BACK STORY with DANA LEWIS

THE LINCOLN PROJECT AND POLITICAL DIALOGUE IN AMERICA

October 31, 2020 Dana Lewis Season 2 Episode 18
BACK STORY with DANA LEWIS
THE LINCOLN PROJECT AND POLITICAL DIALOGUE IN AMERICA
Chapters
BACK STORY with DANA LEWIS
THE LINCOLN PROJECT AND POLITICAL DIALOGUE IN AMERICA
Oct 31, 2020 Season 2 Episode 18
Dana Lewis

We have never seen an election like this.  

In the middle of the Pandemic U.S. President Trump attacks opponents and claims The U.S. is rounding a corner. He is lashing out at the media and mocking people who wear masks. This, as American is close to 100 thousand new cases of Corona Virus a day!

The political conversation is one of the great democracies couldn't be worse. It's divisive. Acidic. And on both sides, not just Trumps twitter account. 

One of the platforms fighting back against Trump is something called The Lincoln Project which has raised millions and filled social media with anti Trump ads.  And most of them are former Republicans in a crisis of conscience believing Trump has hijacked their party and their values.  Back Story host and creator Dana Lewis talks to one of the founders, Ron Steslow. 

Show Notes Transcript

We have never seen an election like this.  

In the middle of the Pandemic U.S. President Trump attacks opponents and claims The U.S. is rounding a corner. He is lashing out at the media and mocking people who wear masks. This, as American is close to 100 thousand new cases of Corona Virus a day!

The political conversation is one of the great democracies couldn't be worse. It's divisive. Acidic. And on both sides, not just Trumps twitter account. 

One of the platforms fighting back against Trump is something called The Lincoln Project which has raised millions and filled social media with anti Trump ads.  And most of them are former Republicans in a crisis of conscience believing Trump has hijacked their party and their values.  Back Story host and creator Dana Lewis talks to one of the founders, Ron Steslow. 

Speaker 1:

Donald Trump is a draft Dodger, a dishonorable coward, unfit to be commander in chief. He attack John McCain who was tortured for five years in a North Vietnam, helpful and refused early beliefs unless every American was released. Is that a war hero? He's a war . He's a warrior up as he was captured. I like people that weren't captured. Okay. He refused to visit the cemetery of our phone in France saying, why should I go to that cemetery? It's filled with losers. You accuse the heroes who served in Iraq of stealing millions to make themselves rich. Trump's set of Americans who died fighting for their country. I don't get it. What was in it for them? Mocks are generals. I know more about ISIS than the generals do believe Trump referred to prison and George H w Bush as a loser, no Trump family member has ever served in the military on November 3rd. It's time to throw this loser coward out of our white house.

Speaker 2:

Hi everyone. And welcome to this addition to backstory. I'm Dana Lewis. That was an ad by disgruntled Republicans who called themselves the Lincoln project. We are just days away from the American election. If you're listening to this before or after November the third, it doesn't matter. What I want to highlight is that political dialogue in America has changed probably forever. The nasty vitriolic nature of the campaign is unprecedented. I've been reporting for a long time and I've never seen anything quite like it anywhere. Cruel caustic, bitter Lang it reflects the deep political divide in the u s. A nd probably no one has set the stage for this created the environment more than the tweeting president Trump. Over the last four years, Trump has attacked everyone from his own administration to political opposition, to the media, to foreign governments and leaders. No one has been immune and it is troubled many within even his own party. Some of them have come out to record messages against Trump. Some in favor of Biden. Some have supported the Lincoln project, which has even turned out ads, not only directed at voters, but even Trump himself. There's a bit of psychology in this ad. Nobody likes me.

Speaker 1:

It can only be my personality. That's all we weren't you Donald, but you didn't listen itself. And now you're losing not just the election. You're losing everything. Camy and Meadows. Now you can't handle real interviews and the laugh that you don't get it. So it's person, woman, man, camera, TV. They know it's over. Everyone does free , smaller crowds, lower in Ferris

Speaker 3:

In ratings . There's Mitch McConnell already tell the senators. It's time to dump you out . Republicans are abandoning ship. You think these people care. What happens to you? You think the leaks are done, everything gets screwed up. It's going to come out. Every secret is going to be told or change your stories . A lack of preparation. The Hawaii only they've got a party to salvage and careers to rescue. We told you they were whispering about you. Well, they don't have to whisper anymore because everyone knows everyone. Except the Lincoln project is responsible for the content.

