Shifting the Shape of U.S. Elections: The Lincoln Project

September 30, 2020

By Sally Bagshaw and Joe Azrack

For those who have just Awoken from a Coma, heard Whispers about the President, or are watching Republican US Senators try to back away from having their Names linked with Trump, The Lincoln Project has news: Trump’s going down and taking those Senators who failed to stand up to him, with him.

The creators of The Lincoln Project - former Republican campaign managers and consultants who want to build a new balanced and fiscally conservative Republican party - are creating the hardest hitting -up-to-the-minute ads designed to provoke Trump’s ego and Wake Up those who voted for him. They support Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden, and they are interviewed here.

A conversation with Rick Wilson and Reed Galen, two of the Founders of The Lincoln Project, to get their thoughts on the current elections and the future of the Republican Party.

Reed Galen is an independent political strategist. He left the GOP in 2016 following the nomination of Donald Trump. He previously worked for President George W. Bush, Senator John McCain and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Rick Wilson is the author of Everything Trump Touches Dies: A Republican Strategist Gets Real About the Worst President Ever. He is a former Republican, national Republican political strategist and media consultant and who has produced television for governors, U.S. Senate candidates, super PACS, and corporations. He is editor-at-large for the Daily Beast.

Sally Bagshaw/Joe Azrack: The Lincoln Project first received notice when you published your opinion piece on December 17, 2019, in the New York Times. How were you able to get the Lincoln Project off the ground so quickly?

Reed Galen: We had a phone call. We set up a website. And, we lit the fuse.

Rick Wilson: Our number one goal is to see this President defeated. We don't make a big move or a big creative decision without all of us talking it through and working it out. We do that very quickly. And we have a no [jerks] rule within our team. Having a no [jerks] rule really matters because with a lot of campaigns their biggest enemy is inside themselves.

Bagshaw/Azrack: As you’ve pointed out in a June video, Trump's not Well and Trump’s approval numbers are falling daily. Can you explain how The Lincoln Project is contributing to those falling numbers?

Wilson: There never was a real Donald Trump as you saw on the Apprentice. As far back as 2015, I remember sitting in a focus group that fall. People were saying, “No, no. He's the richest man in America. He's the best manager who's ever lived. He knows how to negotiate. He can do this. He picks the best people.” And it was all because they had seen it on the Apprentice for 14 years. That was the entire definitional nature of Trump: they've seen a guy on TV and they elected the TV character that they thought he really was.

Bagshaw/Azrack: If people are buying into your conclusion that Donald Trump’s image is really a fiction, what’s making the difference? Why are people’s opinion changing so quickly?

Galen: Over 200,000 Americans are dead. 40 million people are out of work. He was fundamentally incapable of doing the job. We are all seeing that in real time now. The harsh reality of the present is overwhelming the fictional narrative. TV politics, is nothing but a bunch of people doing fake things that have no basis in reality whatsoever on any celebrity or other modicum of success, but we buy it because it's entertaining. Donald Trump is an exact replica of that. He's performance art, he's two dimensional.

Bagshaw/Azrack: Your videos are creating shock waves among Republicans and Democrats alike. Beyond the Presidential race, how is your work likely to impact the US Senate races?

Wilson: I think it's affecting the Senate races already. When we started this process, we were all thinking that the Senate map in play would be Arizona and Colorado, and maybe on a good day, North Carolina. Now the Senate map in play is Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Maine, Alaska, North Carolina, and maybe South Carolina.

Bagshaw/Azrack: In 2014 you both were working for what you call “traditional Republicans.” What has changed?

Galen: Senate Republicans are not Republicans anymore. And they're not conservatives. They are Trumpists. Traditional Republicans believed in individual liberty, fiscal conservatism and a muscular foreign policy. And that America is and should be a beacon for morality.

