The rise of Donald Trump has created a new class of disaffected former conservatives. They have rebranded as conscientious objectors to Trump and Trumpism, so motivated by the present threat that partisan politics and policy preferences must take a backseat.
While the Never Trump movement contains myriad smaller organizations fighting for shared resources and often duplicating efforts in the process, its goals are most clearly expressed by a group of former conservative campaign hands and staffers called the Lincoln Project. They’ve set out to elect Democrats up and down the ballot, targeting even the most liberal-leaning Republicans in the Senate. The group purports to target disaffected conservatives and provide the reassurance and support they need to vote for Democrats.
But what the Lincoln Project fails to acknowledge is precisely what led to Donald Trump’s election in the first place: that for millions of American conservatives, policy-oriented convictions are important enough to vote for a conservative candidate they may not like.
There’s a lot that we know about “reluctant” Trump voters—those who held their nose and pulled the lever for him instead of Hillary Clinton in 2016. They are more educated than other Trump voters, and more concerned about traditional conservative issues: growing the economy, privatizing health care, the future of the Supreme Court. They stayed with Trump even in the midst of impeachment because of his handling of the economy. They help explain why Trump’s approval rating—albeit underwater—is remarkably steady.
But the Lincoln Project and its allies have made no effort to assuage the concerns of these skeptical voters. Instead, The Lincoln Project has focused on the clickbait concerns that animate more traditional resistance organizations. Its social media posts and press releases consistently zero in on the latest cause célèbre related to Donald Trump—from the crowds at his rallies to Jared Kushner’s last public appearance and beyond.
But we know that skeptical Trump voters are unmoved by the “bombshell” allegations that dominate media cycles—be it Trump’s taxes, unverified allegations about comments concerning the military, or anything else. At worst, these stories simply reaffirm the things that these voters know: Trump’s morals are questionable, his business acumen is dubious, his convictions are absent. These issues didn’t move these voters before. We shouldn’t expect that to change now.
If the Lincoln Project were serious about winning converts to the Never Trump cause, it would be wrestling with the convictions of conservatives that the Democratic Party stands against or is unmoved by. Its members would be addressing the very real concerns that everyday conservative Americans have: the small-town mother who believes that late-term abortion is murder, the homeowner in suburban Portland or Seattle or Chicago or innumerable other cities concerned by the destruction that often follows Black Lives Matter protests. They should be working tirelessly to assuage the concerns of moderate conservatives that a vote for Joe Biden isn’t opening the gate for a progressive Trojan horse.
Where conviction is concerned, they’ve gone from frustrated Republicans to dyed-in-the-wool Democrats. The Lincoln Project has full-throatedly endorsed a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal to be the next vice president. Their ads about Biden are indistinguishable from those of a Democratic campaign arm. Their most prominent founder, Rick Wilson, calls Trump supporters “the credulous Boomer rube demo” and worse, including right here in The Daily Beast. Their schtick is no different from an innumerable number of other progressive organizations.
The Lincoln Project’s antics treat the issues that keep everyday conservatives up at night—How will I afford to pay my bills? What will the world look like for my kids?—with disdain, if they address them at all.
What they’ve revealed in doing so is not that conservatives don’t care about these kitchen-table issues, but that this once-powerful collection of GOP operatives does not care about the same issues that animate conservatives. As exit polls made clear following the 2016 Election, President Trump won because of the issues—not for his character or experience or anything else.
To the leadership of the Lincoln Project, these issues may be mere window dressing, red meat for the base. In many cases, they’ve said as much, often with colorful language. The group has no qualms with adopting the same type of crude, crass vernacular as Trump.
But people with abiding conservative values who see Trump as a genuine moral threat will not be convinced to vote against him because they see a billboard mocking his tan.
By adopting Trump’s tactics and disposition, combined with a rejection of the policy positions that caused skeptical voters to vote for Trump in the first place, the Lincoln Project surrenders the moral high ground. Even worse, for all his failures, even the most off-put Republican voter could count on a president who was (at least in his words) in their corner. The Lincoln Project has instead thrown in with the other side.
The Lincoln Project has been successful at earning plaudits from outlets that cover politics, securing coveted media appearances for its founders on cable TV and making its founders an enormous amount of money. As the accountability organization Open Secrets points out, “The Lincoln Project reported spending nearly $1.4 million through March. Almost all of that money went to the group’s board members and firms run by them.”
Surely, for many frustrated Democrats, it is comforting to see those who purport to be on the other team become equally outraged about Donald Trump. It likely helps that they’re willing to be as coarse as Trump himself. But insults don’t win hearts and minds. The leadership of the Lincoln Project have decades of campaign experience—surely, they understand this, too.
Trump may well lose re-election. Biden may win over former Trump voters and flip states that Clinton lost in 2016. Should this happen, the Lincoln Project will no doubt declare victory, insisting that they helped contribute to Trump’s downfall.
But they won’t deserve to. They aren’t motivating disaffected conservatives or other Trump skeptics. They are Twitter privateers, scouring the coasts for validation and donations from Democrats. And once Donald Trump is out of office—either in a few weeks, or after four more years—their grift will be up.