Speaker 2:

It's remarkable political advertising targeting a sitting president by his own former Republican party organizers. So in this edition of backstory, we talked to the Lincoln project and note, this is an election campaign like no other. All right . I want to introduce you to Ron stet slow . And he's joined us from park city, Utah. Hi Ron. Hey Dana . Great to be with you. So you were one of the original founding members of the Lincoln project. Can you tell me how this got started?

Speaker 4:

That's right. Uh, well , um, there were a series of conversations early on and Reed, Galen is , uh , is , uh , is one of the c o-founders who I'd worked with in the past. He's the captain on the ship. And he brought me in, u h, shortly before that o p e d launched, u h, on December 17th in 2019. And, u m, I don't think that any of us could have predicted what h appened, u h, after that, after that piece dropped and the groundswell o f, of grassroots support that, u m, that we encountered right after that too,

Speaker 2:

Time's editorial written by you guys, patriotism survival of our nation in the face of crimes, corruption and corrosive nature of Donald Trump or a higher calling than mere politics as Americans. We must STEM the damage he and his followers are doing to the rule of law, the constitution and the American chart a character. Is, is that an over dramatization or do you feel it goes to the kind of core of who you are?

Speaker 4:

Oh, no. I think it's perfectly accurate. And I think that the headline was powerful as well, which was we are Republicans and we want Trump defeated. And I think a not very subtle, not very subtle at all. And you know what, I think that's what the American people , uh, we're waiting to see some, they were waiting to see their elected officials and the Republican party stand up to this president for all of the things they know he's doing wrong. And, and we saw none of that. Very, very little of that. And so , uh, so we decided that if, if the people that we had worked for to put an office, weren't going to stand up and tell truth to power and put country over party, that we would do that.

Speaker 2:

So I'm reading about you a fortune road that you, you set yourself up for a long career as a man who pulls the strings for the Republican party at 33 years old, you had run a $50 million Senate races worked for the national Republican senatorial committee, but behind the scenes, he had been struggling with this personal identity and the identity of the party he grew up with. So what was the identity crisis?

Speaker 4:

Well, first of all, I should say that fortunate embellish that just a little bit. Uh, but , uh, the identity crisis was , uh, you know, two-folds , um, I grew up in a , in a conservative evangelical home as a, as a, as a gay man and, and then inherited my sort of Republican politics from that culture. And so a lot of my first work in politics was with , uh , very conservative evangelical politicians. John Ensign was my first boss in politics. He was a Senator from Nevada here , reads counterpart, and , uh, and famously , um, sort of his career went down in flames after a scandal where he had an affair with his chief of staff, his wife, and then , uh, tried to cover it up by getting his , uh, his chief of staff, a lobbying job, which is a violation of federal law. And so I, you know, over the course of my career, I sort of had to work through a lot of

Speaker 2:

That's found in both parties, by the way,

Speaker 4:

Of course it's found in both parties, but, you know, Dan , I can only speak to my experience. And , uh, and I had to deconstruct not just my , uh, my, my, my religious identity that I inherited, but also my political identity while working in Republican politics. And so , uh, um, yeah, that was a long and very personal , um, journey.

Speaker 2:

So are you still at heart, a Republican or is it because of Trump you're an independent now? Or how would you classify what you've been talking and how does that play out in what you're doing at the Lincoln project?

Speaker 4:

Yeah. Um, after 2016. So I ran all of the marketing and branding for , uh , Carly Fiorina is 2015 presidential campaign. When Donald Trump became the nominee. I realized that the story that I had been telling myself about my work in the Republican party was that I could do more good to change the direction of the party from the inside that I could from the outside. And when Donald Trump became the nominee, I realized that that just wasn't true, that it was a delusion. And then in fact, the party had always only cared about winning that winning was all that mattered. And Donald Trump was actually the culmination of many, many years of working in that direction. You may be familiar with Stuart Stevens. Who's a senior advisor to the Lincoln project who just wrote a book called it was all a lie. And his thesis in that book is that Donald Trump, isn't an aberration. He's actually the product of the last 20, 30, 40, 50 years of Republican politics. And , and it isn't, it isn't a fluke that we ended up with him. And so I, I'm going to just try it . I mean, is