Where is our country’s policy now? We side with dictators, we pulled troops out of Germany, we turn our backs on our allies. Republicans spent $3 trillion dollars for the first bailout package and now say, well, they’re not going to spend any more because now they have to have this fiscal conservative [trope]. Republicans used to be the party of small government but now they're deploying federal officers and federal forces in American cities to quell anti-racist protests. I refused to be part of that.

These policies and actions aren’t Republican or Conservative anymore. All of that has been shed by the “grand old party”. The current Republican party would rather, as Ted Cruz once said, have 40 true believers in the Senate than a majority including bipartisan senators. That’s loser mentality.

Bagshaw/Azrack: Why aren’t our elected Republican Senators standing up to Trump?

Wilson: It's FOMT - Fear of Mean Tweets. The data is what drives them more than any other factor. They are terrified of Donald Trump's base. They're terrified of Trump tweeting at or about them. It is leading them into this this “box canyon” as Reed likes to call it. They are silent or [assent] on so many of the things that Trump does that they know are morally and politically repugnant. They say this privately to us and to other people. They know how bad it is. They know they're doing the wrong thing. They know they're giving into the worst impulses, but they can't stop themselves because they're terrified of Trump’s tweets and retribution from his base.

Bagshaw/Azrack: What does that say about our elected officials and the future of social media? Let's assume for the moment that Biden wins and we take Trump out of it, at least as President. How will social media be used to influence parties and people over the next four years? Many would say you are doing that right now with the Lincoln Project videos.

Galen: I would say we should not think about it in the context of only social media because that's just a part of the puzzle, although it's a big part. The other is the Donald Trump / Steve Bannon / super powerful Fox News that is a 24/7 machine that pumps out content from whatever sewer pipe it can find into the brains of Americans. It is an effective means of communication. You may hate it, as I do, but you should not underestimate its effectiveness.

Bagshaw/Azrack: Is Trump the root cause of all this divisive social media? Will it calm down if he goes?

Galen: If we look back on the ugliness of the 300-pound guys in their camouflage or their Hawaiian shirts as they march on the Michigan State Capitol with AK 47s carrying the Confederate flag, that was incendiary. I like to say that Sarah Palin knocked on the door of the Tea Party movement. She cracked it open and Donald Trump did the “Here's Johnny” scene from the Shining - You know the scene where Jack Nicholson scared the hell out of everybody, right?

But what Trump also did, I think, is give a bunch of old white guys license to [act badly]. They always wanted to be out front with their racism, but it was never socially acceptable to behave that way and get away with it. Previously, that would not be permitted but now we see a permissiveness that has evolved over the past three years which I believe comes all the way from the White House.

Bagshaw/Azrack: Do independent voters exist who will change their minds and vote for someone different this time?

Wilson: What the Lincoln Project is doing right now in many ways is raising the social cost of continuing to support Trump, his behavior and his policies. We ask, “Do you, suburban parent, educated voter, and independent-leaning voter, support that guy and these values? Is that you dressed in camouflage and carrying an AK-47? Is that what you want to be seen as, to be associated with?” So, we think that by showing this in graphic videos, we may be able to raise the social costs in the eyes and mind of swing voters.

Bagshaw/Azrack: What do Democrats need to do to get and stay elected?

Galen: There's a book by Richard Ben Cramer called What it Takes about the 1988 presidential campaign (which also has a big section about Joe Biden). It's for me my Bible of presidential politics. The conclusion of What it Takes is to being willing to do the things to be elected President that the other people are unwilling to do. For example, would the Hillary Clinton campaign have ever trotted out all the women that Donald Trump had accosted or assaulted over the years? No. But Donald Trump brought every woman that had accused Bill Clinton of that kind of behavior at every debate and that became the story.

Bagshaw/Azrack: Let’s assume Biden is elected and the Democrats retake the Senate. What advice would you offer them?

