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Rick Wilson on How the Lincoln Project Gets in Trump’s Head


The ads are not subtle.
Photo: The Lincoln Project/Youtube

Twice weekly, Scott Galloway and Kara Swisher host Pivot, a New York Magazine podcast about business, technology, and politics.

When former Republican consultant Rick Wilson formed the Lincoln Project late last year with a cadre of fellow Never Trumpers, he hoped to raise a few million dollars and play a small part in preventing Donald Trump’s reelection. Instead, thanks to its fire hose of Trump-bashing digital ads, the group has “taken off in a way that no one could have anticipated.” On the latest episode of New York’s Pivot podcast, Wilson discusses how the Lincoln Project gets into Trump’s head and what it hopes to accomplish once there.

Kara Swisher: Your use of social media is astonishing. I don’t know who’s doing your actual social media. It must be a younger person, I’m guessing, but maybe not.

Rick Wilson: It’s a 78-year-old woman from Poughkeepsie.

Swisher: Well, she’s rather clever. So talk about things strategically. You’ve used social media quite adeptly in terms of putting these ads out, getting millions of views.

Wilson: One of the things we are all born from in modern politics is television advertising. And for decades that was still the singular point of persuasion in the American electorate. But almost all of us in the group were fairly early adopters to digital, paid digital advertising. I’m platform agnostic as to where you see my message — whether you see it on a Twitter video feed or a Facebook page or a YouTube link or a television ad or a cable ad or a pre-roll video. I now have the tools to measure where I’m hitting. I know who I’m talking to. And we decided very early on that using our fairly meaningfully large social-media voices, we could amplify what the Lincoln Project was doing. Especially in this phase of the campaign, which is not a heavy-tonnage air war on paid media.

Swisher: That would be television, you mean?

Wilson: Well, television and digital. But right now we’re working to shape the campaign narrative, which we believe we’re very successful at doing. We’re working to play into Donald Trump’s whole portfolio, the constellation of psychological weaknesses that Trump displays every day. And every time we’re able to do that, it takes his campaign off track, costs him time, money, and space in the electorate. There’s one fixed item you will never get more of in the campaign. You can always buy more media. You can raise more money. You can do more events. You can’t get a day back that you lose. And we’re very good at taking him off course and having him lose a day here, a day there.

Swisher: How do you come up with the ads? How do you decide? To me, it seems like you’re trying to occupy parts of his brain.

Wilson: We do them very quickly. We have a super-lean production system. The group comes up with what we know is moving the day and what we want to move during the day. And also, Trump presents targets of opportunity constantly. This guy shows you his throat all the time in this battle. We move very quickly, we amplify very quickly, and we understand that there are people who don’t look at us as the traditional super-PAC, because we don’t do all the things that a traditional super-PAC does. We don’t spend weeks message testing every single ad. We don’t spend weeks wondering about policy questions. There is no policy with us. We’re submarines roving the ocean. We’re not here to be the Heritage Foundation or Brookings or anybody else. We’re here to help defeat Donald Trump. So we stay focused on that. And that makes our mission a lot easier in many ways.

Swisher: What’s the strategy behind an ad? And what’s the metric of success for each one?

Wilson: Some of the ads are for an audience of one — psychological warfare with Donald Trump. Those ads are very much meant to disrupt his campaign at a meaningful level. Look, we did it this last week. The proof of concept is, we’ve turned Parscale into a verb by running ads against Brad Parscale that Donald Trump saw. And we didn’t care if America saw them. I cared that Donald Trump watched them. Because he can’t turn Fox off. He’s addicted to it. I know where to feed him. So when we built the Parscale ad, we spent maybe 12 grand producing it and maybe another 6 or 8 on TV, just because we knew Trump would watch it.

So the way we score our operations on that first column is observable behavior by the president. And those things we can absolutely see and read back. Because we know he fired Brad Parscale. We know what happened. We hear from inside the White House and from inside the campaign all the time now. There’s a great rule of thumb in politics, and it probably scales to business too: Good organizations leak on purpose. Bad organizations leak because they’re bad organizations. The Trump campaign and the Trump White House are bad organizations.

So, we are able to know very quickly what happened, how badly it affected Trump, how much he lost his mind about whatever we did that day or that week.

Another category is litigating the case against Trump, which we’re doing very broadly. And we’re doing that in a lot of different states, a lot of different markets, a lot of different audiences. This is, again, not the phase of the campaign where we’re going to go out and drop a million dollars a day in Florida or Wisconsin or Iowa or Arizona. Because any organization will go broke really fast spending that much money in places where the vote will be decided, historically speaking, in the last three to five weeks. During the early voting window, things will start changing very rapidly.

