The Tactics of the Lincoln Project

When the project’s Twitter account announced the ad’s debut, it made sure to tag Stormy Daniels.

“Shrinking” was in the spirit of another recent Lincoln Project product, called “Trump Is Not Well,” from earlier this month. That ad used footage from Trump’s speech to the graduating class at West Point. Over pictures of the president holding a glass of water with two hands, the voice-over suggested he was suffering from some kind of disability that rendered him unfit for high office, evidently based on the theory that our nation’s commander in chief must be able to sip water with one hand.

The Lincoln Project’s ads—personally abusive, overwrought, pointlessly salacious, and trip-wired with non sequiturs—are familiar: They are undertaken with all the relish the president shows when he jokes about the mental hiccups of “Sleepy” Joe Biden, just as four years ago, he happily implied that Hillary Clinton suffered from some nameless disease. One reason Trump does this is to annoy his opponents; now his opponents’ supporters are returning the favor.

The ads’ intended audience may be a surprise. In December, the PAC’s organizers published a manifesto in The New York Times, to mark their group’s launch. The headline read: “We Are Republicans, and We Want Trump Defeated.”

“The 2020 general election, by every indication, will be about persuasion,” the organizers wrote. “Our efforts are aimed at persuading … disaffected conservatives, Republicans and Republican-leaning independents in swing states and districts.” As for the name, they said, “We look to Lincoln as our guide and inspiration.”

The claim to the mantle of Abraham Lincoln was truer than the organizers knew. Long before he was made a martyr and then a myth, Lincoln was a small-time politician on the Illinois prairie, with a talent for what one of his biographers, Douglas Wilson, called “attack journalism.” Throughout his early career, he filled the columns of party newspapers with scurrilous, usually anonymous assaults on his political adversaries. Lincoln used every tool in the demagogue’s kit—slander, innuendo, mockery. Factual accuracy didn’t restrain him, on those rare occasions when facts were at issue.

Lincoln knew his audience. His readers, Wilson wrote, were “basically partisan.” “They tended to take delight in any and all hits against their political opponents. The seductive appeal of demagogy is, of course, that meanspirited and unfair arguments do score points.”

Such arguments, in other words, thrill those already on board, and only those. The Lincoln Project’s ads are not, as the manifesto claimed, “about persuasion.” Like a Trump rally, the ads work exclusively on the predispositions of the faithful. Try to imagine the “disaffected conservatives” or “Republican-leaning independents” whom the Lincoln Project says it hopes to win over. They straddle their fences, scroll through their timelines, leaning first this way then that … Biden, Trump … Trump, Biden … until at last they come upon a Project Lincoln ad and they discover—can it be?—that the president’s genitalia aren’t functioning nearly as well as the world thought!

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