How did Trump supporters disrupt institutional media

Over media

Violins play softly in the background while Dan Barkhoff, ex-Navy Seal, speaks into the camera:

“Months ago, Donald Trump learned that the Russians had put bounties on dead American soldiers in Afghanistan. He chose not to do anything about it. Any backbone commander in chief would beat the shit out of a few Russians now - diplomatically, economically, or, if necessary, with the same asymmetrical warfare they use to send our children home in coffins. "

The video was produced by the Lincoln Project. The Super-PAC (Political Action Committee) is led by (former) Republicans who call themselves “Never-Trumper”. And it has received a lot of attention in the German media in the past few weeks.

"Trump's most dangerous opponent comes from within his own ranks: the Lincoln Project," was the headline of "Der Spiegel" last week. But headlines like this (as well as reports from Tagesschau, Bayrischer Rundfunk or Deutschlandfunk) either attribute a potential effectiveness to the Lincoln Project that it has not necessarily had so far, or remain rather superficial in consideration - even if the "Spiegel" - Author notes that those who are enthusiastic about the Lincoln Project videos probably wouldn't have voted Trump anyway.

Raised $ 17 million in three months

The self-imposed goal of the Lincoln Project is “to convince enough dissatisfied Conservatives, Republicans and Independents close to the Republican in swing states and swing electoral districts to ensure a victory in Electoral College and majorities that do not make and favor Trump's constitutional breaches ; even if that means that Democrats control the Senate and the Democratic majority is extended to the White House ”.

The Lincoln Project spots go viral, made to get in the news, to offend Trump - they do. But whether they convince previous Republican voters is questionable.

There are some aspects that have so far been neglected in German reporting. First of all, there are the finances: According to "Vox" (as of 08/20/20), the Lincoln Project raised almost $ 17 million in donations in the second quarter of this year alone, but has so far spent less than $ 8 million on election advertising - compared to Democratic PACs that very little.

Another point of criticism: the places where the spots are broadcast. One of the largest advertising block purchases for over two million dollars is only in Washington DC - a part of the country that has little impact on the election result; another $ 200,000 was spent on New York City, writes Peter Kafka of "Vox" - in New York where Trump has no chance of victory anyway.

Trump-style attacks on Trump

To defeat Trump with the stylistic means of a republican election campaign, that is the goal of the Lincoln Project. Trump had repeatedly questioned Hillary Clinton's health and fitness for the 2016 presidency. The Lincoln Project now used the hashtag #TrumpIsNotWell in the same style against him.

There are certainly Democrats who wish their own party would dare to produce such theatrical, sensational spots as the Lincoln Project does.

But there is a reason why the Biden campaign is less reliant on blockbuster-style negative ads. Spots are expensive and candidates' election campaigns invest heavily in targeted surveys to find out what draws the groups of voters they are supposed to target. Anyone who is still undecided now - after Trump's policies in recent years and after his catastrophic management of the pandemic - who to vote for will not be convinced by a spot that only aims to offend Trump Vote Biden.

Who is actually behind it?

The Lincoln Project itself admits that it currently has one main target group: the Twitter junkie in the White House. If the strategy were just to make Trump white hot in order to produce public "meltdowns" (or more than usual), then that would be effective enough. Because the spots are popular with Trump: he regularly tweets angry about the renegade Republicans, whom he sees as democratic submarines.

On the democratic side, too, the motivation behind the Lincoln Project is viewed with skepticism. To some, the Lincoln Project seems to be a cornerstone for those involved to get off to a political start in the post-Trump era - with the spots as proof of their lonely "sincerity" in the GOP (Grand Old Party). At first glance, that may sound cynical - but on the democratic side, caution is absolutely necessary. Because it does indeed seem morally questionable when the members of the Lincoln Project themselves have been campaigning against Democrats for years that didn't sound much different from the Trumps.

For example, one of the co-founders of the Lincoln Project, former Republican strategist Rick Wilson. He was responsible for an election spot in the running for the Georgian Senate seat in 2002 between Saxby Chambliss (Republican) and Max Cleland. In this spot, Cleland (a Vietnam veteran with triple amputations) was described as a coward in the war on terror. The tone and narrative are similar to the Lincoln Project. In 2016, Wilson told the Huffington Post: “The spot was built ugly. It should be primitive and fast. It's a very ugly spot because we wanted people to focus on the votes [Cleland's voting behavior]. "

The "notorious negative campaigner"

Wilson produced spots for George W. Bush and Rudy Giuliani, among others, and he advertises himself on his website as a “notorious negative campaigner”. John Weaver, also co-founder of the Lincoln Project, was for a long time one of John McCain's closest advisers and worked as a strategist for Ticket McCain / Palin, while Steve Schmidt worked for George W. Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger and John McCain. Also there from the beginning was George Conway III, also a longtime Republican and, ironically, the husband of Kellyanne Conway, an adviser to Trump.

