The Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group run by several Republican insiders, has been at the center of a growing scandal as its co-founders have been resigning and articles paint the group as deeply flawed. “The Lincoln Project was never on our side. It was run by bigoted, terrible people who are very good at PR, and willing not just to abuse NDAs, but also to ‘go nuclear’ on anyone who might harm their image,” noted writer Chrissy Stroop on February 14.
Amanda Becker, who has been key to revealing the group’s flaws, wrote at the 19th News about how the group had come together and then “decamped to a pre-election headquarters in the ski haven of Park City, Utah, where their effort was chronicled by Hollywood filmmakers. Their post-election plans included leveraging the massive following they gained to build a media empire. They recently launched the platform LPTV.”
The Lincoln Project is now quickly losing its co-founders. Steve Schmidt left late last week, and co-founder John Weaver has been accused of sexual harassment. The New York Times reported in January that Weaver sent 21 men sexual messages. Reports from the AP and others indicate that of the approximately $90 million the group raised, much was “paid to consulting firms tied to the group’s founders and senior staff,” Axios noted. The Lincoln Project's Twitter account even tweeted private messages between co-founder Jennifer Horn and journalist Amanda Becker. The group was run almost entirely by men who were its co-founders and it appeared to lack diversity. It now seems that among those who have demanded accountability from the project are women journalists, such as Becker and Miranda Green, and others who have called out the organization on its “toxic” work environment. This may be a lesson for US politics that groups that claim to be fighting against right wing figures such as Trump should need to embody the values they claim to represent.
Let’s look at how this unfolded.
From the heights the group once had, it appears to have rapidly imploded. Let’s go back to February 2020 when The Guardian wrote a glowing report about the new Lincoln Project taking “aim” at Trump. The photo for the piece showed “Steve Schmidt, Rick Wilson, Jennifer Horn, Reed Galen, Mike Madrid and Ron Steslow” on stage at Cooper Union in New York City. George Conway, also part of the group, was absent, the reporter noted. “So was John Weaver, aid to former White House hopeful John Kasich.” According to the piece, Schmidt had run John McCain’s failed 2008 campaign. Horn was a former GOP new Hampshire chair. At the time the glowing reports called these men, and they were all men except Horn, “rogue Republicans.” Conway was married to Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway.
The Project was tough on its rivals. The AP said it took on “GOP-linked law firms.” It also took on Ivanka and Jared Kushner. But there were critics. Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez suggested the group had not produced votes for Biden from “never Trump” Republicans. Business Insider detailed her critique of the group as being in “scam territory” in November 2020. Co-founder of the Project Reed Galen told The Independent at the time that if AOC had an opinion about where the group’s money went “ask our 5,000 contributors whether or not they believe we adequately utilized the fund provided to us.” The Independent said in late December 2020 the group had taken in $82 million and had $5 million “left in the bank.”
Ryan Girdusky at the American Conservative was key to uncovering the Lincoln Project’s internal scandal. He wrote about the group’s “predator” who he named as Weaver. Weaver was accused of soliciting young men for internships or a job and then sending sexual messages. The ‘Times’ reported on January 31 that 21 men had accused Weaver. Miranda Green at New York Magazine expanded on the story on February 12. Now others want out of nondisclosure agreements with the group. The internal Weaver crisis is just one part of the story.
The Project is also critiqued for how it spent its money. AP notes that of the $90 million raised “only about a third of the money, roughly $27 million, directly paid for advertisements that aired on broadcast and cable or appeared online.” Some $50 million went to firms controlled by the group’s leaders, critics assert. The reporting at 19th News illustrates how a handful of men controlled the group. It notes that “a three person board Galen, Madrid and Steslow – was created without input from some of the other co-founders.” The article notes how in December the group was giving major payments, in the millions, to firms linked to the men running it. It was organized as a “Super PAC,” the article noted. The article asserts that the Park City offices were “toxic” with women who worked there called “girls.”
The women calling out the Lincoln Project, such as AOC, Horn, as well as writers Becker, Green and Stroop, illustrate an important point about this organization. Although people on the right had long asserted that these never-Trump Republicans are grifters, the larger story is that a group of center-right men had attracted a lot of liberal re-tweets but didn’t internalize the liberal values they were getting support from. Left wing voices finally stood up to the Lincoln Project. This is one of the larger elephants in the room in US and western politics in general. While there is a lot of lip service to “diversity” and talk about how sexism is bad, it often is just virtue-signaling. At the very top, of media, or Hollywood or even ostensibly liberal faculties and consulting firms or non-profits, there is too often a lack of diversity. We hear a lot about diversity, but the people who cozied up to Jeffrey Epstein, or Harvey Weinstein, were mostly those who excused the abuse of women.
Because much of the world of political Super PACs or non-profits or other organizations is still more opaque than it should be, we rarely get an accounting of how diverse these spaces are. The Columbia Journalism Review, looking at diversity in newsrooms in 2018 found that although 40 percent of the US population are racial and ethnic minorities, newsrooms had less than 17 percent staff that were minorities. How is it possible that among ostensibly “liberal” media that you sometimes still can’t find a black or Hispanic face, that you still have almost all-white and even all-male leadership, executives, newsrooms, editors? The same people paid to critique sports for lacking diversity in the management office, have no diversity. I watched the film Front Runner recently about the 1988 US election and it was welcoming to see several prominent black faces among the reporting staff. One can watch US politics these days and wonder if there is actually less diversity in major media in 2021 than in 1988. By the overall numbers we are told that diversity has slightly improved. But not much.
Why is this? There was Black Lives Matter and “Me Too,” surely there must be more women and African-Americans in major faculties in the US, in Hollywood senior director and producer positions, in PACs and consulting forms and think tanks? When it came to the Lincoln Project the fact that it was almost entirely white men might have been a warning sign that the group didn’t embody the values it claimed. It’s not that hard to have a diverse staff and diverse leadership if you set out from the beginning to do it.
What happens when groups that claim to be liberal or against far-right racism pay huge salaries only to a few connected men and their consulting firms? What happens when women and minorities may be used as token faces, but never seem to advance? What happens when women are always being “mentored” by men but never seem to be promoted? America and western countries that seem to prize virtue signaling over actually doing what they say have this elephant in the room. Often times the critique of the right in the US is that it lacks diversity and it is made up of “white strait men” who are out of step with the multi-cultural trend. That would ring true more if the groups doing the critique had the kind of diversity they talk about. In the end AOC was right about pointing out the Lincoln Project’s problem.
Lack of diversity and having women in positions of power also leads to other failures. It makes it easier for groups to hide scandals and not ask questions. More diversity means people are less beholden to one another, it’s less about small families who all attend the same private school and feel a sense of loyalty and people are more willing to speak out or not accept codes of silence. It remains to be seen if the rise and fall of the Lincoln Project will lead to these lessons being learned.