The Rise and Fall of the Lincoln Project

I would like to see a documentary about how Showtime’s new Lincoln Project documentary ever got made. It’s not surprising that the political action committee’s founders would jump at a film pitch in the thick of the 2020 election, when the group was a media darling and the money was coming in hand over fist. But as the doc rolls on and internal tensions emerge, you start to wonder how wise it is for all these people to be airing their dirty laundry in front of the cameras. And as the five-episode arc nears its conclusion, the group finds its reputation in tatters, and various former junior members are filmed complaining about the things their NDAs won’t allow them to talk about, you’re ready to give directors Fisher Stevens and Karim Amer some sort of lifetime achievement award for source-buttering. It’s just too bad all that laudable effort doesn’t make for better TV.

On paper, there’s the elements of a good story here. The Lincoln Project details the rise and fall of the Lincoln Project, the PAC launched in 2019 by a group of longtime Republican operatives who opposed the reelection of Donald Trump. By design, most PACs operate largely in obscurity. The Lincoln Project, by contrast, quickly made themselves a central part of the 2020 conversation with a barrage of slashing anti-Trump ads designed to blow up on social media. “We have, as the great political philosopher Liam Neeson once said, a particular set of skills,” co-founder Rick Wilson said at their 2019 launch event. “Skills that make us a nightmare for people like Donald Trump.” The nemesis branding—which Trump himself helped reinforce by repeatedly denouncing the group—proved a gold mine, as the Lincoln Project brought in more than $90 million over the course of the election.

When Trump lost, the Lincoln Project was riding high, with plans seemingly in the works to spin the brand off into a new media company. But internal leadership divisions and a massive sexual-harassment scandal involving co-founder John Weaver sent the group spinning into disarray at the moment of their apparent triumph. “It’s Icarus, or hubris,” cofounder Reed Galen says. “Use whatever Greek tragedy you want to. This is not a new story.”

To that tale of tragedy attach a whole cast of colorful characters. There’s Wilson and co-founder Steve Schmidt, of course, both of whom seemingly stick to a tone of high melodrama every time they speak. “Some people think I’m pretty good at this shit,” Wilson tells the camera. “I’m the anthropologist of Donald Trump’s shitty world.” But they’re far from the only members of the group with larger-than-life egos: “Michelangelo was asked to paint the Last Judgment during the Reformation,” political director Mike Madrid says in the opening episode. “In many ways, artists were the first political consultants.”

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