It took Weaver’s sins of the flesh to end the flush of sympathetic media coverage that for the past year greeted the Lincoln Project’s gaudy anti-Trump messaging. Attention now has shifted belatedly to the sins of the purse that evidently pervade the entire organization. Colleagues were mad at how Weaver’s transgressions detracted from the Lincoln Project’s purpose. Breathtaking self-dealing and personal enrichment by many of the founders turns out to be a primary purpose.
This is the scandal that likely will be more lethal to the Lincoln Project over time. The Associated Press found that of $90 million raised by the Lincoln Project, $50 million went to firms controlled by its leaders. This is Trump-style brazenness, and also an example of the kind of behavior that made Trump’s rise possible. Once voters conclude that politics is not on the level, and everyone is in it for themselves, it makes the blow-up-everything nihilism of Trumpism easier to contemplate.
The Lincoln Project said it has hired an outside counsel to review the Weaver case. The stated aim is to get to the bottom of conflicting reports about what and when other Lincoln Project officials knew about Weaver’s inappropriate entreaties to young men, in their teens and 20, in which he mingled the possibility of working with the Lincoln Project with sexually charged banter and invitations. Meanwhile, co-founder Steve Schmidt—who denounced Weaver and said he was “incandescently angry” at him—resigned from the Lincoln Project because he said he wanted to make way for demographic diversity beyond the middle-aged white men who started the group.
The aim is clearly to reform the Lincoln Project so that it can live to fight again another day. Before the election, the group hired a Hollywood agent and boasted of its plans to create an ongoing media content business.
Here’s a better way the Lincoln Project can restore public confidence: Shut down for good.
The revelation that political operatives you probably assumed were pretty cynical turn out to be somewhat more cynical than you supposed would not seem like a huge revelation. But there’s a reason this hypocrisy is important even if not very surprising.
In 2020, the Lincoln Project made common cause with progressives in heckling Trump and trying to mobilize voters to beat him. But this alliance between progressives and former Republican operatives was conflicted at the core. Long term, the success of progressive politics depends on a revival of public faith that politics is genuinely animated by idealism and that government is effective. In short, it requires faith that, most times, things are on the level.
By contrast, right-wingers who don’t have a large agenda for activist government and already think conventional politics is often corrupt are entertained by the Lincoln Project’s sordid meltdown. It validates their worldview, rather than threatens it.
This tension was captured by a quote Schmidt gave to The Associated Press, when pressed, before his resignation, on whether the Lincoln Project might open up its books, even as disclosure laws allow much of its finances to remain shrouded.
“We fully comply with the law,” Schmidt said. “The Lincoln Project will be delighted to open its books for audit immediately after the Trump campaign and all affiliated super PACs do so, explaining the cash flow of the nearly $700 million that flowed through their organizations controlled by [Trump aides] Brad Parscale and Jared Kushner.”
This quote probably rings true to Democrats and other anti-Trump activists who believe that their side is too prissy and punctilious for its own good—and that Trump prospers because he is willing to shatter precedent and propriety without remorse. A willingness to stoop to Trump’s level, in fact, was a basic premise of the Lincoln Project—they would rally opposition and get in his head by practicing the politics of personality and insult just like he does. The key difference, according to the Lincoln Project founders and much of their press coverage, was that they would be doing it on the side of the Good Guys.
In the wake of the election, multiple premises are wobbly—not just that the Lincoln Project gang sounds like it includes a bunch of not self-evidently Good Guys. These include a report from a Democratic super PAC, Priorities USA, disputing that the Lincoln Project ads did much to move voters off the fence to support Biden.
Some of this comes down to taste. Plenty of people were entertained by the gonzo sensibility of the Lincoln Project’s work, mocking Trump’s crowd sizes and calling his ally Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) a “parasite” in an ad that featured feasting maggots. If someone likes the Lincoln Project’s work enough to write a check of support, it’s arguably their problem and not anyone else’s whether they are being ripped off by consultants on a lucrative ego trip.
But showering off from the national degradation of the Trump years is everyone’s problem.
Surely the Republican Party will benefit from more voices willing to be counted in opposition to Trump and Trumpism. But taking a perilous stand on behalf of policies and principles—as a small number of lawmakers and commentators have done—is a little different from practicing the dark arts of the political operative for sexual and financial gain.
The aim can’t be simply to beat Trump on his own turf. It is to beat him on a higher ground.