It’s hard for me to think of an organization in media that I hate more than the Lincoln Project. That’s an accomplishment, considering that the conservative PR-shop has only been an entity for a little over 10 months. But the organization provokes a very unique ire because what it represents is ultimately far more seductive to normal, well-meaning people than the distasteful daily excesses of outright white nationalist publications like Breitbart and the Daily Caller.
Axios reported today that The Lincoln Project has big plans for after Joe Biden hopefully beats Donald Trump provided Donald Trump doesn’t use his 6-3 Supreme Court to steal the election. The Lincoln Project, like Discourse Blog, is going to become a media company. Here are the relevant bits from Axios:
The group recently signed with the United Talent Agency (UTA) to help build out Lincoln Media and is weighing offers from different television studios, podcast networks and book publishers.
The Lincoln group, which is run by prominent “Never-Trumper” Republicans like Ron Steslow, Rick Wilson, George Conway, Jennifer Horn, Reed Galen, Mike Madrid and Steve Schmidt, has transformed from an election-focused advertising PAC into a media company with millions of followers.
Axios likens the group to Crooked Media, the podcast, video, and live event empire started by former Obama administration staffers who correctly discovered that a broad swath of Americans still get fully torqued for the West Wing and would like to see its vague respectability politics and liberal ideals reflected in shit they listen to in traffic jams in order to feel smart and politically aware. The Lincoln Project has realized the same thing, and adroitly positioned itself to be the Arnold Vinick to Martin Sheen’s Jed Bartlet.
If, for some reason, you are not intimately familiar with the details of the later seasons of the West Wing, Alan Alda plays Vinick, a moderate Republican who runs against President Bartlet’s successor Matt Santos in the 2006 presidential election. Vinick’s politics, in the show, are a liberal’s platonic ideal of Republican values: he is more conservative on tax and trade than Santos or Bartlet and follows the party line on guns, crime and immigration, while not being completely in the pocket of the country’s socially-depraved evangelical lobby (he is, dramatically, an athiest, because his wife died and he got mad at God). He is portrayed by Alda as a thoughtful, respectful leader who represents a threat to Santos because he can potentially swing California for the GOP (he’s from there). Later, Santos likes his honor and Goodness so much that he makes him Secretary of State.
The problem with Vinick is that he is not a real person. This is not to say his politics don’t exist in real life: they do, and many fundamentally decent but tragically miseducated people in the country share them. But they absolutely do not exist in the elected ranks of the modern GOP. They might exist in the Biden administration, which is largely Biden and the Lincoln Project’s entire pitch: vote Blue, and we’ll make the West Wing a reality.
This is an appealing pitch. Many, many people have fallen for it. I’m not quite as cynical about the Lincoln Project’s actual impact as some of my colleagues. For the past few months, I’ve been lurking in a few Facebook groups devoted to the organization, and it seems like their general message and boomer-bait political memes are making quite a splash. Like the various fandoms associated with the online left, the Lincoln Project gives a certain subsection of people the feeling that they belong, that their views are shared, that their vision for the country is possible. That’s not nothing, even if all it amounts to in actual creative capital thus far is a bunch of posts and some TV ads.
The grift, and the danger, is that the people behind the Lincoln Project are not Arnold Vinick. They’re certainly not Jed Bartlet. Instead, if we’re sticking with cultural analogies from a show that premiered in 1999, they are Robert Ritchie, the moronic, racist two-term governor from Florida that Bartlett beats in a landslide re-election campaign in the show’s fourth season.
This fact is apparent to almost anyone who wants to find it. Lincoln Project co-founder George Conway is married to Kellyanne Conway, a contentious relationship both parties have been monetizing since before Trump took office. Another co-founder, Rick Wilson, has a long, long history of Islamophobia and racism and was once pictured on a boat next to a cooler festooned with the Confederate battle flag; Lincoln Project video maven Ben Howe once fantasized about shooting Michael Brown. These people have been telling us who they are for years, but because their new message is one that the American center wants to hear, it has been rewarded with millions of dollars in donations and more glossy media appearances than I care to link to.
It’s clear, now, that this work is not a flash in the pan, get-rich-quick grift. They are in this for the long haul. If they were not, the danger they represent would be minimal — if they truly were in it to make some money off the Biden re-election campaign and then get out, I honestly wouldn’t begrudge them that. But with a media network, you can see how this will play out. Liberals and moderates will tune in and watch. They will absorb the memes. They will feel like they belong, like they have a home online that isn’t the liberal hysteria of MSNBC and that shares their pragmatic disdain for the left. And then the turn will come.
It may start slowly: the group lightly criticizing Biden for making a “concession” to the far left, on social justice or climate reform or any other of the myriad issues a Democratic administration has the chance to make even a tiny incremental amount of progress on. The group’s hosts and founders will characterize this as patriotism, as proof that they were not partisan hacks for Biden, that their ideals come before any candidate. And so it will continue, leading all the well-meaning parents and high school friends and suburbanites back toward the right, insulated by the status quo of respectability that Biden’s victory restored.
By 2024, they will have doubts about Kamala Harris. They will dig up the videos of her saying she supports abolishing the private health insurance industry and paint her as too extreme. Perhaps by then, and certainly by 2028, there will be another candidate to support who does not offend in the way that Trump himself does. Perhaps it will be someone from his administration who was seen as an Adult in the Room, who participated in the barbarism but escaped without being defined by it. They will make their case. It will be palatable to many; the arguments refuting it will have been quashed by four peaceful years of a liberal status quo.
And this new regime will have learned from Trump’s mistakes. Their bans on immigration will be air-tight. Their dismantling of the social safety net will be complete. Their reign over the judiciary will be restored, if they even managed to lose it in the interim. If they do it well enough, like Lincoln, they will have preserved the Union, and they will then help usher in a new era of systemic oppression that will put the post-war Jim Crow era to shame.
These people created the modern GOP, a powerhouse vehicle for deploying fascism at every level of government and society. Their only regret is that Trump is a shitty driver, and they know turning the keys over to Biden for four years will do nothing more than keep their seat warm.