We know the reason that an awful lot of voters have abandoned Donald Trump, especially in the suburbs, is his mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis. Across every public and private survey research instrument you choose to look at, his handling of COVID-19 has lost him voters, particularly with educated voters, independent suburban men and women, educated women particularly, and women with children particularly.

Scott Galloway: Rick, over the last decade, I was fascinated when you were talking about media mix. If you had a hundred bucks to spend on media, how has that mix changed in terms of where you spend that money? And if you could only go with one platform or channel to spend money, what would that be?

Wilson: Twenty years ago, obviously the mix was 99 to 1. Or 99.5 to …

Galloway: TV?

Wilson: For TV.

Galloway: Even direct mail?

Wilson: Direct mail as a persuasion tool has been dead for decades. Direct mail is good for raising money. And even that is dying off.

Galloway: So, it was all TV. What is it now? You got a hundred bucks. Where do you spend it?

Wilson: If I have a hundred bucks right now, I spend 30 bucks on cable, I spend 35 bucks on digital, I spend 15 on broadcast. And then I do a mix of other stuff out there, depending on the market and the audience. There are still markets in this country that are great for radio. It’s insane.

Galloway: What platform has the best tools? I think I know what the answer is going to be.

Wilson: The hellscape that is Facebook is the most meaningful tool of political manipulation ever devised in the history of all mankind.

Galloway: It really is incredible, isn’t it?

Wilson: There will be a battle fought on Facebook this year and probably next, and probably the next, and probably the next. As much as I truly believe it should be destroyed, plowed into the earth, and the ground salted where it once stood — that’s where the toolbox is.

Swisher: Why is that? Why is it great from a political point of view? What is good about it, specifically?

Wilson: It has a suite of tools that allows you to segment and target your audience in ways that are enormously granular. You can voter-file match people. You can now go out and match the cable and the Rentrak data to a lot of the Facebook data that’s available, and it lets you silo a person, not a demographic group. With cable, I can get you down into your neighborhood and your household somewhat. With Facebook, I can make sure that the ads following you on your phone and on your computer and on your tablet are all telling you that unless you vote for Donald Trump, antifa is coming to kill your dog.

Wilson: What we’ve also learned about Facebook is, it doesn’t matter how verifiably false or ludicrous the message is. It doesn’t matter. I could go on Facebook right now and buy a suite of ads that say Joe Biden is a secret lizard-humanoid hybrid who is going to eat all of you.

Swisher: That was Hillary last cycle, but go ahead.

Wilson: Right, exactly. That’s exactly what you were seeing on Facebook with Pizzagate. She murdered Seth Rich. She’s a part of a global pedophile sex ring, all of these things. It’s so ludicrous, but Facebook believes that its tool is morally agnostic.

Swisher: As a political strategist, don’t you want Facebook to stay, then? What do you use Twitter for? You use it for excitement in generating buzz, correct?

Wilson: The nation’s political media ecosystem lives there. Every reporter in America that’s in the political space is active on Twitter to some degree. Facebook is more amorphous in terms of getting a single political message out to people. When you’re trying to push the dialogue forward on a message, that’s the place you do it.

Swisher: Anywhere else?

Wilson: Not for me, personally. Some people are still arguing that the transition to Instagram is where political comms is going. I’m agnostic about that. I don’t think it’s there yet. You know, I think it’s still too many cute pictures of dogs and kittens, which is basically what I post on Instagram. I keep my politics somewhat separate from my Insta.

Swisher: What about TikTok?

Wilson: TikTok is exploding. I’m one generation behind being able to fully say that I can understand TikTok. I see it out there in enormous numbers. And I see it out there affecting a lot of younger demographics. But the secret of younger voters is that they aren’t voters.

Galloway: Yeah, they don’t vote. Right.

Swisher: Yep.

Wilson: I mean, the average person going to vote in this country is going to be about 56 years old.

Swisher: Jane Coaston of Vox wrote a pretty tough article about the Lincoln Project and you got killed by, was it Colbert? You’ve taken it rather well, I have to say. One of the criticisms is that you guys are spending too much money on yourselves. And the second one is that — and I have raised this with you, and I’ve raised this with George Conway — a lot of the stuff you’ve done previously has been pretty ugly.

Wilson: Sure.

Swisher: So, I look at these ads and I go, “Great job. You’re getting Trump.” Then I think, Oh, no, they’re going to turn these weapons onto more progressive people.

Wilson: Let me settle the Jane issue first.

Swisher: It’s not just Jane; it’s a lot of people.

Wilson: I’ll tell you why some of our critics on the left are pushing this: because Democratic media consultants are getting the shit kicked out of them by their bosses. They’re hearing, “Why aren’t you making ads as fast as the Lincoln Project?” The average Democratic consultant — they get 20,000 views on a YouTube video and they pop the Champagne. Whereas if we don’t get a million views, we’re like, “What the fuck went wrong?”