Speaker 2:

It, is it his nastiness? That is the product, or

Speaker 4:

I don't think it's his nastiness. I think his nastiness is a product of his narcissistic personality disorder. I think Donald Trump's a embodiment of an idea that winning is all that matters is actually the culmination of Republican politics. Yes. And if you look back at the Southern strategy and the way the party, co-opted the church in the South in order to, to peel off white Democrats, because they realized they were never going to win in the national election ever again, you realize that what becomes , uh , what becomes gospel a lot of times in Republican politics is what worked at an electoral level. Not because it has any underpinnings in philosophy or, or conservative ideology. So , um, so I think it is the pursuit of power at all costs that Donald Trump embodies. And that is exactly what we mean when we say Trumpism and exactly what we mean when we say we're going to defeat it.

Speaker 2:

Donald Trump would probably say it is the pursuit of, you know , his defeated all costs when he takes a look at some of the, the ads by the Lincoln project. I mean, you know, I'll play a few of them as part of the segment, but I mean, I've been a journalist for a few decades. I have never seen. And you , you tell me if you've seen shadows of this in past campaigns. I mean, I guess there were some, but these are tough muscular cutting , uh, really, I mean, wow. Ads. I look at them when I see them on Twitter most of the time and I just go, wow, how did they come up with that? And that's just cuts Trump to the quick one.

Speaker 4:

Yeah. Yes. I mean, what's the question. Absolutely. They are somebody who , yes , I , I think that's totally fair. And I think it's also fair to say that the movement, the project , uh, that we have created them, that millions of Americans have come to support. This is, this is not normal for , uh, for a super PAC . This is not how political , uh, political entities usually operate. This is, this is something very, very special. Um, but as Rick Wilson noted at our Cooper union events , uh, uh, I think he said in the words of the political philosopher, Liam Neeson, we have a particular set of skills. And I think that's what we see in the ads. So let me just clarify that these ads, you know, most people see the very , uh , tough muscular biting ones, as you mentioned, which are designed to take Donald Trump off his game. They're designed to derail the Trump machine they're designed to get in their heads. And that's exactly what they do. Our first breakout ad morning in America did exactly that. And that's why that's partly why the Lincoln project has been so successful because we proved that we knew how to live rent-free and

Speaker 2:

Speak directly to some of them speak directly to Trump. Right? I mean, the loyalty problem directly to Trump, that ad it's kind of paranoia worrying that he sinking fast there's psychology in that app.

Speaker 4:

Absolutely. Absolutely. There is. Uh, and you know, it's, it's , um, he's predictable in that he can't resist when he is being, when he's, when he's being jabbed or baited . It's , it's almost like you lay down a rake and every single one he'll step right on it. And it smacks him in the face. He just can't resist. And that's because of his, h is narcissistic personality disorder. You know, I had a conversation with Mary Trump about this exact thing has his niece who wrote, who wrote the book, u h, u h, I'm blanking on the name now. U m, she wrote t oo m uch, too much and never enough. Yeah. How my family created the most, t he, the world's most dangerous man. And she gives some, some tremendous insights into the, into essentially the, u h, the, the, the mental illness of the p resident of the United States, which is, you know, it ought to terrify everyone. U m, but, but I want to be clear about these ads because the ones that you're talking about are the ones that, u h, that, that most people see on Twitter and the Lincoln project is, is sort of like an iceberg. And those ads a re the tip of the iceberg. And t hey're the visible part, but there's a whole machine underneath that.

Speaker 2:

Can you tell me, because as we speak to you from London, we don't see everything that's published. Like I know you, I know, for instance, for instance, the Lincoln project did these billboards in, in, in New York. And , uh, I mean, that was very personal, right? I see .

Speaker 4:

Yes. Yeah.

Speaker 2:

Look, the billboard president's daughter Ivanka and Jared Kushner. Sorry.

Speaker 4:

Yes. Yes . And just so everyone's clear, you can go look up the Lincoln project billboards. I'm sure. You'll find the pictures of them. Yeah , absolutely. It was fair. Yes, absolutely. It was fair. Uh, I think most people have given Jared Kushner a pass for his role in the mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic. Yeah . You know, he was running a shadow task force , uh, behind Mike Pence. And one of his jobs was to secure PPE, personal protective equipment for frontline workers, healthcare workers in New York. And you know what he said when he was asked about that, when, when he was asked about why new Yorkers haven't received, w where's the PPE, h e said, m ost people didn't pound the phones hard enough. And so they're going to suffer and that's their problem.

