Lincoln Project Co-Founder Steve Schmidt on Politics in the Age of Social Media

‘If you have a message, you have conviction’

OneZero is partnering with the Big Technology Podcast from Alex Kantrowitz to bring readers exclusive access to interview transcripts with notable figures in and around the tech industry.

This week, Kantrowitz sits down with Steve Schmidt, co-founder of the Lincoln Project. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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When Steve Schmidt was a senior advisor on John McCain’s campaign in 2008, Twitter was a curiosity. Now, he and a number of former Republican establishment members are using social media deftly to make the case against President Trump with the Lincoln Project. Their anti-Trump ads seem to go viral at least once a week, and may indeed influence the outcome of the election. Schmidt, a Lincoln Project co-founder, joins the Big Technology Podcast to discuss the evolution of the Republican Party since the McCain days, and how social media is changing politics.

You were a top advisor on John McCain’s 2008 campaign. No matter what people say about John McCain, almost everyone agrees he was a decent man. What’s happened to the Republican Party since then?

The Republican party is in a state of moral, intellectual, and spiritual collapse right now. There’s not even a pretense that it stands for issues and you can evidence that by looking at the platform. And what the platform of the party says, ratified at the convention this summer, in essence confirms that the party is a cult of personality where to be in good standing requires obedience and loyalty to Donald Trump. And so what the party’s become in essence is an organized conspiracy to maintain political power for the advancement of the self-interest of the elected officials and the donor class that supports them.

It’s devoid of any principles, whether it’s the nutty pastors, the frauds, the money changers in the temple if you will, the Billy Graham Jrs., the Jerry Falwell Jrs., crazy Pastor Paul, the Joel Osteens of the world, these are the people that occupy a religiosity space around the party absurdly. You look at the Matt Gates’ and the Mark Meadows’ and the anti intellectualism, the anti-science, the abrasive incompetence, cronyism, corruption, the willful turning of the blind eye to all of Trump’s excesses.

You consider for a moment that every one of the senators, and I mean every one of them, knew how lethal Covid was. They all knew, Trump knew how lethal it was, and none of them said anybody about it. None of them, when he was lying and causing chaos and catastrophe in this country went to the floor in the United States Senate in the spirit of Margaret Chase Smith, the senator from Maine, how she denounced McCarthy and McCarthyism. The declaration of conscience in the 1950s, none of them went to the floor of the Senate and said, “Stop this madness, you’re killing people.” None of them went to the Oval Office and banged on the desk and said, “Stop this insanity.”

How did we get here? Twelve years ago, with John McCain, the party was pretty different. So take us on the path about what happened inside the Republican Party that allowed us to get to this point.

Trump is a symptom of our politics. And it’s important I think for Democrats to be self-reflective in that, who did Donald Trump beat to become the president of the United States? And I’m not making any type of judgment and casting no aspersion here, but I just throw this out as a thought exercise. What is it that the American people saw that they put a con man from New York City into the Oval Office by 78,000 votes across three states.

Now you can go a long ways back and you can look at the trajectory that brought us to this moment. You could go back, for instance, to 1965 when the first Marines came ashore in Da Nang, the first American combat forces, regular combat forces. You can sit overlooking that spot in the Four Seasons today and you can ponder the question of, “We were fighting these people because of why?” But in that moment in time the people that were there to fight, were poor white, black and brown, while privileged kids like Trump were exempted from military service by gaming the system, getting into the National Guard, multiple student deferments. And the culture war that began over the lying by the government in a war that couldn’t be won had the effect for the first time in the country’s history of really shattering trust between people and their institutions of government.

The issues that percolated from that period of time carry forward to this day. They played out through all of the baby boomer presidencies. Through Clinton’s presidency and his battles with Newt Gingrich, the Bush presidency, the Obama presidency, and the Trump presidency. What we’ve seen is a civil rights and a voting rights act passed in the 1960s when there were exactly three elected representatives of the Republican Party to federal office, South of the Mason Dixon line. You’ve seen the Republican Party fully, wholly, become the Southern party in the country culturally. These forces in American politics have always been there and they were exacerbated in 2009 through the great recession. And I think it redefined American politics in a fundamental way.

