“The Republican Party must be defeated electorally anywhere and everywhere, and it must be left a smoking ruin so that someone can come in and rebuild a new, different, second party in this country,” Reed Galen, one of the group’s co-founders, told The Independent.
The Lincoln Project, which produces anti-Trump video ads, is often described in news reports as a group run by “anti-Trump Republicans.” In an exclusive interview with The Independent, however, Mr Galen said that even if that’s how they started, it’s not who they are now.
“We’re a pro-democracy organisation,” he said. “And in this time in American politics and in American history, we are saying that the Democratic Party is the only pro-democracy party left in this country.”
The strategist made clear, however, that this doesn’t mean he or his colleagues are Democrats. In fact, Mr Galen spent much of his pre-Trump career working on Republican campaigns, including for George W Bush, John McCain, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The project’s other co-founders have well-established GOP bona fides as well, though many of them have changed their registration to “independent” in recent years.
But at this point, Mr Galen says, the primary struggle in American politics is not between Democrats and Republicans, but between democracy and authoritarianism. The Lincoln Project’s purpose is to disrupt the authoritarians – and he makes it very clear who those are.
“The Republican party is irredeemable in its current form,” Mr Galen said. “It is an anti-democratic movement in this country.”
This strategy helps explain the group’s recent ads, which nudge former president Donald Trump toward fighting with other Republicans, often with bullying language.
“If you don’t do something soon, you can kiss 2024 goodbye,” one recent video tells the ex-president.
The ads – which run on Fox News, a channel Mr Trump is known to watch obsessively – appear to be baiting the ex-president into running another campaign. But Mr Galen says that’s not the point.
“Why do we say maybe Mitch McConnell is too powerful for you?” he said. “Not because we want to goad [Mr Trump] into running for president, but because we want to prey on his worst instincts and biggest fears.”
The goal is to sow discord in the Republican Party – mainly between its establishment wing, led by Senate Minority Leader McConnell, and its MAGA insurgents, led by Mr Trump.
“We want them fighting,” Mr Galen said.
As the 2022 congressional elections approach, the hope is that a few provocative ads could help fuel a “proxy war” between the two camps’ candidates, “spending time and resources on fighting each other as opposed to fighting the Democrats.”
The danger of this strategy, of course, is that the pro-Trump candidate could win – not just in a primary, but in a general election. And that’s not just hypothetical. MAGA candidates like Florida governor Ron DeSantis, Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Colorado congresswoman Lauren Boebert have all won office. And the biggest example of all, of course, is Mr Trump himself, who many saw as an easy opponent to beat in 2016.
When asked about this risk, Mr Galen’s answer was philosophical.
“How many bad things in human history have happened because we said, well, we’re afraid of that other bad thing happening?” he asked. “If I have my choice between an established ... Republican up against [Democratic congressman] Tim Ryan, or a whacked-out Trump goon up against Tim Ryan, I’d probably take the whacked-out Trump goon.”
“Now, are they going to win?” he went on. “Maybe, but I can’t control that. All I can do is say, what do we believe are our best options for making sure a Republican doesn’t take that seat?”
If 2020 is any indication, this strategy has had some success. The Lincoln Project endorsed Joe Biden that year, and focused its ads on “messing with Trump’s brain” and “making him look more ridiculous.” There’s no way to measure the effect of that psychological campaign on the election, but Mr Biden did win.
Since then, the group has struggled. In January 2021, one of the Lincoln Project’s co-founders, John Weaver, was accused in a New York Times article of sexually harassing over 20 young men. Mr Weaver apologised, but several other members resigned from the group.
Those who remain, however, say they have a clear sense of purpose, long after the 2020 election. When a pro-Trump mob attacked the United States Capitol, Mr Galen says it clarified his sense of what American democracy is up against.
“They came within seconds ... of overturning the country,” he said. “Some famous person or historian said, coups that fail that aren’t adjudicated – they’re just a practice run.”
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