Wilson: Build Bi-Partisan efforts. Right now, it's not just enough to win a policy battle in Congress, you have to destroy your opponent. You have to burn it all down. I don't see in the immediate future a sort of kumbaya moment where all Republicans and Democrats come back and go, “Oh my God. We've been doing this all wrong.” This country's on the verge; there's going to be more pain before we get out of this particular political, cultural moment.

Bagshaw/Azrack: What impact do you think the protests arising out of George Floyd’s death, growing recognition of Black Lives Matter in every major city and the anti-capitalist movements will have on this election? Will youth and people of color turn out in vast numbers?

Wilson: You know, modeling wise, younger voters are very unlikely to turn out on election day. Now that may be different this year with COVID and all the other externalities that we're facing. But as a general rule, they are not likely voter pool numbers even in Obama’s years. Here’s a fun political fact that people don't realize. The year of maximum youth turnout in the last 40 years the election cycle was with those two young suave handsome charismatic candidates George Herbert Walker Bush and Mike Dukakis; we had 18.1% young voter turnout. So, I don't really spend a lot of time modeling them because the cost of doing business to get them motivated to come out is very high.

Bagshaw/Azrack: As a challenge, assume if youth and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) want to make a difference. What do you recommend?

Wilson: An awful lot of those young voters of color live in California and New York. And I know where California is going to be. And I know where New York is going to be. I don't have to worry about those states. I don't worry about them producing sufficient turnout to put them in the blue column on the electoral college map.

What will make a difference is youth and BIPOC voting in the swing states: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida and Arizona. All those states are whiter and older.

Galen: But I will say that while they may not turn out, I believe that the youth and BIPOC gravitational pull has been massive this year. Their demonstrations, their words, and frankly Trump's reaction and the reaction to the police have been repellent to a lot of suburban white voters.

Bagshaw/Azrack: History shows us that major long-lasting legislation was successful and lasting when agreements were reached and compromises made. Is there a place for renewed bi-partisanship?

Galen: The politics have to change and the power in the policy theoretically could change accordingly. But the policy must be done, if at all possible, in some sort of a bipartisan manner. This means that both parties must want to solve problems for the good of the country first, not try to destroy each other.

Let's do the things that we know most people care about. There's like 10 issues that 70% of the people care about. Mental health care is probably one of them; fixing the roads is probably another.

I mean, the New Deal, The Voting Rights Act, the Great Society, Reagan's tax increases, the stuff that Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich did together whether or not, in retrospect, you think it's good or bad.

Those were all massive policy pronouncements that were done in bipartisan fashion. Right. For all of the desire to have somebody like Barack Obama back personality wise, he pushed Obamacare through on a single party vote using a trick of Senate mechanics to get it done. And there was a massive reaction to it. The Republicans did the same thing in 2017 with their tax decreases and there was a massive reaction to it. “An eye for an eye, and pretty soon we are all blind.”

Bagshaw/Azrack: So, you just shot a warning across the Democrats’ bow. Reach across the aisle - or else. Is it possible to make bi-partisanship real again?

Galen: Not with the Republican Party as is. Yet, to be successful, bipartisanship has to be holistic. Say Joe Biden and the Democrats win the House and win the Senate, take over all the branches of government, except for the judiciary, and they go repeat the same unilateral behavior. If they don’t reach across the aisle, they will lose the House and the Senate in 2022.


Final Note - The Lincoln Project former Republicans are dead serious about rescuing our country by voting in this November elections. As they say on their website, “We understand that action must be taken, now, to protect the institutions that have made the United States the greatest nation the world has ever known.” Or, quoting their name sake, "You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.” – Abraham Lincoln.


About the Authors:


Sally Bagshaw is a 2020 ALI Fellow, former three-term Seattle City Councilmember, and Chief Civil Deputy for the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Sally is a lawyer, mediator, and advocates for government that functions responsibly.



Joe Azrack is a 2020 ALI Fellow. He spent more than 30 years in senior leadership roles in real estate investment management and was appointed by the Governor of Rhode Island to chair a partnership that revitalized and drove economic growth in Providence.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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