It’s hard not to enjoy the extended implosion of The Lincoln Project over the past month. For a brief, brilliant year, America’s premier assembly of pedophile lookalikes raised seemingly endless amounts of money from gullible liberals, pledging that it would ignite an anti-Trump insurgency on the right. Now, almost every prominent figure linked with the group has been exposed as a liar, scammer, or outright sexual predator. Its total collapse appears imminent.
The Lincoln Project was a grift, one of the largest ever executed in American politics. As a future U.S president once said, it’s good to see bad people fail:
But Republicans can only enjoy themselves so much. While The Lincoln Project’s collapse is entertaining, the stark reality is that its brand of scam has flourished on the right for years. This scam will continue, until a superior conservative movement is born that demands real accountability of its operatives.
At its inception, The Lincoln Project vowed to win over other disaffected Republicans. The group pledged not only to knock Trump from the White House, but also defeat Trump-aligned incumbents in order to deliver President Biden a durable governing majority.
It didn’t work. While President Trump was narrowly defeated, he performed even better among Republicans than in 2016. In the House, Democrats lost seats, securing one of the feeblest majorities in U.S. history. In the Senate, the Project’s efforts were a catastrophic failure.
[T]he Lincoln Project spent $4.3 million trying to unseat Alaska GOP Sen. Dan Sullivan, who went on to win by 12 points.
The group’s founders also dropped $2.4 million in South Carolina where Sen. Lindsey Graham thumped Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison by double-digits.
They splurged another $2.7 million in Montana trying to unseat GOP Sen. Steve Daines who beat Democrats Steve Bullock by 10 points, and nearly $1.7 million against Maine Sen. Susan Collins. [NY Post]
It’s no surprise at all that The Lincoln Project didn’t actually win over any conservatives. Its leaders were failing to win over conservatives when they were Republicans. The leaders of The Lincoln Project ripped off Democrats for one election cycle. But they were ripping off Republicans for decades.
Consider Steve Schmidt, who recently resigned from the Project following a bizarre letter where he claimed to have been molested by a camp counselor as a boy and announced his conversion to Judaism.
— Steve Schmidt (@SteveSchmidtSES) February 13, 2021
Schmidt said those things to distract from more immediate issues, like his possibly-illegal decision to tweet out private messages between a former Project staffer and a reporter.
Before starting The Lincoln Project, Schmidt spent decades as a GOP operative. His most prominent job was serving as top campaign strategist for John McCain’s failed 2008 presidential campaign. Schmidt lost badly, of course, but it’s not just a matter of losing.
Schmidt showed the remarkable ability to be both incompetent and cynical. As one of the biggest boosters of Sarah Palin, his only interest in populism was as a way to fire up the base and make sure their energy and indignation didn’t end up anywhere productive. Once populism threatened to actually achieve things, in the person of President Trump, Schmidt turned against the movement and defected (though only after trying to get a job from it, first).
Schmidt’s story, with slight variations, is repeated across The Lincoln Project. Sexual predator John Weaver spent his career in the orbit of GOP candidates like John McCain, Jon Huntsman, and John Kasich (given his proclivity for Johns, it’s no surprise Weaver was eager to have young men prostitute themselves for jobs). Throughout this entire period, Weaver’s harassment of young men was a widely-shared rumor. Karl Rove was warning people about it in the 1980s. But of course, Weaver’s career was never harmed. When Mitt Romney lost in 2012, Weaver’s takeaway on Twitter was to spout that “In our party, intolerance can no longer be tolerated.” Consistently, Weaver’s recommendation after political defeats was that Republicans should behave more like Democrats.
“We’re kidding ourselves if we think we’re actually going to see a significant effort to change the way the party looks at issues in Washington,” Weaver said in an interview with RCP. “The first thing you have to do is accept the reality demographically of where the country is, and I don’t think our party yet has done that. And unfortunately, the votes on gun safety or immigration or anything else are not going to be indicative of how the whole party feels.” [RealClearPolitics]
Such were the political insights of John Weaver: The duty of “conservatives” was to run losing races and then capitulate to Democrats. When a Republican leader finally appeared who refused to do that, Weaver decided to ply his “trade” elsewhere. In fact, he’d done it before. During the early 2000s, Weaver worked for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and affiliation that proved no barrier at all when he returned to play a prominent role in Republican politics.
