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The Lincoln Project – Abe’s people showing the way?

July 10, 2020

Like anyone who’s keen on the world not blowing up in the next four years, I take a close interest in the current US presidential campaign.

One aspect that I’ve never seen before is the efforts of disaffected Republicans to make sure that the president representing their party doesn’t get re-elected. The most prominent of these groups is the Lincoln Project.

The Lincoln Project is what’s known in America as a Super PAC (Political Action Committee), which is an organisation that’s allowed to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money in order to influence an election campaign. It’s not allowed to fund a candidate’s campaign directly.

Although this particular Super PAC urges its audience to vote for Joe Biden, it only does so as a means of bringing down Donald Trump. This makes it unusual, because most Super PACs are set up specifically to support a candidate from the party to which they’re affiliated. By affiliated, I mean that the group’s prime movers are either current or former members of the Republican party, many of them senior advisors to the election campaigns of previous candidates such as George W Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney.

The Lincoln Project team are responsible for some of the most vicious attack ads I’ve ever seen. The interesting thing is that they can attack Trump in a way Joe Biden probably can’t if the Democrats are to succeed in their efforts to attract broad support. They go straight for the jugular in a series of videos that have apparently infuriated Trump.

They hit home by pressing emotional hot buttons that are designed to appeal to Republicans who find it hard to identify with Trump’s raucous “base”. They include fear over the economy, national security, corruption and even the president’s sanity.

The ads are highly professional productions that appear very quickly after a trigger event involving Trump. Some seem designed even more than others specifically to get into the president’s head. In Whispers, the narrator acts as a troll whispering in Trump’s ear. She tells him that none of his inner circle are loyal to him, that they’re all whispering behind his back.

One person on Twitter observed that the video is akin to a military psyop. Psyops, short for psychological operations, are designed to confuse and disorient the enemy, and thereby reduce his effectiveness on the battlefield.

I find this interesting for two reasons. First, if the intent is to deepen Trump’s paranoia and weaken his resolve, they’re playing mind games with someone who’s not only the most powerful person on the planet, but who has shown by his track record in office that he’s capable of making dangerous decisions. Do they really want to make a man who has six months left to serve even more mentally unstable than he already is?

And second, it’s worth remembering that in his 2016 campaign, Trump employed Cambridge Analytica, about whose parent company, SCL, Wikipedia has this to say:

Publicly, parent company SCL Group called itself a “global election management agency”, Politico reported it was known for involvement “in military disinformation campaigns to social media branding and voter targeting”. SCL gained work on a large number of campaigns for the US and UK governments’ War on Terror advancing their model of behavioral conflict during the 2000s. SCL’s involvement in the political world has been primarily in the developing world where it has been used by the military and politicians to study and manipulate public opinion and political will. Slate writer Sharon Weinberger compared one of SCL’s hypothetical test scenarios to fomenting a coup.

The full Wikipedia entry is here. To put it another way, SCL apparently specialised in military psyops – similar tactics to those that the Lincoln Project are using against Trump.

So why is all this of such interest to someone like me, who is British and therefore has no say in the upcoming election?

Well, obviously I’m interested in the outcome of the election. But there’s another reason. In the 2016 Brexit referendum, and in the subsequent two general elections, we in Britain seem to have latched on to the idea of Super PACs.

The referendum was supposed to be non-partisan, but several organisations campaigned to leave the European Union. Their funding caused much controversy, and continues to do so to this day. The alleged involvement of Cambridge Analytica in the various Leave campaigns has also been the subject of much speculation. What is undeniable is that both the main campaigning groups used ads, like those of the Lincoln Project, that were specifically designed to press emotional hot buttons.

In the last election, a number of groups sprang up, funded by largely unknown donors, to support the Conservatives, but operated outside the formal party campaign structure. Again, they employed similar tactics as Leave groups in the referendum, with targeted ads in the social media.

So, aside from the question of transparency of funding, which is another discussion altogether, are we likely to see more Super PAC-type activity in the United Kingdom in the years coming up to the next general election? Is it possible, for example, that a group of disaffected Tories, who have no particular sympathy for the opposition but who are repelled by what they see as the hijacking of their party by an extremist wing led by a dangerously incompetent prime minister, will adopt the same tactics as the Lincoln Project?

Quite conceivable, I should have thought. If so, the UK is in for a style of political campaigning to which Americans are thoroughly accustomed, but which up to now we’ve found rather distasteful. In previous elections, our attack ads have been relatively mild when you compare them to the Lincoln Project’s efforts, though Jeremy Corbyn and Tony Blair might not agree.

As an interested but powerless observer, I find the Lincoln Project’s videos both entertaining and fascinating. Are they effective? That remains to be seen. I certainly hope that they and the Democrats succeed in bringing Trump down. But I worry about the prospect of British politics being dominated in the future by well-funded, sophisticated and relatively unaccountable political hit squads manipulating us this way and that.

Of course, you could argue that these are precisely the kind of operations that Dominic Cummings masterminded in 2016 and 2019. So you could say that we’re already there.

I can’t speak for America, but here in Britain it would seem that it’s time for another look at our election laws, so that we can know more clearly who’s pulling our chain and why. And an important factor in knowing why is to be able to find out where the money’s coming from.

Fat chance at the moment, I would think.

From → History, Media, Politics, UK, USA

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