If ever there was an advertisement for the irrelevance of authorial intent, it's Showtime's five-part documentary series The Lincoln Project, whose final episode airs Friday night (though you can already stream it). Co-directed by Hollywood lefties Fisher Stevens and Karim Amer, the series, an inside look at the controversy-marred, anti-Trump SuperPAC immediately before and after the 2020 election, is supposed to get you pumped about voting against MAGA Republicans next Tuesday.
"We think that they definitely were effective and they got people out to vote," Stevens recently told Yahoo Entertainment. "And that's the goal [of the series], to get people out to vote in the midterms."
I know there are some Democrats who will gaze upon this rogue's gallery of self-dealing, ethically repulsive, ex-Republican operatives and dirty tricksters, and, even in the wake of a disgusting harassment scandal involving a co-founder soliciting sexual favors from would-be interns and young staffers, give them still more money to "defend democracy." I know that because—spoiler alert!—that's the documentary's final nauseating scene.
But this viewing audience of one feels rather more inspired to blast every residual trace of professional politics off my skin with a cleansing fire hose, and reject with prejudice every non-federal politician still campaigning, 21 months later, against the animatronic apparition of Donald Trump. That's because the same documentary that successfully re-horrified me about the 45th president's bottomless awfulness was journalistically thorough enough to demonstrate, even unconsciously, the sometimes catastrophic folly of crudely reducing every policy challenge into an up-down vote on whether Orange Man is indeed bad.
"Some people think I'm pretty good at this shit," a self-satisfied Lincoln Project co-founder Rick Wilson says out loud to himself (and to the lurking videographer), after putting the finishing touches on a rush attack-ad script that, in mid-September 2020, made the boldly inaccurate assertion that Trump's COVID-19 policies "will kill at least three million people."
"Say goodbye to your parents, your neighbors, your friends. Because the Trump plan will kill millions in the next four years," the finished product would scaremonger, flashing images of dead bodies being forklifted away behind the super-imposed New York Times headline "Scientists Worry About Political Influence Over Coronavirus Vaccine."
At first glance there would appear to be quite some dissonance between He's trying to infect us all, and He's trying to bum-rush a vaccine. Unless, that is, you start from the premise that no matter what Trump does, it will be self-aggrandizing, anti-science, and wrong. Or, in the memorable phrasing of Wilson's 2018 bestseller, Everything Trump Touches Dies.
Such bumper-sticker cynicism can be great for campaign commercials and MSNBC hits, but it has considerably less utility when assessing life-or-death policy decisions. In September 2020, there were at least two huge COVID judgment calls—on vaccines and reopening schools—that Democrats and the Lincoln Project got largely wrong, because they couldn't bring themselves to consider that Trump might be right.
On Aug. 6, 2020, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said, "The way he talks about the vaccine is not particularly rational. He's talking about it being ready, he's going to talk about moving it quicker than the scientists think it should be moved….People don't believe that he's telling the truth, therefore they're not at all certain they're going to take the vaccine." On Sept. 2 Biden said, "When a president continues to mislead and lie, when we finally do, God willing, get a vaccine, who's going to take the shot? Who's going to take the shot? You going to be the first one to say, 'Put me—sign me up!' They now say it's OK?" The candidate made similar comments on Sept. 7 and Sept. 16.
Vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, when asked on Sept. 6, 2020, whether she would take the vaccine when it became available, said: "Well, I think that's going to be an issue for all of us. I will say that I would not trust Donald Trump. And it would have to be a credible source of information that talks about the efficacy and the reliability of whatever he's talking about. I will not take his word for it." Then-still-sainted New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo sowed still more doubts on Sept. 24, saying, "The first question is, is the vaccine safe? Frankly, I'm not going to trust the federal government's opinion."
Such widespread skepticism about the presumedly politicized "speed" in Operation Warp Speed led directly to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that same September delaying the time-window for checking vaccine efficacy by 18 days, from 42 to 60—effectively kicking the results of Pfizer's successful clinical trial until six days after the presidential election. There is little doubt that that decision cost thousands of American lives; the main question is how many.
Trump absolutely contributed to this unfavorable outcome, by repeatedly tying vaccine-development to Election Day, by accusing the FDA of being part of "the deep state," and by acting like his usual erratic, narcissistic self. As I wrote at the tail end of a magazine argument against his reelection, "The first rule of pandemic crisis response is that public officials must be sane, sober, and truthful in communicating with the public. Trump did not build his remarkable career around these traits."
