When Trump Goes Low, They Go Lower

"I Voted" stickers are displayed across a table

By Joy Portella—


I’m a liberal convert. I grew up in a Republican family adoring Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul (almost interchangeably) and digging on a romanticized version of American freedom and optimism. My relatives are mostly Republicans, and while we disagree on politics, they’re my people and I love them.


My roots are what make President Trump particularly confusing to me. If you’ve hated Republicans your whole life, Trump is just part of the continuum of wretched stuff.  But if you love a lot of Republicans, and you know they’re not fire-spitting demons, it’s hard to make sense of this guy.


On an intellectual level, I understand it. I know about the insidious influence of Fox News, and the evil genius of Newt Gingrich manipulating C-SPAN, and the revolution of the Tea Party, and how all of that helped get us to where we are now. But on a gut level, it remains very difficult to reconcile Donald Trump with the church-going, hard-working, educated, and fiscally conservative folks I know and love.


If I’m feeling this way as a West Coast liberal, I can imagine how baffled some members of William F. Buckley’s Republican party are feeling. That’s why, with less than a week to go before the elections, I’m entranced by the communication antics of a band of Never Trumper Republicans.


The Lincoln Project announced its arrival into the world less than a year ago with a scathingly anti-Trump oped in the New York Times. Founded by a foursome of prominent Republicans who previously worked for President George W. Bush, Senator John McCain, and others, the Lincoln Project has a single goal: to make sure that Trump and the Republicans who support him do not get elected next month.


Their view is that the party has rotted with the ascendence of Donald Trump and it must be defeated. Their weapon is campaign-style communications—the meanest, dirtiest kind. Unfettered by any obligation to play nice or be civil, they hit Trump with his own tactics: masterful use of social media and videos to mock, bully, and poke at the people they despise. When Trump goes lower, the Lincoln Project goes lower; they get down and wrestle in the mud.


And it seems to be resonating—at least with donors. The Lincoln Project is a super political action committee (super PAC) that has raised $59 million, more than $39 million just in July-September. And they get under Trump’s skin. After the now-famous “Morning in America” video (more info on that in a bit) aired on social media and Fox News in May, Trump went on a Twitter rampage against the Project’s founders calling them “losers” and “RINOs (Republicans in name only) and using lots of random capitalization and exclamation points—a sure sign that you’ve made an impression with the President.


The Lincoln Project has also acquired an impressive following of both Never Trump Republicans and Democrats. They have 2.5 million Twitter followers and nearly 700,000 YouTube subscribers. Their YouTube videos routinely get two, three, or four million views.


And the videos are brilliant. As Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post pointed out, the videos work so well because they are created with rapid speed, often multiple videos a day, to capitalize on the most timely issues and they use Trump’s own words and actions against him. Some of the videos—like the recent “Rats” that shows Republicans fleeing the Trump ship and taunts the President that “you’re losing”—seem to be solely intended to get into his head. Others—such as the July video “New” that mocks Ivanka Trump and the family’s infamous nepotism—are both smart and mean.


But my favorite Lincoln Project videos are the ones that underscore how Trump has betrayed Americans, and especially traditional Republicans. “Mourning in America” is a parody of the 1984 “Morning in America” ad that helped get Ronald Reagan reelected to a second term. In the original, an earnest narrator explained that the country is “prouder, stronger, and better” under Reagan’s leadership as sunny visuals of [very white] Americana float by.


“Morning in America” was hailed as one of the smartest political ads of its kind because it very adeptly tapped into the feelings, not the facts, of positivity that many people had under President Reagan. In its successor, a similar-sounding narrator claims that America is “weaker, sicker, and poorer” under President Trump as pictures of COVID dead and unemployment lines populate the screen. For Reagan Republicans, it must be cringeworthy.


There are two critiques of the Lincoln Project that are worth mentioning. One is that, despite all the hype—including lots of love from progressives like me—we’re not sure if it will add up to much in the election. There are lots of data on the reach of their videos, for example, but not much indication that they’re moving public opinion. And as political observer and communicator Drew Holden points out in The Daily Beast, the Lincoln Project’s basement-low tactics may be missing an opportunity to address the concerns of Republican voters and help redirect the party.


The other critique is that they’re funneling money to their advisory board and communication and digital firms run by friends of the Lincoln Project’s founders. This sounds bad but also typical DC.


What’s the Lincoln Project up to next? The group has put a lot of energy into reaching swing states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and like everyone else, they’re watching the polls. They are also embroiled in a legal controversy with Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. Their lawyer is threatening to sue for defamation over a pair of billboards placed in Times Square that depicts the duo as indifferent to Americans’ suffering. Apparently indifferent to Kushner/Trump suffering, the Lincoln Project’s lawyers responded with a letter that read, “Please peddle your scare tactics elsewhere.”


While the real impact of the Lincoln Project remains to be seen, their unique profile and prominent voice has been undeniable. Co-founder Jennifer Horn, former Chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, recently told theNew Yorker: “My country is so much more important than my party. My optimism comes from the belief that the majority of Americans feel the same way.”


Fingers crossed.

About The Author

Joy Portella

Joy Portella

Founder and President

Joy leads the Minerva Strategies team, providing senior-level direction to every client. Her skills have been honed through more than two decades of experience helping organizations more effectively communicate with media, donors, policymakers and other key audiences.

Prior to establishing Minerva, Joy spent five years as director of communications at the international humanitarian organization Mercy Corps. She guided Mercy Corps’ messaging, media relations, and crisis communications, and traveled extensively to document work in global hotspots including the Horn of Africa, the Gaza Strip, and North Korea. Previously, Joy worked for a decade at leading communication firms – Burson-Marsteller, Ruder Finn and SS+K – in New York and Washington DC.