Over the past several weeks a new force has emerged in the 2020 US presidential election, one that has already reshaped the ecology of political communication in America—even as it has received relatively scant coverage in the US media, and almost none in Europe.
The #NeverTrump movement
The #NeverTrump movement—I’m using the hashtag as an umbrella term for a number of loosely-organized groups of (current and former) Republicans—seems to have originated in early 2016 as an effort to prevent Trump from winning the party’s nomination. An article in the New Yorker -The problem with the ‘Never Trump’ movement - by John Cassidy correctly predicted that the movement was “unlikely to be able to see off Trump’s insurgency,” but—somewhat less correctly—concluded (quoting from a tweet by Jonathan Chait) that “#NeverTrump, at its core, is people satisfied that the Republican Party is fundamentally sound.” Jonah Goldberg, writing in the National Review after the election, declared: “Never Trump is over.”
The groups are diverse in their origins, methods, and personnel, but all are engaged in the same activity: producing “spots”—political ads—that seek to tarnish Trump and destroy his reputation, not just in general, but with Republicans.
Things have changed. Today (mid-June 2020) several groups of anti-Trump conservatives—their swelling ranks composed of conservative commentators and highly experienced GOP campaign veterans from the Bush I, Bush II, McCain, and Romney campaigns—have channeled their considerable energies (and financing) to the production of high-quality “content” for the internet and broadcast media, with a single goal in mind: to ensure the election of Joe Biden in November’s general election. None of these people see the Republican Party as “fundamentally sound”—indeed, most have renounced the party completely, though none (so far as I know) has joined the Democratic party. In this sense, they interrupt the relentlessly binary structure of US electoral politics: a third force, but not a third party.
The groups are diverse in their origins, methods, and personnel, but all are engaged in the same activity: producing “spots”—political ads—that seek to tarnish Trump and destroy his reputation, not just in general, but with Republicans. The ads are “targeted,” then, and some of them take the concept of “microtargeting” to its logical limit. Some of them are targeted not just at Republicans or soccer moms, but at a single individual: Donald Trump. And more than one such product has reached its “audience of one” with predictable results (more on this in a moment). In a similar way, the ideological content of these 30-second to one-minute spots has been reduced to a single proposition: destroy Trump by ensuring Biden’s victory.
Republicans against Trump
Republicans for the Rule of Law, founded by neoconservative icon Bill Kristol, produces hard-hitting but predictably highbrow content: a May 26 spot entitled “Did you ever imagine the President could act like this?” exhibits the high production values and text-heavy character of their work (their YouTube channel is here; a very informative overview is here).
Republican Voters Against Trump (RVAT), founded in May 2020 by veteran GOP operatives from the Bush II, McCain, and Jeb Bush campaigns, has produced over 100 spots of varying length, all in a single format: direct to-camera testimonials from “ordinary Americans”—chiefly from the south, midwest, and west—stating, with rich anecdotal detail, why they cannot vote for Trump in the 2020 election. The production values are authentically grainy, as these were all recorded by the speakers themselves, in their homes: extended “selfies” with biographical depth, memoirs in miniature. Tommy from West Texas:
A May 28, 2020 column in the Washington Post compared the RVAT spots to a 1964 ad by the Lyndon Johnson campaign called “Confessions of a Republican,” in which an actor playing a lifelong Republican voter explains why he can’t vote for (“dangerous”) Barry Goldwater. As I sampled the videos on RVAT’s YouTube channel, savoring the rich regional accents and the humble domestic backdrops, I was reminded of an even more remote parallel: Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology (1916), an epic poem published in serial form in which the deceased residents of a fictional Midwestern small town—212 separate named characters—provide 244 separate “accounts of their lives, losses, and manner of death.”
The Lincoln Project
If RVAT is American Gothic, the spots being produced by The Lincoln Project—at a blinding pace, sometimes two or more on a single day—are Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. With their frenetic pacing, fast intercutting, minimal use of text-on-screen and expert deployment of montage, blending still photos and motion video with voice-over narration, these spots are somewhere between a heavy-metal rock video and a sports highlight reel on steroids. The Lincoln Project was founded by a group of Republican strategists, lawyers, and admakers (including George Conway, the husband of White House aide Kellyanne Conway).
The first spot that achieved real impact is probably “Mourning in America”—a not-so-subtle reference to Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” speech from the 1984 campaign—which quickly received 1,000,000 views before being removed from Facebook by the ever-compliant Mark Zuckerberg. But never mind, because Project Lincoln had spent $500,000 buying ad time for “Mourning in America” on CNN and on Fox News’ Washington DC affiliate. And sure enough, someone saw it. Trump’s 1:00 am tweetstorm gave one of the producers of the video the space to make his point once more. Their most recent spot, “Chyna,” made use of material from John Bolton’s memoir, and appeared on the same day (Wednesday, June 17, 2020) that excerpts from Bolton’s book first appeared in the press.
#NeverTrump's negative messaging campaign
All of these groups target their broadcast media buys to the “battleground states” (Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona, North Carolina). One recent poll shows Biden narrowly ahead in all of these; 538, a poll aggregator, puts Biden ahead by between 4 and 10 percentage points in the battleground states, and ahead of Trump by an average of 9.2% in national head-to-head polling; Fox News polling puts him ahead by 12%.
Meanwhile, the list of “swing” or battleground states keeps expanding: almost inconceivably, Texas, Georgia, perhaps even Arkansas, are in play. Meanwhile, in Iowa, a state whose population is more than 80% White, only 37% approve of Trump’s handling of the BLM/George Floyd protests, and Biden is beating Trump among non-college white women by 18 points.
Of course I’m not suggesting any relationship of causation between the various #NeverTrump ads and these numbers—no one has ever shown a causal relationship between any ad campaign (for laundry soap, SUVs, or political candidates) and any aspect of human behavior. The point is rather that these ads exist in an ecosystem of public discourse and political communication that is rapidly changing: the shift in US public opinion of Black Lives Matter is historic in scale, to mention only one example.
These dissident Republican groups have emerged as a real force in this election. They do Biden's “negative ads” better than he could, and now Biden’s campaign is shifting to mostly positive messaging. And Biden’s people have lots of material for positive ads. Meanwhile the Lincoln Project, RVAT, and their ilk are producing jeremiads of very high quality, on a daily basis. But will they prove to be prophetic? As someone might say, we’ll see what happens.