A lot of the folks also talking about the way we’re structured and the way we’re doing this campaign are looking at the first-quarter numbers. When we started this whole thing off, we thought we’d raise a couple of million dollars, try to do an earned media play, and beat up Trump. Well, that’s not how life turned out. We have taken off in a way that no one could have anticipated. And the fact that we do our operations through an LLC that pays all the producers and the vendors, and the data people and everything else, makes it look suspect in a way that Jane and others have attacked. But the fact of the matter is, we’ve built an enormous organization in a couple of months. And they’re not looking at the second-quarter number where we raised $16.8 million. And I think as of today, we have $14.7 million in the bank this morning. We are saving the resources for the fall fight.

The simplest thing in the world for me to have done, way back in 2016, would have been to shut up. I would have still made a whole lot more money than I did on two best-selling books if I had just shut my mouth. Instead, I grew a soul. So we’re in this fight. Now, the second part of this equation, criticism from the right, that’s very simple: We’ve burned our boats. There is no Republican Party for us to go home to. There’s no Burkey and conservative movement left in this country. The party has been so thoroughly, utterly compromised and destroyed by Donald Trump. If tomorrow Donald Trump and Mike Pence got eaten by wolves and you said, “Hey, Rick, reconstitute the Republican Party.” I’d say no.

Because the Republican Party in 2024, the nominee is going to be Donald Trump Jr. or Tucker Carlson or Josh Hawley or Tom Cotton. Trump is a terrifying figure. He would be an apocalyptically terrifying figure if he didn’t have ADD and he was actually organized and could think about a project for longer than 15 minutes. Tom Cotton or Tucker Carlson as president should scare the shit out of people. So we’ve committed. We’re going to stay in this fight because we laid out a mission at the very beginning. And our mission was to eliminate Donald Trump, to drive him from office.

Swisher: All right. I’m still scared of your evil skills, and I don’t like some of your views, but that’s okay. I don’t mind having a good debate. What is going to change in November? You’re going to go more persuasive, more wide-ranging in lots of states?

Wilson: Campaigns are always decided at the end. Nerds are following the campaign rigidly, attentively on Twitter and on cable TV. Most American voters have an amorphous thing in their head right now. So, yeah, It’s that Trump guy and that Biden guy. I don’t know yet. And that’s political behavior that iterates out over generations. We’ve seen that for many, many years. Especially because the campaign can be altered by exogenous events. Look at 2016. Hillary Clinton’s emails and the Russia leaks were the exogenous event, October surprise, of all time.

So that’s why you back-end your spending. That’s why you back-end your final messaging, your final litigation of the points. But our map has expanded radically since we got into this game. When we started in December, talking about this, we looked at Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Those were the states that were going to swing. Ohio was even a long shot because it was fairly red.

But now, the calculus has radically expanded. Our ability to go into Arizona, and Iowa, and North Carolina, and Georgia, and a whole bunch of other places has increased very rapidly. And Trump’s pathways to victory have narrowed very rapidly. So we will see this fight being waged and won, I think, at the end of the day, in Florida, Arizona, and Ohio, but we’re going to be active in a bunch of other places because it’s a game of very small numbers.

Galloway: Rick, say, you’re a Florida resident who has a little bit of time and a little bit of money. What should that person do if they agree with you that this march toward autocracy is frightening? Counsel a 55-year-old white guy who’s committed to helping flip Florida on how he can best allocate his small amount of time and money this fall.

Wilson: COVID-19 has reconfigured political grassroots campaigning. Fundamentally. Most campaigns have a metric where they want to touch a persuadable voter with email, mail, digital ad, TV ad, five to seven times in the closing five weeks, six weeks.

COVID-19 has changed all the door-knocking stuff. We’re not going to do that this year. We’re not going to go out and organize canvassers in neighborhoods and drive people to the polls. None of that’s going to happen. So it’s all about digital organizing and sharing, because the devil machine that is Facebook allows people to talk about messages that are supportive of Joe Biden. And if Biden continues to do the campaign the way he’s been doing it, it makes it easier for that 55-year-old white guy because he doesn’t scare the shit out of people.

Donald Trump’s dream this year was to select Bernie Sanders as his opponent. Trump would have won 44 states with Bernie Sanders because Bernie is an ancient communist who scares the shit out of people.

Swisher: And Biden should just let you do the mean ads.

Wilson: You know what? Biden’s campaign and a lot of other groups have tuned up their edge. And if we’re leading the way on that at all, I’m proud to say we don’t bring any dull knives to this fight.

Pivot is produced by Rebecca Sananes. Erica Anderson is the executive producer. 

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 



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