No” to money without a compelling reason.

Stampley complains that the Lincoln Project has done business with, among others, Fran Katz Watson, “a lifelong Democratic operative who previously worked as the national finance director for the Democratic National Committee,” and that it has “a long list of left-wing clients” — by which Stampley means the Democrats’ House and Senate committees. I suppose the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee is “left-wing” in the sense of being “not right-wing,” but the DSCC is not exactly the Comintern. If this makes the Lincoln Project a left-wing stalking horse, then there is no possible bipartisan coalition that would not be open to the same line of criticism. It is perfectly fine to be suspicious of such bipartisan coalitions, though it is a little weird to do so in defense of Donald Trump, who became a Republican about eleven minutes before he was sworn in as president. But the Lincoln Project makes no secret of its being a bipartisan effort. That is kind of the point.

Stampley also criticizes the Lincoln Project for doing business with former servants of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama, and Terry McAuliffe, writing: “If a group of unemployed strategists were looking to shape a persuasive center-right critique of Trump and his allies, these are not the talents they’d turn to. If, on the other hand, the aim was to open up anti-Trump wallets on the left, they couldn’t pick a better team.”

But to write this is only to state the obvious and uncontested as though it were controversial. The Lincoln Project does not propose to “shape a persuasive center-right critique of Trump and his allies” — which is a job for, among others, National Review — but instead proposes to defeat them in elections, which is a different kind of undertaking. (The Right would benefit from better separation of journalism and politicking.) In the the Lincoln Project’s much-remarked-upon New York Times jeremiad, its authors say as much, in the plainest language: Rather than acting from “ideological preference,” they wrote, they intend to set aside their “many policy differences with national Democrats” and to undertake a project “dedicated to defeating President Trump and Trumpism at the ballot box.”

The Lincoln Project has not been suddenly exposed making common cause with Democrats — making common cause with Democrats in opposition to Trump and Trumpism is its raison d’être. Maybe some conservative critics do not think that is a good or worthy undertaking, but those who are engaging with the Lincoln Project have an intellectual obligation to address the actual argument being advanced; i.e., that Donald Trump and his administration represent a special kind of awful that requires bipartisan repudiation. Agree or disagree, that is the question raised by the Lincoln Project. The fact that the Lincoln Project sometimes airs ads on Morning Joe is entirely beside the point.

What is most worrisome to me is not that Republicans do not by and large agree with the Lincoln Project’s critique but that they are incapable of taking it seriously. They dismiss it as being of interest only to four self-aggrandizing politicos, but there is a great deal of evidence that this is simply not the case. Biden currently leads Trump in the polls in Texas, and Republicans are in danger of losing their Senate majority. This is not because the nation is disappointed in the performance of John Cornyn. The issue is Trump. Pretending that the issue is Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, awful as they are, won’t do.

Rich Lowry is lamentably correct in noting that the Lincoln Project has embraced the “coarsened political culture to which Donald Trump has contributed more than his share.” The stupidity, pettiness, and lowness of the Lincoln Project’s advertisements remind me of an observation about the totalitarian systems of the 20th century: that the power of Adolf Hitler and his kind could best be judged by the fact that they forced their enemies to imitate them. The fundamentally Trumpist aesthetic and Twitter-troll rhetorical style of the Lincoln Project is the most predictable development of the political year: Trump and the Lincoln Project are products of precisely the same beef-witted social-media culture. It would be better if Trump’s opponents were less Trumpish. But both in the case of Trump and in the case of his critics, style ought really to be a concern secondary to that of substance.

What do Republicans want? What do they believe? What do they cherish? They should be careful how they answer.

Personally, I cannot wait for Election Day, if only to find out whether the backers of the Lincoln Project and those who sympathize with them are “irrelevant,” as Trump and his allies like to say, or whether that estimate will change right around the time Fox News calls Pennsylvania.


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