For the two races that I was at the highest level of in presidential campaigns, the Bush campaign and the McCain campaign, the nominees debated vituperatively between the 45 yard lines. If you were to look at the rhetoric of those two campaigns, you would believe that the delta between a just and an unjust world is the difference between the Democratic-preferred top marginal tax rate of 39.6% and the Republican rate of 35%. That’s what we were arguing about. What happened after 2009 is that politics dimensionally began to shift and to be defined by a series of lateral lines or horizontal lines.

Above that line, Alex, are people like me and you and the people that are listening to this podcast, and we’re in the top 20% of the country economically. We’re living longer and more prosperously than any people on earth since the beginning of time and we tend to have more in common culturally with people that live in London and Geneva and Paris than we do with the citizens of a lot of cities of our own country.

We got about 40% of the country that is middle class, still middle class, but they believe three things. 1) They believe that they’re one misfortune away of economic collapse and falling down the ladder into the bottom 40%. 2) They believe their kids will be worse off. And 3) They have a profound sense that one misfortune takes it all away.

The bottom 40% doesn’t have 400 dollars of cash available, is wrestling with an opioid epidemic that’s going to kill half a million people over the next 10 years. For the first time in the history of the country you see white men at age 50 facing declining life expectancies, just as was the case at the fall of the Soviet Union. We see rising infant mortality rates. We see rising maternal labor death rates. And these people are lectured to about their privilege by many folks on the left, and it creates tremendous resentment.

The message that Trump sold to the country, to these people, is that there’s one set of rules for the people at the top and a different set of rules for everybody else. It’s not fundamentally different from Bernie Sanders’ message, it’s a populist message that’s rooted in real grievance by people who by any objective measurement would be regarded, if FDR could visit with us, as the forgotten man, the forgotten woman, the invisible people. And we heard from them in their frustration and in their rage about the ineffectiveness of government and the sense that none of it is on the level in the form of somebody that promised to blow the whole system up. And that’s how we got here.

Now the question is, when Donald Trump got to Washington could he have been restrained? Could there have been a check on him? Did the coequal branch of government controlled by Republicans have to acquiesce to his every indecent whim? And the answer to that is, of course it did not.

“What voting has become for a lot of people in this country is an act of aggression where the vote is to impose punishment by electing a faction to do harm to the other faction.”

When you speak to the forgotten person, you could point at the other and say “They’re the problem” or you could say “I see the issue and I’m going to help you.” It seems like there’s an opportunity for both sides of the party to try the latter approach, a better job of this than Trump, but to say, “Hey, I see the issue and I’m going to help you.” Why have Trump and the Republican Party stuck with the Us vs. Them message?

It’s impossible to talk about any of this without talking about the legacy of the most dangerous and the most injurious immigrant to America in all of our long history, and that’s Rupert Murdoch. And so we’ve had an increasingly extreme, very sophisticated, inner woven series of institutions that monetize billions of dollars driving anger and misinformation in this country, from talk radio, Fox; Facebook is a cancerous part of this mix as well now.

In essence, what voting has become for a lot of people in this country is an act of aggression where the vote is to impose punishment by electing a faction to do harm to the other faction that’s viewed as the enemy. And you see this playing out with Trump refusing federal aid for California because of the fires, threatening Democratically run states and cities.

There’s a lot, obviously, of racial animus that’s teeming throughout the Trump movement and that has been stoked by him. And the party that is the home for in our politics clearly in this era is the Republican Party. That’s part of it as well. We, as a country, have not addressed in any type of meaningful way the question of, what type of society, what type of country do we want to live in in 20 years?

I do want to make a point about two types of lies that we’re told in 2016. And I think that it is important to understand Trumpism. Let’s look at Appalachia and let’s look at West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, let’s look at coal country. And Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both went to coal country and lied to those people. So Hillary went there and lied and said that the clean energy jobs were coming. So this is an economically depressed, isolated part of the country, it’s really in a lot of ways fundamentally unchanged but for the devastation of the opioid epidemic since Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson toured through there in the late 1960s talking about poverty. And so Donald Trump went back and he said the coal jobs are coming back. What’s the easier lie to believe? The lie where there’s still remembrance of a life that’s no longer there but still seems within touch, or about jobs in a world that never existed ever in the first place, just a fantasy?