The scam that Weaver pulled on Republicans was far worse than the one he pulled on Democrats in 2020. Weaver helped bilk Democrats out of their money to fund useless ads that won over nobody. But he conned Republicans in a far deeper way. For years, he was a “top Republican operative” whose chief ideological goal was driving the party to the left and selling out its voters.
There are hundreds of people like this in the Republican Party, and they have a spectacular talent for wasting the money of Republican donors who naively believe they are pushing back against the left. The conservatism-industrial complex takes dollars and transmutes them into defeats for the movement and riches for itself. One of their biggest feeding frenzies was the 2016 primary race. In that cycle, between direct campaign fundraising and allied PACs, Ted Cruz spent $142 million. John Kasich spent $45 million. Jeb Bush managed to burn $152 million flailing about in a race where he never once polled higher than 10%. Scott Walker spent $33 million on a campaign that lasted only two months and was finished by September 2015.
Even when Republican operatives have stopped enriching themselves long enough to win a campaign, the victories are always hollow. They produce no durable wins for their voters, no change in the country’s trajectory. They never seem to mind. Instead, the only existential crisis came in 2016, when Donald Trump ran on the radical idea of not submitting to the left’s moral imperialism, and playing to win for real. Unsurprisingly, his campaign thrashed the better-funded campaigns run by grifting political consultants. Sadly, four years later the president fell for his own political scam. 2020 Campaign manager Brad Parscale made millions funneling Trump re-election dollars to himself, and squandered a billion-dollar campaign war chest. Even nationalists aren’t immune to grift.
All of this reveals a bigger truth. It reveals that the American right isn’t an equal, competing ideology on the American political scene. And it’s not meant to be.
Conservatism and the right therefore have a very specific, subordinate function to play within the ecology of American politics and the power structure more broadly — and this is the soil that largely conditions what is able to grow on the right. The function of conservatism and the right is to provide an illusion of democratic choice within a carnivalesque playpen designed to suck money out of gullible donors and votes from gullible citizens. Usually, conservative mouthpieces in the media or politics aren’t allowed to touch hot button issues, but when they are, it is to maximize indignation and minimize actual effectiveness — complain about Big Tech censorship in the most hyperbolic and performative way imaginable and do nothing about it, for instance. The conservative, right wing machine exists to distract, deflect, and to gin up indignation and rage, while ensuring that these collective emotions are channeled into unproductive or counter-productive ends.
The lesson of l’affaire Lincoln Project is not simply one of grift and perversion. The sordid situation gestures toward a much bigger problem which has to do with the limitations of the conservative, right wing apparatus in the United States and all of the bottlenecks, seen and unseen, that contribute to its ultimate ineffectiveness. This is a larger problem that must be studied relentlessly, soberly, and ruthlessly, before anything real can happen in our politics.
When a movement’s purpose isn’t actually to win or deliver for its voters, it’s no surprise that the people who rise up within that movement will be some combination of dumb, corrupt, and cowardly, or that the institutions they create reflect such character. An army of top Republicans jumped to the Democrats, and their business was a repulsive, obvious scam that collapsed immediately under scrutiny. That says plenty about them, but it says just as much about the party whose top operatives and infrastructure empowered them for years.
Sure, it’s funny to see John Weaver, Steve Schmidt, and Rick Wilson humiliate themselves. But conservatives must remember that countless people like them continue to brand themselves as Republicans, and will soon try to “reclaim” the party for creatures like Nikki Haley and Liz Cheney. They must be ready to reject them, and demand a real movement that plays for keeps, whose activists are in politics to crush the left, not to scam the people dumb enough to trust them.