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Rick Wilson Has Some Thoughts on Trump’s Reaction to “Mourning in America”

Q&A: The Lincoln Project cofounder on what ads work in 2020, why Dems are bad at politics, and more

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On May 4, the anti-Trump Super PAC the Lincoln Project released a new ad: “Mourning in America.” Riffing off the classic Reagan ad “Morning in America,” the video details Trump’s failings in handling the coronavirus pandemic and questions whether the United States could survive another Trump presidency.

The video blew up, garnering 1.5 million views in two days. And, naturally, it drew the ire of Donald Trump. The President released a tweetstorm targeting the group in the early hours of the morning the next day, describing founding members George Conway (husband of Kellyanne Conway) and Rick Wilson as “deranged” and “crazed,” respectively.

We chatted with Rick Wilson about how the group came up with the video, and what their plans are heading into November.

What does the creative process behind your ads look like? What’s your strategy? How long is the process?

We’re very much driven by our numbers and our targeting. We are looking to do persuasion among an identified set of voters in an identified set of swing states. The types of people we’re talking to, they’re the sort of voters who swung against Trump in 2018 in areas like the metro area around Orlando, counties outside of Detroit, and counties around Milwaukee. But we’re also talking to an audience of one. We were able to take an ad we spent $5000 to put on the air and freeze the Trump campaign for two and a half days, where they did nothing else but punch us, lose control of their messaging apparatus, and lost control of their campaign management system.

We have a lot of ideas in the hopper at any given time; there’s probably 15 major concepts we’re working through right now. We try to invest in targeted work that hits with a specific impact. I’d much rather fire off one big hydrogen bomb than 100 firecrackers. And we have a very short timeframe on our process. I think the longest production cycle on one of our ads was six days, and “Mourning in America’s” was a matter of hours.

Hours?

Yeah.

Wow. 

Campaigns have always given a premium to speed and agility, and we have the experience to do these things quickly and accurately. Anybody can jack out a 30-second ad in a day or two, but it takes a different set of skills to put something out that’s at the quality and effectiveness level we want to hit every time.

You’ve had other ads that have criticized Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, but none have captured the attention of the public and Trump as much as “Mourning in America.” Why do you think this specific ad took off?

The moment we saw Trump besmirching and befouling the Lincoln Memorial for his campaign interview, we knew we were going to launch this ad. We took a classic Republican trope — the Reagan “Morning in America” ad — and inverted it. “Morning in America” was so powerful in 1984 because it captured what was really happening in the country. It wasn’t Reagan trying to convince people the economy was good, they felt it, they knew it, they believed it.

If you put out a message that doesn’t ring true, the ad doesn’t work. Trump put out a spot earlier in the week about the American comeback. I didn’t have to put it in front of a focus group to know that, unless they were a hardcore Trump supporter, people would look at it and go, “that’s not the America I’m living in. I’m living in an America where we have Great Depression unemployment levels, where by the end of this month close to 100,000 people will be dead of a disease we could have mitigated.” And so we captured that cultural moment [in “Mourning in America”]. That’s why it upset Trump so much: He knows this is what America is really feeling and thinking right now.

And it really upset him. The Twitter thread he fired at you guys was pretty vicious, even for his standards. What was going on in your head when you woke up to those tweets?

Oh, I was in hysterics, I laughed and laughed. Donald Trump is the worst victim of projection in the history of mankind. You know what I was doing at one o’ clock in the morning? Sleeping. And Donald Trump was up rage tweeting and losing his mind about me. And I know from two reporters he got on Air Force One the next day and was losing his shit. Trump had his campaign putting out press releases about us at 9:45 at night, two days after we spanked him. He just can’t quit, it’s like he cannot shake this knowledge that we got him.

Clearly your organization is anti-Trump, but you all still identify as conservatives. How do you toe that line, of being anti-Trump without being pro-Democrat?

It’s easy, because Donald Trump isn’t a Republican, he isn’t a conservative, and he isn’t a patriot. He lacks even the most fundamental patriotic principles to put the country before himself. Our goal is to defeat Donald Trump and to eliminate Trumpism in our political space. And that means we’re going to go after some of the enablers of Donald Trump who have made choices to support him even though it’s hurt their states and violated their oath of office. Those Senate races that are vulnerable, they’re vulnerable in part because of Donald Trump. So we’re going to be sure we’re talking to folks in places like Arizona, and Colorado, and Maine, and Iowa. We’re focused on ensuring that even if Donald Trump does win a second term, he doesn’t have the latitude to continue the destructive and corrupt things he’s been doing.

So not only are you going after Trump, you’re also going after his supporters in the Senate. What do you see as your role, then, in the 2020 cycle?

I’ve said this for a long time: Democrats are not holistically good at politics. They’re not holistically good at doing all the work at the same time, the right way. Because of that, we feel like we’ve got an edge in terms of our ability to wage this kind of combat that a lot of Democratic consultants either don’t have, or don’t understand. One of the reasons Republicans won over 1000 seats in a 20-year period of our country was that we started out in the minority. We had to be scrappy, we had to be tough, we had to be fast. We had to hit hard, and we had to lure voters from the other side to vote for us.

That campaign culture is something the members of the Lincoln Project have been immersed in for a very long time. The Trump campaign culture is, frankly, kind of complacent. They think that just giving Brad Parscale a billion dollars to throw at the internet is the way of the future. We’ll see how that works out.

Have there been any other ads this cycle that have stuck out to you?

The Biden campaign’s Abraham Lincoln ad was quite good. But I haven’t seen a ton of work this cycle that’s had that “oh my gosh” moment.  A good ad resonates with what people are feeling and thinking, because people are stubborn creatures; they’re not as easily persuadable as a lot of people think. You have to find a message, or an issue, or a resonance point in your advertising that can get people to say, “Yeah, they’re right.” It’s hard to convince somebody to go from A to Z, but you can move them from A to B or A to D.

 

Jane Recker
Assistant Editor

Jane is a Chicago transplant who now calls Cleveland Park her home. Before joining Washingtonian, she wrote for Smithsonian Magazine and the Chicago Sun-Times. She is a graduate of Northwestern University, where she studied journalism and opera.