Rick Wilson Q&A part 3: The Lincoln Project co-founder on what happens next—and the continuing marketing battle against Trumpism
Let’s back up. Before we detoured to talk about Steve Bannon, you were about to hit me with an underappreciated thing about The Lincoln Project.
Yeah, one of the underappreciated things about what we did was rigid integration of the paid media, the social media and the earned-media components. I mean, every single thing that went out the door went to social media amplification. Every single ad was pitched to cable outlets and other folks—Ryan Wiggins, my comms director, was driving that. And Ron Steslow and his digital team were driving constant, constant, constant pushing to amplify pieces as much as we could. We got to the point where if an ad didn’t clock a million total views on all the platforms, we were like, “Oh, what went wrong?” [laughter]
So you had a very 360 strategy.
And it helped that the ads were just very shareable.
We were very happy with the way that people wanted to see the content. I have to tell you, right now, we’re about to put out ads—two for D.C., and four for Georgia. People have been freaking out—like, “Where’s the stuff?”
I know, people are like, “Get on it!”
“Why are you getting so quiet?”
Yeah, you can’t take any time off! Get to work!
[laughter] I will say this: We move with a lot of intentionality. We do not just go, “Let’s put an ad up, let’s put an ad up.” We try to have a goal for everything. And right now we have to approach the Georgia thing with a lot of caution. There are a lot of ways to go wrong and not accomplish the goal in that race. So we’ve been building some stuff out based on our research—not just on, like, “Turn the key, launch the missiles!” And I have to say, you know, the quality of the production teams that we assembled at The Lincoln Project—we drove them very, very, very, very hard.
How big was The Lincoln Project production staff at its peak?
We had about seven separate production teams running at one time during the September-October window.
And how many warm bodies total is that? Staffers and freelance contractors.
I’d say inside the staff about four people all the time. And I want to make a special mention of Laura Burns, my deputy, who handled all of the logistics, all the traffic. Like, if she doesn’t want to stay in this business, she should be an air traffic controller at JFK, because she’s able to run, like, the most complex multivariate operations you’ve ever seen.
So she helped you coordinate those seven production teams? And then how many production people was that total including freelancers?
I’d say probably about 35 people. And, in terms of the writing, it was myself, primarily, and Stuart Stevens, in terms of the creative front-end on it.
And then how many of these people have stayed on post-Election Day? I mean, obviously, the election drags on with Georgia, but beyond that ...
Well, let me bifurcate that question, first off. The Lincoln Project super PAC goes on. That’s gonna be an ongoing operation, a going concern. And so, yeah, we’ll pare down the number of central production units. That’ll still be Ben Howe, who’s been my lead producer for forever, who is enormously talented, and has a great eye and a great ear for not only what moves Republican voters, but what moves voters more broadly.
So how did that work—that process of working with Ben Howe?
One thing that I love about working with Ben is, you know, I’ll call and say, “Hey, I’m writing this thing about”—I’m just gonna hypothesize here—“making Mitch McConnell part of the Georgia race.” And by the time I’m done writing the script, he will have built out some images in his head that he knows work for me, because we’ve done this together for 10 or 12 years now.
Joey Wartnerchaney is our other creative lead on the production side. It’s really important to me that Joey also shares in the credit because he really busted his ass and did a great job for us.
Shout-out to Ben and Joey, then! OK, tell me about a Lincoln Project ad that you cut—something that was ready to go, or almost ready to go, but that you ultimately didn’t go with.
We had one called “Monster Trump Rally” that I wish we’d run.
Why don’t you release the DVD extras?
[laughter] We may end up doing that. I think there were maybe 15 pieces of content out of 200-and-something that we didn’t run. I would say half of those, even with our blistering pace of production, we couldn’t get out in time to make the news cycle, just for various reasons. Or we got ’em and they either didn’t test like we wanted them to test, or they just weren’t quite there for the moment.
For a while The Lincoln Project had a sort of war-room headquarters—a live/work COVID-tested bubble, or pod, in Park City, Utah, right? The pod is done now?
The pod’s done now—we’re all back, we’ve deployed back to our mortal lives. And I’m back home in Tallahassee, Florida.
Speaking of mortal lives, let’s talk about the future of The Lincoln Project beyond the PAC activities. Right before the election, you got some coverage suggesting you were going to become a media company [see: “The Lincoln Project is becoming a media business,” Axios, Oct. 27]. Though essentially you already are a media company.
Well, we’ve had a tremendous amount of interest, both from other media companies and from venture capital, from the four corners of the world. You know, we built a podcast, and we built a streaming channel, right? Not for some future media business. We built them because our research showed us—we kept asking voters, when we did surveys, “Where do you get your news?” And podcast, podcast, podcast—it kept coming up over and over and over again. And so Ron Steslow built a podcast that is now in the top 50 on Apple. And I built out our streaming channel with the rest of our team and Reed Galan. During the election, we were clocking 150,000 views a night on “The Breakdown,” the show that Tara Setmayer I do. What we’ve learned is that those numbers are compelling to people, and they want to talk to us about what we do with them going forward.
Have brands reached out to you? Brands that are just interested in the craft of what you did?