And so when Trump went out there and he said, “Hey. I pay people a lot of money so I don’t have to pay any taxes,” Democrats and the left all go crazy, media saying, “Oh my god, that’s it, we finally got him.” People hear him and they credit him for being honest because that’s what they believe, they believe that rich people game the system, that he doesn’t pay taxes. They credit him with being honest about it and then buy into the idea that yeah, he did pay off all the crooked politicians. He knows how the game is played, he’s strong and he’s tough and he’s going to fight for them. Of course it’s all a con, it’s a charade and we’ve seen the deadly consequences.

You were part of the Republican establishment until recently. Is there anything you would have done differently, or anything you could have changed, if you look back in time?

I mean look, my heyday in the party was from about 2002 until 2010. And in my career I’ve represented companies and individuals over the last 10 years and have done political analysis. But to your point, the party is profoundly different than it was when I was there and conservative media is very different than when I was there. The level of extremism is just completely unbound. And a lot of this happened during the Obama presidency and is responsible for the place, this moment that we’re at now.

“We have a crisis of cowardice in the country.”

Every Republican knew who and what Donald Trump was and we know that because we can go back to the video record of what they said. What’s astonishing and tragic is the capitulation through silent complicity of every principle these people previously claimed to hold. This idea that, “Well I can’t speak out against what’s wrong because I’m up for reelection,” is one that I don’t have a lot of sympathy for. There are no former U.S. senators living on the streets, standing for what’s right and be willing to lose an election. That should be a requirement of the job. And so we’ve come into this place over a long period of time and it’s going to take a lot of work to get out of it.

What I’m hearing is basically is that once Donald Trump started playing to the Us. vs. Them message, a lot of the elected officials felt uncomfortable with that at first, but then saw the power and decided to play along.

We have a crisis of cowardice in the country. We have an elected class that trembles and cowers of the idea of a mean tweet. Look, Marco Rubio, case and point, and I’ve said this and everyone around Marco Rubio went crazy, but it’s true, and it’s true of Ted Cruz too. They both talk about Castro, and Rubio’s family left Cuba during the Batista regime, Marco has repeatedly dissembled about that. But the story he tells is about his parents fleeing tyranny, coming to the United States and his father working as a bartender trying to live the American dream and living long enough to see his son move to the front of the room into the heights of political power in the United States. Which is great, it’s part of the American story, part of the American dream. The Cuban American population is one of the most successful immigrant groups in the history of the country. But if you go back to 1959 Cuba, does anybody doubt that Marco Rubio wouldn’t have been one of the men who held Castro’s coat? What’s the premise? That Marco’s a great champion for freedom in all the other countries except for America, along with Ted Cruz?

So when you look at an American president and start to talk about whether we’re going to have a peaceful transition of power, starts to make it dependent on whether he wins the election and says that any election that he doesn’t win is evidence of massive corruption and therefore invalidated and the circle continues. I don’t know about a peaceful transition of power. That is unpardonable for an American president to say that, it is foundational to the country, this is part of the great miracle of the country, is the peaceful transition of power. And now one Republican senator has denounced this in the language and the terms with the force that is deserves to be denounced. It’s an appalling moment of cowardice in public life in this country.

Now, you’re working with the Lincoln Project. Let me know if I get this right. It’s an organization that run ads making the case against President Trump?

We view ourselves as an American, pro-democracy organization that’s deeply concerned about the trajectory of Trump and Trumpism and is dedicated to defeating him.

I like what you’re doing, but I also wonder about the tactics. We’ve living in a negative, combative world and I wonder if the Lincoln Project ads are contributing to the toxic environment in our politics today?