Speaker 2:

Isn't it. And then , then he's been quoted now in these tapes is saying, you know, we just, we had to get the doctors out once we got the medical doctors out of the Columbus station . And COVID-19 , he certainly had it

Speaker 4:

Huge role in all of this. Yes, yes. At a moment when Americans are desperate for accurate scientific medical information, he's saying Trump is going to take the country back from the doctors, meaning we're going to make it all about Donald Trump. Again, not about the doctors, not about the scientific evidence, not about what can do to keep themselves safe. Let's make it back about Donald Trump. Again,

Speaker 2:

What are the odds you haven't run when you sit around the table? Is there like an editorial board where you sit around for six to eight people and you kind of go, no, we're not going to do that one. Are there limits, are there red lines?

Speaker 4:

Uh, I think that the limits are , uh, how effective the ads are at their, at their intended purpose. And so, as I alluded to the, the ads that we're talking about, the tip of the iceberg, the really cutting edge , like whispers that are designed for an audience of one designed to get in the president's head, u h, that's one lane, but there's another lane of ads that are designed to speak directly to the American people directly to the demographics and geographic areas that we know are moving directly against the president. And when you look at, when you look at t he reason COVID is so powerful as a messaging tool is because it's the thing that everybody cares about right now, obviously. So when you look at where COVID is spiking around the country, which States in which counties, in which cities we have noticed our political team, which is just brilliant, have noticed a direct correlation between where COVID spikes and where Donald Trump's positives decline substantially. And so they have designed this brilliant strategy of essentially buying into the spike, which means we take these ads that speak directly to the experience of the American people.

Speaker 1:

Donald Trump will never change over 200,000 Americans dead. Trump said, COVID-19 affects almost nobody, but then his wife got it. His press secretary got his debate team. Got it. His white house staff, got it. Trump turned the white house into a Hudson . Now Trump is still trying to convince us that the greatest public health threat in over a century, isn't a big deal while he gasped for air fresh from the hospital, Americans know there's a lot more wrong with Donald Trump, just having COVID-19. He doesn't care about others. Can't lead can't plan. Can't face the truth. Donald Trump will never change. He's killing us this year. Vote like your life depends on it

Speaker 4:

As a result of Donald Trump's MIS mismanagement. And, and I, I think it's important to note lying about this pandemic because he knew early on, he told Bob Woodward, this thing's a killer. If it gets you, who knew how serious it was. And then he continued to lie and mislead the American people .

Speaker 2:

I don't know, you know, here's the one bit of expertise I have that you don't, and that is, I've worked in foreign countries, all my life, covering the news and covering American diplomacy, how they go in and teach people about democracy and human rights. And then they are the police, the p olicemen of the planet on that in many, many different areas, right. I mean, pushing back against Russia. And so you have now, I guess, t urn the corner on political dialogue in America. U m, first of all, from president Trump, because we've never seen a president attack people personally, as he i s done. And then the Lincoln project probably has paved a new road, u m, i n, in terms of what's acceptable i n what a normal than you kind of n ormally is in terms of political campaigns. Do you mourn any of that?

Speaker 4:

I think Donald Trump has paved a new road in terms of what is accepted for president of the United States. Uh, I don't think , uh, anyone would tell you that we set out to pave a new road we set out to ,

Speaker 2:

Well, you did, you did, because I've never seen that kind of political ad before that . I mean, they are, you know, cutting, cutting edge stuff. I just, I've just never, just not cutting edge in terms of effective. I mean, they are, they cut Trump till the quick, I mean, there is their glove full gloves off , uh , you know, bare knuckle fight.

Speaker 4:

Yes. Yes they are.

Speaker 2:

All right . So is that , are you comfortable with all of that or do you hope that with a different presidency, whether it be Democrat or Republic in the future that this kind of political rhetoric goes away, or do you think this is the way you run campaign ads from now on?

Speaker 4:

I think that as long as the cancer of Trumpism exists is going to take this kind of fight to defeat it. Uh, do I wish it wasn't necessarily sure, but that's not where we are right now.