I mean, we have had some calls like that, which I need to keep discreet for now. But we have talked to a number of brands, a number of other corporate folks, who have reached out. The No. 1 question that everybody asks is: How do you produce at this level at this speed? And, you know, that’s part of our secret sauce.
Whatever The Lincoln Project ends up doing, you essentially launched to address an election—an election cycle. So what’s the mission post-election?
We’re looking at a lot of different options right now but the idea is to put together an operation that continues with the intentionality and the philosophy behind The Lincoln Project—which was, you know, we are truth tellers, we are advocates of America and of democracy, we like people that play fair, and we hit people who don’t. This is not a bad branding position, in our view.
The work we did in this election was not just about this election, it was about what we believe as people and what we believe about this country. And so whatever we do going forward has to honor that same same mission and that same commitment. And it also has to be something that doesn’t get denatured and watered down and turned into, you know, every other damn thing. Because while we may be ex-Republicans, we are all still full-time Americans and we want to keep that feeling and that sense and that commitment as a sort of central tenet of our corporate identity—whatever that becomes.
That idea of staying true to your mission, staying true to who you are, is interesting because there are a lot of suspicions surrounding you because of your past history. Like, The Onion did a story immediately post-election, joking that you’d pivot to making anti-Biden ads [see “Lincoln Project Immediately Releases Series Of Ads Calling For Biden Impeachment”].
Like, if you’re staying true to yourself, what version of yourself are you staying true to, basically?
Well, you know, it’s the old joke of: I didn’t leave the Republican Party, it left me. Stuart and I both have written books about how the party we worked for 30 years was horseshit. It turned out it was a gigantic lie. We were the mechanics in the system, making it possible to elect these people. But when it came time to uphold the Constitution, they laughed. When it came time to respect individual liberty, they laughed, they threw it away. When it came time to uphold the rule of law, they backed the most lawless president in American history by a mile. When it came time to talk about integrity and honor and decency, they were cool with the guy who mocks POWs and cool with the guy who puts kids in cages and cool with the guy who mocks the disabled and cool with a guy who belittled the family of an American Muslim soldier who saved lives in combat.
So all those things that we thought were definitional? Turned out they were not. It turned out the cynical political hacks were actually the naive ones in this equation. We really thought that the party we served and helped build meant something—and it didn’t.
I’m a center-right guy. I believe in individual liberty, I believe in human freedom at a profound level. I believe in free markets, which we don’t have in this country. We basically have a crony-capitalist system in this country and, you know, the best lobbyists win. So I don’t have a political home anymore in this country.
You know, we said it in our editorial that we had a three-phase goal: We were going to defeat Donald Trump, then we were going to pursue his enablers in this election and beyond, and then we were going to do everything we possibly could to eliminate Trumpism. That’s a longer mission than one election cycle.
You’re talking about your December 2019 New York Times op-ed here, right? [See “We Are Republicans, and We Want Trump Defeated,” The New York Times, Dec. 17, 2019.]
So then you have a lot more work to do, because clearly the enablers of Donald Trump are still going strong.
Yeah. Sure. Listen, Donald Trump is going to haunt this country until he’s dead. And once he’s dead, he’s going to haunt this country because they’re going to upload him into the fucking cloud. We’re never going to get rid of this guy until we’ve raised the political cost of being a Trump supporter to such a level that people finally go, “Oh, God, no, not that shit again.”
So when Don Jr. runs for president, are you ready to do attack ads against him?
Ready to? I’ve already got a couple written! You think I’m even kidding?
Listen, there’s a reason why we go after the Trumps individually sometimes. Because Trumpism is a cult. They do not believe in any of the things that Republicans said or once believed in. And so, what’s the No. 1 characteristic that Trump voters want in a candidate? A Trump! They don’t care about anything else. They want more of this transgressive, ugly, racially inflected, crazytown, own-the-libs posturing.
So they probably want Don Jr. more than Ivanka.
For sure. But Ivanka’s going to move to Florida and run for something here.
Yeah, “Governor Trump” is a phrase that the great state of Florida could not create in a fucking Carl Hiaasen novel [laughter].
But yeah, look, we’re gonna have a lot of Trumpism in the future. And a lot of these Republicans right now believe that they can put a gloss on Trump, and they can say, “Well, you know, he was a little crazy, but I’m gonna run an authoritarian nation that is, you know—my authoritarianism is much better than Donald’s, much more clean and sophisticated.” You look at Tom Cotton or Josh Hawley or Marco? They will try to run Trumpism through the carwash, they will try to clean it up, they will try to pretend it never happened. And they will run for president on the “new American patriotism” or whatever—whatever bullshit name they come up with for it. And it will look like Trump and it will smell like Trump and it will sound like Trump—because it’s Trump!
They know that Trump—Trumpism—got more than 70 million votes in the 2020 presidential election.
There are still 70 million people in this country who live in an information bubble that it will take very aggressive communications, advertising and pressure campaigns to shake them out of. You know, some people criticized us: “Well, you didn’t get rid of Trumpism!” We didn’t have the resources to try to do a social program to dismantle Trumpism at scale. Would be nice. Maybe we’ll get to that. We had to kill the big zombie before we can hunt down all the little zombies.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.