At least it will be until the end of August. Then Kellyanne Conway wants to retire from the White House. Her husband has already left the Lincoln Project. Both cited the reason that they wanted to devote more time to their families.

Critics accuse the Lincoln Project of seeing only Trump as a problem and not the Republican Party's path to Trump, on which they themselves worked.

Positive messages about your own candidates have a stronger effect

It is perfectly appropriate to question their intentions critically. Nonetheless, it can be helpful for the Democrats to have the President's mistakes dramaturgically worked up again and again through Lincoln Project spots in the voter timelines and in the news flow of the broadcasters, just as Trump is enraged to see the spots . However, there is a plausible answer to the question of many demo cards “Why can't we produce such videos?”: Science provides it.

A new study by political scientists at Berkeley University has shown that Democrats should focus on their own candidate in their spots because positive messages about him are more effective than negative messages about Trump. The study shows that even if the view of Trump was changed by negative ads, the voting intent of those who wanted to vote for him did not change.

That means: This election is also unusual in that the Democrats are running against a candidate whose followers follow him in a cultic way. The Republican "Attack Ad" style is unlikely to affect Republicans who plan to vote for Trump for that very reason. Because it shows: In a cult the cult leader is not vulnerable to the believers, even if you try to attack him with your own iconography and language.

The Democrats would do well to keep their campaign spots focused on their own candidate and his deputy. Because when it comes to negative things about Trump, there is a kind of “saturation effect” of information about Trump on voters: some tend to switch off rather than take what has been said to heart.

Too much criticism of the Republican Party?

There is another reason, also called "Vox", why the Lincoln Project is likely to have a deterrent effect on Republicans: The Lincoln Project no longer stops at attacks on Trump. In one spot, the self-proclaimed “Never-Trumpers” swear that they (and the audience) will hold the names of all Republicans in Congress and Senate, who still support Trump and thus complicit, responsible: “Learn . Your. Names. Remember what they did. And never trust them, never again. "

This is a problem for Republicans who are critical of Trump and who have not left the party, because they often say that only Trump is the problem. This reading fails to recognize that it was the Conservative Party establishment that made Trump possible, whose years of populist, racist and divisive rhetoric paved the way for Trump.

So if the Lincoln Project vows to take on prominent Trump supporters of the GOP - with the exception of former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, virtually the entire party establishment - and never trust them again, the conservatives who are only against Trump will be frightened off. Because their goal is only to get away from the embarrassing person Trump without causing the party any more damage.

At the same time, allegations were made that some meme content that the Lincoln Project shared on social media channels as its own was plagiarism.

Not on Twitter? Not seen.

In the past few weeks, the Lincoln Project has changed course slightly. Instead of just producing videos attacking Trump or his political circles, they posted commercials promoting Biden in a more positive way. For example, about the death of civil rights legend John Lewis, to whom they dedicated a video, or spots in which Biden is portrayed as a good and caring single father. They also campaign for democratic candidates in local elections.

In addition, the Lincoln Project uses other delivery channels for its videos. Recently, the Super-PAC announced that it had bought $ 1 million in campaign ads in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Despite all the criticism of the Lincoln Project, the aforementioned spot with the conservative ex-Navy Seal could still be one of the most effective, writes Abdul El-Sayed on Crooked Media, because, as election campaign expert Dan Pfeiffer (video) also says, conservative voters were more likely to listen to conservative political message carriers.

But here, too, place and time play a role: El-Sayed writes that the Navy Seal spot was only on television for one day. So if you don't live in the political Twitter bubble, you've probably not seen it.

The author

Annika Brockschmidt is a freelance journalist. Her specialty is genocide studies with a focus on the crimes of the Einsatzgruppen in World War II behind the Eastern Front against a psychological-historical background. She produces the podcasts "Forza Love of Opera" and "HistoPod" and can be supported on Patreon.