Speaker 2:

What if Trump wins, what happens to the Lincoln project?

Speaker 4:

If Trump wins, then I think the Lincoln project becomes more important than it was before. And, you know, there are, there are so many things at stake in a, in a Trump , uh, second term, one of the things I worry about the most beyond all of the authoritarian behavior, beyond the silencing of critics, beyond the, you know, the, the destabilization of our institutions and the discrediting of truth. One of the things I worry about is what lessons the Republican party learns and the new batch of politicians who are currently running for office learn about an s econd Trump victory, because the Re publican

Speaker 2:

W what's the answer,

Speaker 4:

The Republican party's in institution. And, and, and it learns from victory and the lesson, if Donald Trump wins, is that it was all okay. That, that pursuit of power at all costs was all okay. Then abandoning the principles that Abraham Lincoln , uh , famously made, made clear at his Cooper union address in February of 1860 in New York, that that right makes might, was meaningless. That might makes right.

Speaker 2:

I was just going to flip that around for you. Yeah,

Speaker 4:

Absolutely. Yeah , yeah. Uh, I mean, yeah, in his speech at the very end, as you know, he, he said , uh, let us have faith that right. Makes might let us dare to do our duty as we understand it. And what he was saying in that speech is that a, the moral high ground creates political power. And Donald Trump is the antithesis of that principle.

Speaker 2:

Not a lot of moral high ground there .

Speaker 4:

No, he's not interested in moral , but he couldn't spot it with a telescope.

Speaker 2:

Where do you go from here? And guys, I mean, you w we, as we speak, we're on the Eve of this election, do you now go into park kind of over the weekend and you watch it unfold ?

Speaker 4:

Absolutely not. I wish we could, but there is way too much at stake and we're not taking a foot off the gas , uh, as you've probably seen some of the polls that started to tighten , uh, the political map still looks very good. But one of the unique things about this political race is t hat the race has stratified and the map has flattened. And that's because a lot of this law and order rhetoric that, u h, that he has used has, has worked for him in some places, but h is backfired against him a nd other places. So it kind of makes choosing where to allocate resources on a s tate b y s tate basis, kind of like whack-a-mole because the numbers are constantly shifting. And so, u h, so o ur, like I said, a political team has done a crack job at, at being very, very disciplined about where the numbers are, a re, where our resources can be best used to move that two to 4% of Republicans that we set out to move in the first place. And that, that's another thing I think that gets lost in the narrative, which is we did not set out to win a plurality of voters. We don't have a candidate, right? We're not running a presidential campaign. We set out to peel off two to 4% of Republican voters from this p resident. And if we could do that, then we would be successful. Steve Bannon said in January, February to the associated press, exactly that, that if these guys m eaning us could peel off two to 4%, they would be a serious threat. That's what we set out to do. As w e started, we started referring to that marker as the band in line. And the ba nd i n line is exactly what we've tried to hit in every single battleground state. Uh , a nd I think you see that now. Um , s o no, we're not taking our foot off the gas. We will not rest until Joe Biden is sworn in. Uh , a nd I think there's still the potential for some, u h , s ome fuckery, excuse my language, after the election, in terms of not ballots being counted, but being contested. And you saw that from the president just yesterday, I believe said we should stop counting ballots on the evening of November 3rd. That's not how elections are run in this country. Th at's f i ne.

Speaker 2:

And historically, the mail in ballots are counted. And it's of course this Mirage that he's painting, which , which undermines the whole democratic process,

Speaker 4:

The entire democratic process, and people believe him because, because Americans have, you know, we have a severe gap in civic understanding in this country. So when the president says we should stop counting ballots after election day, that intuitively makes sense to a lot of people because they don't understand the mechanics of an election, but that's not how it works. It's not how it's ever worked, runs to slow from the Lincoln project run . Thanks so much for being generous with your time. Thank you for having me, Dana , it's been a pleasure to get to talk to you.

Speaker 1:

No , I say, I know about police . You know, about boys , the kids would make fun. Beliefs are cowards, tear others down. I don't know what I said. I don't remember not that crap out of it , but what do you have serious knocked down? I promise you I will pay for the legal fees. I promise it's time for decency. It's time for Joe Biden. And that's this edition of backstory subscribe and share our podcast. We appreciate your loyalty. I'm Dana Lewis and I'll puck you against you.