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‘Interns Coming Out of My Ears’: The Decline and Fall of the ‘Greatest Super PAC in American History’

REVIEW: 'The Lincoln Project'

• November 6, 2022 5:00 am

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"I'm not sure my penis could be any more erect right now," Rick Wilson squeals in episode one of The Lincoln Project, a Showtime documentary series about the disgraced super PAC he founded in 2019. Wilson, a frumpy troll who spends an unhealthy amount of time on Twitter telling strangers he just slept with their wives, is reviewing a new digital ad the group is about to post online. Like most of their work, it's subtle and cerebral. You see, it attacks Donald Trump—who has been known to call his enemies "losers"—by calling him a loser. Brilliant.

If the goal was to make viral videos antagonizing Trump that would seduce the national media, assuage some mentally disturbed liberals, and raise money for the Lincoln Project, it worked. If they had a different goal in mind—making a difference in the election, "saving democracy"—the result was less clear. The five-part series tells the story of how an organization dedicated to exposing Trump's apparent flaws—his galactic arrogance, insatiable greed, childish behavior, petty feuds, crude language, sexual malfeasance, and dysfunctional leadership—came to embody those same flaws before collapsing into itself like a dying star.

In hindsight, given the players involved, the Lincoln Project's self-inflicted downfall seems inevitable. At the time of its launch, however, few could have anticipated the lurid saga about to unfold in front of the cameras, least of all directors Karim Amer and Fisher Stevens, who started filming at the height of the pandemic in 2020. Stevens, the white Hollywood actor and Democratic donor best known for portraying an Indian doctor in the Short Circuit movies, linked up with the group after being seduced by one of those viral ads. The Lincoln Project is not the puff piece they presumably set to make, which is why it debuted last month as opposed to last year.

The series traces the super PAC's rise and fall from its official launch in Manhattan's East Village before a crowd of rich liberals to the bitter infighting among co-founders seeking to turn cultural clout into "generational wealth," as well as the allegations of sexual misconduct against co-founder John Weaver that ultimately dashed their dream of creating what Wilson describes as "the greatest super PAC in American history." That sound you hear? The world's smallest violin playing just for them.

READ MORE: Democrats and Republicans Agree: The Lincoln Project Sucks

It's a story with no protagonists and very few supporting actors who elicit even the slightest bit of sympathy, with the possible exception of the low-level staffers who lost their jobs and eventually realized what they thought was a noble quest to "save democracy" was actually a giant scam. They wish they could break their non-disclosure agreements. Regarding the Weaver sex scandal, they insist the organization's leadership knew that he was pressuring young men for sex in exchange for career opportunities and conspired to keep it quiet. "It wasn't complete news to me," says former executive director Sarah Lenti. "I had interns coming out of my ears. John would send them to me."

Nevertheless, the four principal co-founders—Reed Galen, Steve Schmidt, Stuart Stevens, and Wilson—continue to assert their ignorance despite all evidence to the contrary. Whether or not they are lying through their teeth is almost beside the point. They are accurately portrayed in the series as contemptible schlubs who see themselves as a "rogue special forces unit" sneaking into enemy territory to "kick the shit out of Donald Trump." Just like the soldiers who stormed the beaches on D-Day to defeat fascism. In reality, they have far more in common with the man they were fighting against.

READ MORE: Senior Partners at Firm Hired to ‘Review’ Lincoln Project Scandal Have Donated Thousands to Group

Wilson comes across as a profoundly Trumpian figure whose tremendous self-regard and gratuitous vulgarity are surely a facade obscuring deep-seated insecurities. "Some people think I'm pretty good at this shit," he boasts while composing an ad script and inhaling a bowl of ice cream. At one point, Wilson attempts to impress the filmmakers by anointing himself, unprompted, as "the person who managed to put the first dick joke into an American political ad." Anyone unfamiliar with the Lincoln Project's work would be hard-pressed to find a more succinct summation.

Whereas Trump exploited the media's addiction to salacious celebrity drama to generate billions of dollars in free coverage, the Lincoln Project raised almost $100 million by exploiting the media's addiction to Trump and the psychosis he induced in professional-class liberals with ample amounts of disposable income. Few people loved the Lincoln Project more than the left-wing lunatics on MSNBC, where the co-founders were frequently invited on to denounce Trump. Demented minds must think alike. One of their biggest fans at the network, host Tiffany Cross, was recently fired after calling Florida the "dick of the country."

READ MORE: Leaker, Liar, Turncoat, Nut Job

At one point, the series chronicles the group's decision to buy a billboard in Times Square attacking Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. Not everyone is convinced the billboard will advance their stated goal of persuading swing-state Republicans to vote for Joe Biden, but they ultimately agree with co-founder Ron Steslow, who explained that "we should just try to fuck with them and get in their head" because that would "turn out donations from all around the country." He was right. The billboard went viral, the first couple threatened to sue, and the donations poured in.

The Lincoln Project founders—even the disaffected ones who left the group—have convinced themselves they played an indispensable role in the 2020 election. Mike Madrid, who exited along with Steslow amid a bitter dispute over the organization's finances, is still pretty livid about the "bad fucking shit" that went on at the Lincoln Project, which he is legally barred from discussing. "At a certain point," he tells the producers while painting a Renaissance-style mural in the living room of his posh Sacramento townhouse, "I think we all have an obligation to say, ‘Is making money out of an outrage machine helping democracy or is it hurting it?'"

READ MORE: Lincoln Project Shells Out $100K in Mystery Legal Settlement With Cofounder

Madrid believes the Lincoln Project helped save democracy by defeating Trump. "We fucking took out the president of the United States," he says. The evidence suggests otherwise. A post-election study by Priorities USA, the Democratic-aligned super PAC, found that the Lincoln Project's ads failed to persuade swing-state Republicans to vote for Biden. In fact, the more attention the ad received on Twitter, the less persuasive it was to the voters they were ostensibly targeting. The Lincoln Project spent millions of dollars on ads supporting Democratic candidates in seven key U.S. Senate races. They lost every single one by an average margin of more than 10 percentage points.

The Lincoln Project continues to exist in a diminished form, having learned by watching Stacey Abrams and Beto O'Rourke that rich liberals will keep giving you money even if you lose. One of the final scenes takes place at a Beverly Hills fundraiser, where the remaining founders tell actress Marcia Gay Harden and other Hollywood types that giving money to assholes like them is necessary to preserve democracy. The Hollywood types who filmed the series, and watched the Lincoln Project be consumed by the scandal and dysfunction often associated with Trump-led ventures, seem to agree, and let Stuart Stevens have the final word.

"There's nothing noble about us in the least," he says. "You don't have to think we're good people. You don't have to agree with us. You don't have to like us. But we're useful. And if you really believe this is a fight for democracy, and you really believe it's an existential fight, you need every useful son of a bitch you can get on your side."

Not necessarily useful when it comes to winning elections—Lincoln Project apologists insist their impact on the 2020 race was too sophisticated to be observed using conventional data analyses—but "useful" in terms of providing emotional succor and moral validation to liberal élites. Given the high demand for these services, which will inevitably spike after Democrats lose the midterms, these contemptible schlubs stumbled on a decent business model. Useful or not, though, sometimes an asshole is just an asshole.

READ MORE: Free Beacon Endorses Lincoln Project in 2022