But also: Operation Warp Speed was his administration's single greatest accomplishment. Kneejerk opposition to everything Trump touches blinded his opponents from recognizing his success, and contributed to needlessly injurious delays in the rollout of vaccines.
An even more damning tale can be told when it comes to school reopening. By July 2020 it was clear, as I wrote then, that "elementary school-age children rarely contract [COVID-19], rarely succumb to it, and rarely transmit it." But, to the nearly audible glee of teachers unions, the politically polarizing figures of Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos came out foursquare in favor reopening school doors (Trump's inevitable tweet: "SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!"), so Democrats quickly rallied around keeping them mostly shut. "What we WON'T do is ignore the science and recklessly charge ahead like our president," then-New York mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted.
An entire generation will suffer for years from the political polarization of public school COVID policies. The single biggest determinant of whether schools were open in the 2020–21 school year was not the level of community spread, nor mortality figures, but how said community voted in the presidential election. Deep red states kept schools open, deep blue states kept them closed. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, in ordering his K-12s open that fall, was widely derided as "DeathSantis." Yet on that critical question, DeSantis was right, and his Democratic critics were wrong.
How has the Lincoln Project responded to the rise of DeSantis, who, after all, is literally the biggest Republican challenger to Donald Trump? By calling him "Governor Freedumb," accusing him of "trying to out-MAGA MAGA," and releasing ads all but calling DeSantis a child-killer:
The Lincoln Project co-director Fisher Stevens thinks that it's "wonderful," as he told the Washington Post last month, to have such ex-Republican hit men "on our side" in the battle against "fascism in this country quickly coming upon us." Which is surely the SuperPAC's selling proposition to its Democratic donor base. As co-director Karim Amer said in the same interview, echoing a comment in the documentary by Stuart Stevens, "you need every useful son of a bitch you can get."
But that utilitarian calculus is a recipe for dubious ethics and political self-delusion. "The difference…[between] what they did with the Republicans is everything they said was truth," Stevens claimed. "They did make shit up a lot…when they were on the other side. This side, they didn't have to make anything up. Everything they did or said was real."
Well, no. In addition to the hyperbolic COVID scaremongering and the eagerness to tar every half-promising Republican with the MAGA brush, a year ago the Lincoln Project infamously staged tiki torch-wielding young men outside of Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin's bus—a vile attempt to smear Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe's eventually victorious opponent as a racist. Youngkin won in part because enough Democratic parents got fed up with pandemic school closures and other questionable K-12 policies; all that Democrats and the Lincoln Project could counter with (besides a career party apparatchik) were the words "Trump" and "racist."
As far as I can tell, the Lincoln Project has not weighed in on the New York gubernatorial race that I'll be voting in next Tuesday. But I have no doubt which of the two candidates on the ballot the SuperPAC would prefer—Republican Lee Zeldin, after all, voted against certifying the 2020 presidential election when he was still in Congress. (His torturous explanation, while thankfully falling short of actual denialism, is not persuasive.)
I certainly do not relish the prospect of punching the ballot for someone who made that fatefully wrong vote. (Sadly, the Libertarian Party and all other competitors were muscled off the state ballot this year.) And yet: Incumbent Democrat Kathy Hochul, in a move that affected me and my community a hell of a lot more than Zeldin's Trumpophilia might, ordered masks on 2-year-olds in congregate settings all the way up through this March.
At their lone campaign debate, Hochul defended her kiddie mask mandate, defended a state-worker vaccine mandate that the New York Supreme Court ended up voiding, and hedged on whether she would make COVID vaccination mandatory for schoolkids ("Not at this time," she said). Zeldin, on the other hand, declared flatly: "I do not support COVID vaccine mandates in any way, shape, or form." (To which Hochul snarked, "You've been an election denier, a climate change denier; you and Donald Trump were the masterful COVID deniers.")
I have lamented the political rise of Donald Trump since first laying eyes on the man, and consider his enduring popularity and power a stain on the modern Republican Party. And also, he is out of office, unlikely to win another presidential election, and—most saliently to my voting choices—has next to zero relevance on the actually important governance issues affecting my borough, city, and state. Like far too many nonprofits, the Lincoln Project aims to convert my political animus into no-strings-attached donations, which it can then spend on viral attack ads against my enemies, and generational wealth for its founders.
"Is making money out of an outrage machine helping democracy or is it hurting it?" ex-Lincoln Project board member and longtime California GOP strategist Mike Madrid muses near the end of the Showtime documentary. "And after 30 years, does it wear on your soul? Fuck, yeah."