The dramatic music kicks in, playing over clips of Nazis at Charlottesville throwing rocks and carrying tiki torches.
Footage rolls of Donald Trump saying “There were very fine people on both sides”.
The narrator points out that the Confederate flag is one of treason and closes with “For us, it says that this is a time of choosing: America, or Trump.”
Sound like a Joe Biden ad? It’s not. There’s a new set of stars in the Democratic Party, only they’re not Democrats. The Lincoln Project bills itself as anti-Trump Republicans and has issued ads on a wide variety of salient issue fronts. They’ve hammered Cory Gardner, Susan Collins, and Martha McSally for failing to stand up to Trump, taken shots at Fox News, and posted videos of the occupant of the White House simply mumbling incoherently. Card-carrying Dems love the ads and even donate money to see more of them made.
They’re also not to be trusted.
When I was 19 years old, I spent a lot of time opposing the Iraq War, writing op eds for my school paper and attending protests on the National Mall in Washington, DC. We were unable to stop the war because a malicious confluence of factors were working against the pro-peace movement. 9/11 had granted George W. Bush the political capital to do almost whatever he wanted in the arena of foreign policy. Many of the Washington Democrats that are still party elders today, seemingly afraid that the right would paint them as soft on terrorism if they opposed the conflict, ran to the right on the issue and ended up flip flopping and voting for the Iraq War Powers Authorization Resolution in 2002. More than half of Democratic Senators backed the war, including Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer, John Kerry, Chris Dodd, Tom Daschle (the Senate Minority Leader at the time), and Hillary Clinton. Nearly 40% of House Democrats supported the resolution, including the Minority Leader at the time Dick Gephardt, Texas Congressman Gene Green, the recently defeated Eliot Engel, and Adam Schiff.
National media did a poor job challenging the pro-war narrative. I remember one of my fellow classmates amending “Washington Post” to “War-shington Post”. More famously, New York Times Journalist Judith Miller printed a series of longform articles claiming confidential sources had informed her that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. These writings significantly bolstered the Bush Administration’s primary premise for the military action in both the international forum of the United Nations and the court of American public opinion, a premise that turned out to be Grade-A baloney.
Yet the most intentional effort to shove America into war came from the Bush Administration itself and a council of strategists with expertise in law, media, political theory, and military strategy. This council included some well-known forward facing names America has known about for years such as former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. These old guard GOPers all planned and executed a methodical orchestration of the legal basis for war and sold it in the media. All the while, this layered team of operatives was supported by other operatives beneath them in the march toward war through the reelection efforts of the President, laying the groundwork for destroying our democracy before Trump ever took up the mantle as our most horrific symptom.
Many of those architects are now key players in The Lincoln Project. The most notable members of The Lincoln Project are some its founding members:
- Steve Schmidt, who helped George W. Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and John McCain in various campaigns and famously pushed McCain to select Sarah Palin as a running mate in 2008
- Former McCain and Kasich strategist John Weaver (who also happened to work for the DCCC for a short period of time, demonstrating once again that the DCCC is more empathic to Republicans than it is to progressives that challenge the party)
- George Conway, best known as the acrimonious spouse of former Trump campaign manager and Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway. Conway began criticizing the Trump Administration heavily in November of 2018 and formed a group called Checks and Balances, which is meant to call out the busting of legal norms by the Administration but still comprises members of The Federalist Society, a group that has lurched courts to the Right in America
- Jennifer Horn, the former State Chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party who made some fairly outlandish voter fraud claims in 2013 that have been all but scrubbed from the internet, and
- And Rick Wilson, who in 2002 helped design an ad tying Democratic Senator Max Cleland — an amputee who lost both legs above the knee as well as his right forearm in the battlefield — to Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.
Earlier this week, The Lincoln Project announced its Texas Team. Here are just a few of the members:
- Lionel Sosa, a former Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush adviser, was the advertising architect of the media strategy for Texas Senator John Tower. Sosa helped Tower take 37% of the Hispanic vote, more than four times that of any previous statewide Republican. Tower was a staunch segregationist who helped lead the opposition to The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and The Voting Rights Act of 1965, opposed the 24th Amendment, and abstained from voting on The Civil Rights Act of 1968.
- Abel Guerra, an Associate Director of the Office of Public Liaison in the White House during the run up to the Iraq War
- James Foster, who repped both George W. Bush campaigns as well as a slew of Tea Party candidates in 2010, arch conservative John Thune, Jeff Flake, and Doug Ducey, and served briefly as Chief of Staff for the ethically challenged Far Right former GOP Majority Leader Tom Delay
- Jennifer Willis Beech, another two-time George W. Bush campaign alumnus who worked on communications, fundraising, and advance for him
- Rudy Oeftering, an active Republican precinct chair, a 2014 and 2016 state Republican delegate, and 2016 chair of the Victory Committee for the Texas Republican Party, and
- Jacob Monty, who left the Trump Campaign on August 31st of 2016 due to a terrible Trump immigration speech (but somehow was able to stomach Trump’s kickoff in which the candidate implied undocumented Mexicans were “rapists and murderers” “sent” by the Mexican government, as well as another Trump speech in which the candidate claimed crowds of Muslims were cheering 9/11 on the rooftops in New Jersey).