Let me step back on this question and let’s talk about this moment in time. This is an hour of great crisis in this country and none of it had to be. If we had the same mortality rates as the Germans do, we’d have 165,000 to 170,000 more Americans alive. Trump’s response to this has been the greatest act of negligence and malfeasance in the history of the country. The lie he told to the American people downplaying the lethality of this virus is the most lethal lie in the history of the country. Hundreds of thousands of people, hundreds of thousands of Americans will be dead because of it. It has wrecked the economy, it has wrecked the education of every primary and secondary grade kid in the country. It has destroyed the American way of life for the foreseeable future, all of the rituals of life from the bar mitzvahs and the first communions to weddings. It is all ended because of Trump. He has divided the country, he stoked a cold civil war, he has assaulted the rule of law, he has assaulted our institutions, he has attacked our military, he has encouraged autocrats around the world, he has incited violence and extremism in this country and he has threatened the continuity of the American public through the peaceful transition of power.

The pro-democracy side of this argument cannot be gentle and it cannot be restrained. This needs to be fought fiercely and harshly. We seek to disrupt him psychologically and have been effective at that. We seek to drive laughter and mockery at his buffoonery. We seek to diminish him and hurt him and cut him and to hold his enablers accountable including all of the United States senators to inflict maximum pain to excise this from American public life over time. And so anybody who says, in my view, that, “Wow, you guys are confronting him in a harsh and negative way and therefore you’re part of the problem,” comes from a place of utter delusion against the stakes that the country faces. We are on the edge of losing this country to Donald Trump.

We are in a moment of profound danger as a nation because of Donald Trump, and he must be defeated. And what we’re seeing now, 12 days from the election, is the culmination of a fierce resistance to this man that has built up over four years and has grown to a crescendo with a tidal wave coming to wipe this out. And the good news is, we’re going to win this first major fight against Trump and Trumpism as he’s repudiated and humiliated in this election. The bad news is, in defeat the Republican Party’s just going to get crazier. Trumpism will be the animating force ideologically inside the Republican Party. The white supremacists, nationalists, Boogaloo Boys, and militia groups have heard Trump’s siren call, have been energized by it, they’re not going away and it’s going to be a fight that we’re in in this country for a long time. And it’s going to have to be a harsh fight where we tell the truth.

And the last thing I would say Alex, there’s not one ad, not one that we’ve run that isn’t entirely truthful. Not a single one, not a single embellishment and not a single exaggeration, not in any of them.

Are you looking at the effectiveness of these ads, how are people responding to them?

It is a game of small numbers at this point in the states. And so of course, we are most known for the ads that are targeted to an audience of one that tend to go viral. But we’re spending tens and tens of millions of dollars in the states on sophisticated campaigns at both the grass roots level and advertising level, at a digital level, we measure everything that we do. When Covid began, the best statistics people, the best data analytics people in the world, are baseball people, and they were all unemployed. And so we had a lot of baseball statisticians and data people come in and help us design our targeting programs and software against the small numbers that we’re going after and we’re trying to peel off. Rasmussen, which I don’t think is the most credible polling, but he made the point that we had reached the Bannon line, and the Bannon line refers to what Steve Bannon talked about, which is the four to five percent of Republicans that they were worried would peel off of Trump, that we breached that line. The work of all of the anti-Trump organizations from the Republican side of which we’re one of, had been successful in doing that and I think is going to be a component in the landslide we’re about to see.

How many people have their mind made up at this point?

You’re down to infinitesimally small numbers of people who are persuadable. But it’s a game of turnout, making sure that intensity stays, make sure that the intensity of the argument stays and the places where people are on the line. We released an ad today called Boys, it accompanies one that we put out last week called Girls, it’s narrated by Sam Elliot. It’s a very soft touch and it’s meant to persuade that voter who voted for Trump in 2016 who may have voted for Obama in 2012, but it’s time to come back across the decency line and vote for Joe Biden.

In 2008 when you were on the McCain campaign, I imagine the ground game was probably the most important thing, getting out and knocking on doors and getting people to vote. Since then, politics has played out on Twitter. Is that going to be a permanent change now that we’re living on social platforms?

I think more so every election cycle.

