From the day The Lincoln Project launched in late 2019 as a group of high-profile Republicans determined to take down then-President Donald Trump, the super PAC positioned itself as a moral authority on the fate of the country.
“As Americans, we must stem the damage he and his followers are doing to the rule of law, the Constitution and the American character,” the project’s co-founders wrote in a New York Times op-ed.
So when it recently became public that 21 men accused co-founder John Weaver of online sexual harassment, and that its leaders allegedly knew about some of those complaints as early as last March, The Lincoln Project swiftly lost its credibility.
When the allegations first broke, the group said it was “disgusted and outraged” over Weaver’s behavior and that they’d been “deceived” by their co-founder. This week The Lincoln Project announced that it hired a law firm to conduct an investigation into the scandal. Whatever happens next, The Lincoln Project’s unexpected implosion may spell the end of popular conservative efforts that can rally both the left and right around a common cause: defeating Trump and his enablers, and safeguarding American democracy. Though The Lincoln Project isn’t the only conservative group that committed itself to defeating Trump and anti-democratic Republican lawmakers, it grabbed people’s attention — and their dollars — in ways that others haven’t.
The Lincoln Project’s unique appeal lay in its ability to find supporters where they are online, particularly on Facebook and Twitter, and speak to them in a voice perfectly suited for the age of social media. It often moved seamlessly between inviting followers to join a worthy fight and provoking Trump with timely rejoinders to his unpresidential behavior.
By early fall, The Lincoln Project became a viral sensation, deploying (and sometimes stealing) memes at a rapid pace, targeting ruthless social media posts and ads at Trump and his Congressional enablers, and pitching Joe Biden to independent and conservative voters with evocative ads.
It’ll be no surprise if conservatives and liberals alike abandon The Lincoln Project, feeling disgusted and betrayed.
The super PAC found surprising success with liberals who relished seeing veteran operatives of Republican campaigns use their tactics against the right instead of the left. By the end of the 2020 election cycle, The Lincoln Project raised a staggering $87 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Now it’s unclear whether the group will survive the Weaver scandal as well as growing questions about how it spent donor money. The Associated Press reported that The Lincoln Project spent only a third of the cash it raised on advertising. Campaign finance laws make it difficult for the public to know how much the super PAC’s leadership paid themselves, though tens of millions of dollars were funneled to consulting firms owned by some of the co-founders.
It’ll be no surprise if conservatives and liberals alike abandon The Lincoln Project. While skeptical supporters may have worried that the founders were just looking to get rich, they certainly didn’t openly fear a scandal that involved predatory behavior.
When co-founder Reed Galen spoke to Mashable last November, he answered a question about liberals’ suspicion of The Lincoln Project by citing the sacrifices its leaders had made in betraying their own party.
“If you’re not going to trust us now, after all these things we’ve done, after we’re so clearly willing to burn our boats for what we see is the good of the country, I’m not sure you’re ever going to trust us,” he said.
When asked about this comment in light of the recent revelations, Galen said in an email to Mashable: “My previous statement remains true. The Lincoln Project remains committed to defeating Trumpism and authoritarian elements with the GOP, including ensuring voting rights are respected, protected and expanded.”
Shut it down
Galen, co-founder Steve Schmidt, and other senior leaders reportedly learned about the accusations against Weaver in March 2020, according to The 19th. Schmidt maintains that he had no knowledge of the allegations until January 2021. While Galen didn’t respond to a question from Mashable about whether he knew about them, he wrote: “We have engaged the law firm of Paul Hastings to conduct a full investigation into the matter and uncover the facts. We will follow their guidance once the investigation is complete.”
Ryan Wiggins, communications director for The Lincoln Project, said in a follow-up email: “The matter is currently under investigation and we are therefore limited in what we can say.”
George Conway, a co-founder, lawyer, and husband to former Trump White House senior counselor Kellyanne Conway who stepped down from the super PAC last August, agreed that it was time to end the organization.
“It’s a shame, and we shouldn’t forget the hard work of so many people and the positive things the organization did, but yes, I think this is right,” he tweeted, echoing a former Lincoln Project staffer’s call to shutter the super PAC.
Rogers Smith, Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, believes it’s over for the group.