The running theme here is that The Lincoln Project’s leadership was complicit in the Bush Administration and campaigns that supported some of the worst outcomes of the early 21st century. The George W. Bush Administration’s culpability in the Iraq War cost the lives of 100,000 Iraqis, approximately 4,500 Americans and several hundred more from coalition forces. The intervention destabilized the Middle East and paved the way for the rise of the Daesch and the Syrian Civil War; while other factors contributed to the latter, it’s worth mentioning that the death toll of the conflict likely dwarfs that of the Iraq War.
The Bush Administration also:
- Stole the 2000 Election
- Shepherded climate denialists into the halls of power to institutionalize the position of oil and gas companies
- Threw up deliberate legal roadblocks to gay rights
- Slashed taxes for the wealthy in ways that redistributed massive sums of the nation’s wealth to the top 1% through an egregious, norm-breaking reconciliation process
- Implemented the PATRIOT Act, one of the greatest rollbacks of privacy rights of our time and the beginning of the modern surveillance state
- Established the Department of Homeland Security, including ICE and CBP
- Passed the disastrous No Child Behind Act that solidified the Testing Industrial Complex as a cornerstone of our school system
- Blocked stem cell research
- Entirely botched the response to Hurricane Katrina, and
- Deregulated the financial system so severely that we entered The Great Recession
The Lincoln Project is a massive Super PAC. They raised nearly $17 million last quarter. Much of what they have raised came from small donors, but Democratic billionaires are joining the spending spree, too. Stephen Mandel even kicked in a cool million bucks.
The donations make sense from afar. Democrats are laser focused on defeating Trump, as many of them believe he represents a departure from democracy and a long-term threat to the existence of the United States as we know it. And The Lincoln Project is slick. They understand what an effective message looks like and appeal to a centrist sentimentality, a nostalgia for the “good ol’ days” of “more polite” Republicans taking on Democrats.
The problem is that our memory, particularly the memories that evoke nostalgia, are flawed. The 2010 Tea Party Movement was racist, and Texas Republicans have always been either instrumental in upholding that racism or complicitly stood by while it spiraled out of control to the benefit of their bottom line:
- Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz have both played into the themes of “Radical Islam”, “paid protesters”, and “The Radical Left”, including anti-Semitic boogeyman “George Soros”.
- Representative Louis Gohmert once likened allowing an openly gay army secretary to “child rape”, and spun the conspiracy theory that foreign women move to the United States to birth radical Islamic babies.
- Recently defeated Representative John Culberson from right here in Houston once claimed Chinese Students were coming to the United States to take back technology. He also falsely claimed in 2005 that Al Qaeda had infiltrated Laredo by pretending to be Hispanic and that they had killed a border guard, and that he had seen an Al Qaeda training camp across the border.
- The Tea Party painted Hitler mustaches on Barack Obama and argued he was from Kenya, largely at the goading of none other than Donald Trump.
Years before all of this, George H.W. Bush ran the famously racist Willie Horton ad demonizing Black Americans. Ronald Reagan oversaw Iran Contra, paying no price for illegally funding terrorism through the sale of drugs. Republicans escalated mass incarceration through a failed War on Drugs, increasing the number of people incarcerated for drugs from 50,000 to 400,000 from 1980 to 1997 based on a series of Reagan initiatives.
Throughout it all, members of the Lincoln Project stood by and defended the interests of Reagan, the Bush Family, and corporate American conglomerates.
Some might say we should forgive The Lincoln Project Team and start fresh. After all, restorative justice, a largely progressive ideal, rests on the concept that anyone can be forgiven, no matter the crime.
But The Lincoln Project Team has not asked for forgiveness. At no point did anyone in leadership acknowledge their direct wrongdoing nor their role in the rise of Trumpism. To do so would be to admit fault, and it’s hard to admit fault when you’re selling the brand of patriotic heroism. Someone who not only never expresses fault but also positions themselves as a symbol of greatness has not gone through any form of penance for restoration, especially if they have stood by the horrors of the administrations The Lincoln Project has previously served. Some members of the project, as mentioned before, are still active Republicans and were state convention delegates as recently as 2016. Those team members may take a paycheck to oppose trump, but they are all too happy to support the actions of Dan Patrick and Greg Abbott, and commit to electing Republican local, state, and federal officials in territories across Texas.
“But Trump is an existential threat!” a donor might say. “The Lincoln Project is the enemy of my enemy and must be supported!”
That may be true. Certainly, our problems are much deeper than Trump, but perhaps aligning cautiously could make sense, much as past uneasy alliances have been built.
We should not fund it though, nor treat them as heroic. The Lincoln Project has plenty of super donors who are all too happy to pony up so slick ads can be produced that help the old corporate interests of the Republican party assume their former mantle over the incompetent fascist in front of them. When they do, they will continue the same policies that led to him in the first place. The threat of Trumpism will not be extinguished; the battle will simply enter a new phase.
As for the Democratic Party, a trusting alliance with The Lincoln Project spells doom for the party platform. Joe Biden is susceptible to rightward lurch, just as he was when The Lincoln Project Team was defending the Iraq War during his time in the Senate. The Lincoln Project should not be made into a star or featured guest at Democratic clubs. They should be looked at with suspicion and hard conversations, and always from a distance.
Keep your eyes open, and your credit card in your pocket.
Daniel Cohen is an activist based in Houston and chair of Indivisible Houston
Photo: Wikimedia Commons