The week of Labor Day, the founders of the Lincoln Project, a super PAC of Republican operatives who have disavowed their own party in order to defeat President Donald Trump, set up a war room in a location far outside Washington, D.C. Since January, the group, whose founders include the consultants Steve Schmidt and Rick Wilson, had been targeting Trump with the kind of merciless ads that the strategists had aimed at Democratic candidates throughout their careers. A spot titled “Regret” features the comedian David Cross offering such a long list of Trump’s flaws—“the blatant racism, and the crass sexism, and the deranged narcissism, and pandering to Nazis”—that the recitation is still unspooling as the ad fades out. This type of message is aimed at convincing Republican voters that Trump’s dangerous and divisive impulses imperil the country. Another type of ad is designed to unsettle a single viewer—the President himself—and often appears during TV programs he is likely to watch. “Shrinking” directly addresses Trump, saying, of his notorious Tulsa campaign rally, in June, “You’ve probably heard this before, but it was smaller than we expected.” The founders knew that they were getting to the President when he started tweeting and talking about them, predictably calling their organization the Losers Project.
The founders, who consider themselves Trump “anthropologists,” try to predict the President’s missteps, stockpiling material that can be deployed at the ideal moment. A recent spot, “P.O.W.,” contrasted images of honorable military service with Trump’s denigration of people in the armed forces. The ad débuted shortly before The Atlantic reported that Trump, during a 2018 trip to France, had refused to visit an American cemetery and had referred to the war dead as “suckers.” In the ensuing public outcry, the Lincoln Project tweeted, “Let’s show @realDonaldTrump what real heroes look like,” and asked its followers to tweet photographs of veterans, hashtagged #WeRespectVets. Within an hour, the hashtag had become the leading Politics topic on Twitter.
On September 9th, the group released an ad about the South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, “Parasite,” in which gruesome footage of feasting maggots is accompanied by narration mocking Graham’s obeisance to Trump: “Parasites don’t care if they feed off a good host—or an evil one.” At one of the strategists’ regular morning meetings, Wilson—a gregarious Floridian, an aggressive adman, and the most likely of the founders to swear in public—said that a reporter had asked him, “What do you guys say when people think that you’re using the same harsh tactics and language that Trump uses?” Wilson said, “I was, like, ‘Who gives a fuck?’ I was, like, ‘Dude, I’m not running for President.’ ” Schmidt, who headed John McCain’s 2008 Presidential campaign and now elegantly eviscerates Trump on MSNBC, reminded the group that the President has insulted everyone from Gold Star families to disabled people. The Project had endorsed the Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, and was airing positive spots about him, with titles like “Decency.”
The founders discussed how to target their advertising in such swing states as Florida, Arizona, and Pennsylvania. Stuart Stevens, an adviser who has worked on five Presidential campaigns, suggested, “Basically, look at it like we’re running three governor’s races.” It would waste resources, he warned, to try “to boil the ocean.”
An excerpt of Bob Woodward’s new book, “Rage,” had reported that Trump knew about the deadliness of the coronavirus in early February yet went on to promise that the virus was going to “disappear.” The founders decided to…