“I do think that The Lincoln Project is effectively terminated by the Weaver scandal and also the charges that others of its leaders have been lining their pockets with donations received,” Smith said. “I don’t see … how it can recover.”
Smith said the turn of events takes an important opposition voice away. While The Lincoln Project didn’t possess the same hold over the Republican Party as Trump, it had been a loud voice on the right showing conservatives a different path forward.
Liberals were eager to support them for “reasons high and low,” Smith said. While many enjoyed their singular ability to embarrass Trump, he believes some liberals also felt it would be better for America if the Republican Party genuinely saw itself as the party of President Abraham Lincoln. That would mean supporting civil rights and building consensus across party lines, as The Lincoln Project co-founders said they did.
“The Lincoln Project presented itself as the instrument for that kind of restoration of the Republican Party, and now it’s gone,” said Smith, who is also the author of That Is Not Who We Are!: Populism and Peoplehood.
While Smith believes the co-founders of The Lincoln Project hadn’t started the group as a financial grift — a longstanding belief amongst some progressives — he does suspect they were paying themselves handsomely for work that is typically well-compensated in political consulting.
“But in the eyes of donors, this was not supposed to be business as usual, this was supposed to be a cause” to elevate American politics, said Smith. “Those donors are going to be deeply disillusioned, and many more are probably likely to regard [The Lincoln Project] as outright corrupt.”
He noted that the discrediting of The Lincoln Project contributes to a much more significant problem in American politics: a profound distrust of political leadership in both parties.
Galen disputed the idea that The Lincoln Project leaders took advantage of the windfall.
“The reports that I or anyone within the Lincoln Project created ‘generational wealth’ or misused donors’ funds is categorically false,” he wrote.
Galen noted that the group spent $81 million on placing more than 300 advertisements, conducting voter outreach in every state, and launching a new streaming network to reach voters, among other expenses. “We have reported our expenditures to the FEC and the result of our efforts speaks for itself.”
Don’t get burned again
Another key conservative-led group that emerged in opposition to Trump, Defending Democracy Together, has the same aim as The Lincoln Project but little of its buzz or social media panache. Its Republican Accountability Project released video ads pressuring GOP senators to impeach Trump, but those clips mostly notched thousands or tens of thousands of views on YouTube while hundreds of thousands of viewers watched Lincoln Project ads on the same subject.
The advocacy group counts former Weekly Standard founder William Kristol — famous for having elevated Sarah Palin — as one of its directors. Smith, who’s known Kristol since graduate school, said that he doesn’t have a record of enriching himself with donor money. Yet he said it’s hard to imagine Kristol and Defending Democracy Together leveraging social media and “starring in the narrative” in a manner similar to the The Lincoln Project.
Kristol’s tweets, which go out to more than 880,000 followers, are at turns humorous, insightful, and earnest but lack the irreverence that drew so many to The Lincoln Project and its founders. Similarly, the Republican Accountability Project’s Twitter feed, which has nearly 350,000 followers, has an explanatory tone compared to The Lincoln Project’s knack for serving up thrilling or hilarious content.
The staidness of Defending Democracy Together and its Republican Accountability Project has its strengths. It might arguably be better for American political discourse than the viral zingers that made The Lincoln Project popular. But if some liberals felt an odd satisfaction thanks to The Lincoln Project, because it connected them to a tribe of independents and conservatives who shared some of their values, they may now decide it’s not worth it to take that chance a second time.
Ronald Rapoport, a political scientist and professor emeritus of government at William & Mary College, said the allegations have prompted a crisis of trust that will cause some of the group’s supporters to question getting involved in similar efforts. Moreover, without Trump in power serving as a daily foil, conservative efforts that seek to build a coalition across the political spectrum as means of safeguarding democracy may struggle.
“The question is going forward on both sides, especially on the Republican side, keeping these groups going, especially when Trump is no longer there,” Rapoport said.
If a credible investigation exonerates The Lincoln Project’s handling of the Weaver allegations and its spending, and the group retains its large following, perhaps it will survive these scandals and play a considerable role in the policy and electoral battles to come. Without that, these misdeeds will cast a long shadow on The Lincoln Project’s work — and the hope that conservative opponents of Trumpism can be trusted to lead the way forward.