It’s beyond parody, really, the so-called Lincoln Project’s first big thrust at persuading center-right voters to abandon President Trump in 2020. It’s also sad, and I say that sincerely. If ever there were an opportunity for Beltway insiders to reacquaint themselves with Republican voters, it’s now, when the erstwhile host of “Celebrity Apprentice” remains their preferred leader. But perhaps the saddest part of this entire sad saga is that they might be actually trying.
Of course, they’re also failing for all the same reasons they missed Trump’s rise in the first place. When I say “they,” I’m referring to the Never Trump braintrust behind this project, which includes people like George Conway, Steve Schmidt, John Weaver, and Rick Wilson, among others.
“The MAGA Church,” the group’s first digital video, is a nearly three-minute spot that misses the point more spectacularly than should be possible after almost five years of the Trump phenomenon. Bearing in mind the project says its “efforts are aimed at persuading enough disaffected conservatives, Republicans and Republican-leaning independents in swing states and districts to help ensure a victory in the Electoral College,” consider the video.
Juxtaposing obsequious soundbites from MAGA world’s evangelical stewards with soundbites of Trump calling people “p-ussies” will persuade precisely no one. That’s because the chunk of Trump’s supporters who genuinely believe him to be of outstanding Christian character à la Robert Jeffress is not especially large—and you won’t find many swing voters in it.
Conservative Christian Trump supporters generally don’t need to be convinced of his flawed character. It’s simply not their priority when the Democratic alternatives are as radical as they believe them to be, and the president’s policies align more with their own than establishment Republicans’.
Efforts to argue against that—the logic that Trump’s willingness to fight bitterly in their favor, and against an increasingly radical left, is worth electing a morally dubious president—would be the playbook of a Lincoln Project that understood the president’s supporters. And it would be much more effective. There’s still a bargain and a cost-benefit-analysis involved, but a more nuanced one than Never Trump has ever really understood, despite having years and all the motivation in the world to get to the bottom of it.
“MAGA Church” identifies a problem plenty of Christian Trump voters get. What it doesn’t do is make any substantive effort to argue against their logic for lowering it on the list of priorities, and instead sneeringly carries on as though they’ve been too blinded to really ever consider the matter. They have.
David Brody described this dynamic in The New York Times almost two years ago. “Does Mr. Trump have moral failings? Yes. Critics will suggest a hypocrisy coming from evangelical leaders who are quick to denounce the ethical failings of others who don’t have an ‘R’ next to their name,” he wrote. “But the goal of evangelicals has always been winning the larger battle over control of the culture, not to get mired in the moral failings of each and every candidate. For evangelicals, voting in the macro is the moral thing to do, even if the candidate is morally flawed. Evangelicals have tried the ‘moral’ candidate before.”
Indeed, it’s well-worth noting they might argue the people behind this very video presided over the massive losses conservatives have suffered in that “larger battle” of late, which is a massive part of their cost-benefit-analysis on Trump.
A salient question to ask this group of voters, for instance, would be whether they are more offended by a bad-mouthed president or by federal funding of Planned Parenthood. I think there are reasonable perspectives on both sides of that argument, but it’s clear where most Republican voters stand. Or at least it should be by now.
That leads me to my final point. It’s possible the Lincoln Project understands questions like that one are at the heart of the issue, and simply despise the conclusion on which so many Republican voters have landed. If that’s the case, “MAGA Church” won’t exactly move hearts and minds.
That’s why it’s also possible this video is more aimed at dunking on Christian Trump supporters than persuading them, scratching that deep itch for cheap catharsis Never Trump just can’t ignore, and pleasing the consultants’ donor cohort without moving the needle. That’s basically how the worst kind of Swamp consultants operate.
All of this ultimately exposes a sad reality. There’s a strain of contempt or arrogance or both in the Never Trump movement that prevents it from making some arguments that are legitimately worth hearing. A healthy political party tolerates disagreement (and that goes both ways)—iron sharpens iron, after all—but messages like this one are alienating because they’re based on unfair attitudes about the electorate, and are patronizing. We’ve had long enough to understand that’s always been a pretty serious part of the problem for the voters who gravitated towards Trump.