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Showtime’s ‘Lincoln Project’ doc, like the super PAC, is noisy but not all that effective

It felt like watching a reality TV show about a group of attention-seeking political consultants.
104 - Angels with Dirty Faces - Rick Wilson in The Lincoln Project, "Eve of Destruction."
Rick Wilson in The Lincoln Project, "Eve of Destruction."Courtesy of Showtime

Showtime’s five-part docuseries about The Lincoln Project, the super PAC founded by multiple well-known Republican strategists and operatives with a shared contempt for Donald Trump, reminds me a lot of the organization’s work in 2020: noisy but not necessarily all that effective in realizing its stated goals.

I understand the desire for a documentary on the organization because it checks off boxes that would make the average viewer curious about its inner workings. There’s scandal, egos, Trump and money.

I understand the desire for a documentary on the organization because it checks off boxes that would make the average viewer curious about its inner workings. There’s scandal, egos, Trump and money.

It’s not that The Lincoln Project founders shouldn’t be proud of the house they built.  It raised $90 million to fight against Trump. Also, to its credit, the organization drew the ire of the former president repeatedly throughout the 2020 election with its ads — which racked up a few hundred million views. Those videos comforted people angry and depressed about the era of politics Trump had incited. 

But as we immediately learn from the first few minutes of episode one — and throughout the series, which premiered Friday — the founders were way too proud of themselves.

This docuseries, directed by  Karim Amer and Fisher Stevens, captures the unprecedented super PAC from its formation at the onset of the 2020 presidential election and its fast rise to its just as fast fall from public favor after a sexual harassment scandal and questions about how it spent the large sums raised to stop Trump’s re-election. The problem is it’s done in a way reminiscent of a reality show — in this case, about a group of attention-seeking political consultants.

On the plus side, viewers get to see the backstory of the organization’s founders. It is a great reminder of how rooted these people were in the Republican Party. 

Audiences should see co-founder Rick Wilson in photos with former New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani and ex-vice president Dick Cheney. We should know that, according to Wilson, Steve Bannon targeted him in 2015, and it gave him more drive than ever to defeat Trump and his enablers.  

Even if many of us know the story, we, too, must revisit co-founder Steve Schmidt and his history of managing John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign — which elevated former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, someone many view as helping to pave the way  for Trump’s political ascension.  

However, this docuseries takes it up an unnecessary notch. There is far too much backstory for too many different people — including for numerous staff members — and much of it seems unrelated to the group and its purported mission to save democracy.

There is far too much backstory for too many different people — including for numerous staff members.

We certainly didn’t need shots of all of the male co-founders at a gun range — looking like extras from “Yellowstone” or something.

It all comes across as filler. The same goes for the recurring reprise of Trump’s controversies. If the intended audience is made up of those who believe the former president is a threat to the U.S. and should be held accountable for something, I’m not sure it’s needed. Trump detractors already have an ongoing list of complaints, after all

We also definitely didn’t need so much footage of various fans — including celebrities — and Lincoln Project members talking about how cool, popular and great the organization is. 

It’s fine to take yourself and your work seriously, but hubris doesn’t make for entertaining viewing — not in this context, anyway. 

To be fair, there is admitted knowledge of critiques of the organization from a senior staff member, who said that by the end of the election the leaders wanted to show they all were more than just former Republicans creating viral ads. 

At least there is some level of self-awareness of the organization’s failings, especially considering that in 2020, The Lincoln Project spent $12 million attempting to defeat incumbent GOP senators in seven key races, and Republicans scored  7-0 in those contests.

Moreover, studies conducted by the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA during the election found that the Lincoln Project’s ads, while a hit on Twitter, didn’t make the same impact when presented to persuade undecided voters.

At the time of that revelation, not even The Lincoln Project disputed it. Reed Galen, a co-founder of the group, told The Daily Beast: “We were pretty clear from the get go about the lanes of our strategic outreach. The first one, which made the most noise, was for the audience of one. That was the stuff directed at Trump, the campaign, the White House, and the family.” 

They seemed to keep telling themselves this was a winning strategy in spite of all signs to the contrary. 

I’m not the type to yell back at the screen, but I was really tempted to over these five hours.

I’m not the type to yell back at the screen, but I was really tempted to over these five hours. 

When a network like Showtime makes an exhaustive documentary about an organization and its founders, a lot of people understandably would believe that organization and the individuals behind it had done something consequential.

And while I won’t deny the coverage The Lincoln Project garnered during and after the 2020 election, is it all that hard to troll someone like Trump? 

The best parts of the docuseries include senior adviser Stuart Stevens acknowledging his role in helping the GOP become “a white grievance party.” 

Indeed, many of the founders are acolytes of strategist Lee Atwater, mastermind of “the Southern strategy,” which exploited racial animus for political gain. It’s a strategy Trump took but repackaged to become louder, more aggressive and arguably more successful. 

Stevens said that he and the co-founders felt a personal responsibility to defeat Trump and Trumpism. I wish we saw more introspection like this from the group’s founders. 

As we see over the course of multiple episodes, for all their political work over decades, they didn’t employ the best tactics.

It’s a point Jennifer Horn, the lone female co-founder of the group who left in 2021, tries to make. The former head of the Republican Party in New Hampshire, who described herself as a conservative New England grandmother, was the only one to remind the men around her that the point of their ads and work was to get people to vote for Joe Biden — not troll people. 

Of course, there is also the matter of John Weaver, a co-founder who 21 men accused of online harassment — an accusation that heavily damaged The Lincoln Project’s reputation. Weaver, who is not all that present in the documentary, has denied the claims. 

All of the verbosity by Wilson and others is less present when asked to address the scandal’s aftermath, which is not totally surprising.

There is a casual callousness present in the doc– a callousness some of us have longed attached to Republicans. 

One instance of this is Wilson’s interaction with a video editor, who is visibly uncomfortable with the idea of using footage of George Floyd’s grieving family in an ad. 

“You are reaching emotional resonance with people,” Wilson explains to her. “It’s not exploitative.”

After that’s settled, he tells her he is off to a very nice dinner. 

Such a comment, and others throughout the series, exposes The Lincoln Project for what many believed  it always was: a bunch of Republicans on the outs with the monster of a party they helped to make now trying to find new ways to maintain relevancy and make money.

Some of those involved with the project appear more genuine about their efforts than others. But it doesn’t take long for any viewer to grasp that people serious about saving democracy by defeating Trump should take their business elsewhere.