‘The Lincoln Project’ Depicts Vanity and Self-Regard Among the Anti-Trump Right: TV Review

‘the lincoln project’ depicts vanity and self-regard among the anti-trump right: tv review

‘The Lincoln Project’ Depicts Vanity and Self-Regard Among the Anti-Trump Right: TV Review

It’s been said that former President Donald Trump corrupts all who enter his orbit — that it’s impossible to deal directly with him without taking on his amorality and crassness.

“The Lincoln Project,” a new documentary series on Showtime, depicts that process among his political opposition. Here, people devoted to ousting Trump mirror his rhetorical style and his self-regard. And it’s in subtly making this case that the documentary succeeds, even as it grows punishing to watch.

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    The Lincoln Project, a circle of former high-level Republican strategists who made viral anti-Trump ads, seemed throughout the 2020 presidential election to be, Trumpishly, more focused on brand promotion than political work. “No one’s ever fucked with a candidate like we’ve fucked with a candidate,” Lincoln Project co-founder Rick Wilson says early in the doc; those schemes include a Times Square billboard, attention-getting for attention’s sake.

    In the months before the election, the Lincoln Project measures results in eyeballs and in cash; cannily, directors Karim Amer and Fisher Stevens include mentions of how many millions are rolling in, or a clip of a #Resistance devotee announcing they’ve “given more money to The Lincoln Project than anything else.”

    By series’ end, we have seen the group disassemble due to vitriolic disputes over money and credit. But even early on, small inclusions rankle what at first seem uncritical and upbeat. For instance, co-founder Mike Madrid’s declaration that, prior to Trump, he’d joined the Republican Party to “be with the strong leader” gently sidesteps the fact that this sort of projected strength is exactly the reason Trump’s supporters adore him; his fellow co-founder Steve Schmidt, an adviser to John McCain in 2008, seems to think that relentless criticism of Sarah Palin will undo his role in her ascension on McCain’s ticket. And GOP consultant and Lincoln Project adviser Stuart Stevens grumbles on camera about the party’s focus on white racial resentment; only later is his own history of boundary-pushing advertisements addressed.

    Cleverly, the series allows the principals to reveal themselves with their own words and deeds, all while framing them, at first, as if this is a hero’s journey. (Various media personalities who used the Trump era as a moment to vault to fame burble about: A favorite revealing shot is of George Conway, bounding onto a Lincoln Project video with that special gleam in his eye that denotes the truly camera-hungry.) We see election night from Lincoln Project members’ perspective, as though they were the protagonists, but already, more is at play. Dissension has entered the dynamic, with arguments over who’s winning the media coverage and how resources are being allocated. So, too, has arrived an aroma of outright callousness. “You are reaching emotional resonance with people,” Wilson tells an exhausted video editor who doesn’t want to use footage of George Floyd’s grieving family in an ad. “It’s not exploitative.”

    It is, and that’s the point. The group eventually collapses under the weight of its self-styled stars’ egos. The bickering is gratifying, in that it reveals certain truths about human nature and about these humans, but, though well made, it’s also wearying. Five hours is a long time to get to the conclusion that a group that spent the 2020 election laundering the reputations of former GOP operatives may not have been on the level. And it may lack for impact: Tapping into the electric charge of the man from whom they spin money and fame, The Lincoln Project’s core personalities will always have their acolytes, convinced they are the only ones who can fix things.

    “The Lincoln Project” will premiere on Showtime on Friday, October 7, at 8 p.m. ET/PT.

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