“Social media has forever changed politics”

How does that change politics?

Social media, all of it combined are tools. And you can have a lot of hammers and saws and nails, that doesn’t mean you know how to build a house with it. But if you have a message, you have conviction, and you have audience share who’s receptive to it, the social media age we live in allows for people to hear that message and also to be participatory in it. Specifically our work, and a few people call it the Never Trump movement, on the Republican side we’re a loose confederacy of groups that act in coordination for a common cause trying to get to a result. And social media obviously allows people to be participatory in that. So yeah, social media has forever changed politics and the changes in technology, no one was talking about TikTok four years ago. So whatever will be up next four years from now will just become part of the culture and anything that’s in the culture, politics is downstream of that.

I want to talk to you about the money side of things and just give you an opportunity to address some of the stuff that bubbles up on Twitter. Folks talk about how some of the fundraising from the Lincoln Project has gone to communication firms owned by some of the co-founders. I was looking at Open Secrets today and there was like $19 million to Summit Strategic Communications, which is owned by Reed Galen who’s a co-founder. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that and, if you could, just clarify the percent of the media buy that these firms are taking.

Well, when it’s all sorted out we have about 82, 83 cents of every dollar raised will go into a voter contact activity, which is a very high number against any campaign or any super PAC. And we have a substantial amount of investment in grass roots activities. We are required by the Federal Election Commission to report all of our expenditures, and we do report all of those expenditures. A lot of those payments that flow through a company like Summit Strategies are then dispersed to subcontractors and one of the decisions that we made early on is to shield by specific requests from people but also on the basis of our good judgment, our people who were involved in this from the type of online abuse, death threats, physical threats, that all of us receive. We do think it’s laughable when you look at the Trump campaign that that the accusations of untowardness are coming from the greatest group of grifters who ever existed in American history.

Honest to god, Brad Parscale will have stolen more money from the Trump campaign, about 80 million dollars it seems like, which is why they’re broke, than the Lincoln Project will have raised by the time we get to the end of the election.

So no one’s getting rich off of this is what you’re saying?

No one is getting rich off of this.

We’re recording now a couple weeks out from the election. It seems like you believe the polling, that Trump is going to lose and Biden will lose pretty handily.

I do, I do.

What makes you believe that that’s going to happen this cycle as opposed to what happened in ’16 where the polling was off?

Polling wasn’t off in 2016, that’s a mythology about the race. The polling average had Hillary Clinton up 2.8 percent with a 3.5 point margin of error and she won by 2.1%. Lost the presidency across 78,000 votes in three states. Fundamentally, in 2016 the person who was losing that race was the person whom that race was about. And the race was about Donald Trump for 99% of the race until James Comey made it about Hillary Clinton in the last week of the race by enough that he was able to pull of that inside straight. Truthfully, I think that if the election were two days earlier or three days later she would have won. And she made big mistakes by not going to Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Michigan is going to go to Joe Biden, Pennsylvania’s nearly out of hand for Donald Trump, and Wisconsin is looking good and has been ravaged by Covid, which is an indicator of where the votes are going. So I think the only similarities between ’16 and ’20 are that both years have a two and a zero in front of them.

The reality is that everybody feels snakebit, nobody wants to be wrong twice. So the media has systemically underreported the size, the durability, the duration of Biden’s coalition and has overstated the possibility of Trump winning. I don’t believe that there’s some secret Facebook deal going on there that is shielding Trump’s real support from the numbers. The country’s in a state of chaos, his behavior is profoundly unhinged, and I just don’t believe a majority of the American people are going to look at this any say, “I want four more years of this.”

Last question for you, let’s go to November 4th. No matter who wins, is there a way for this country to pick the pieces up and not fall into this world dominated by chaos?

I think that 30% of the country will never accept the legitimacy of the result. Trump won’t accept the legitimacy of the result. Who will step into the water with him though when he does that is an open question. I hope the result is big enough that it won’t be a lot of people. But it used to be, and this ’24 race is going to start very, very early, it used to be that the Democratic candidate gives a speech trying to establish their liberal bona fides and the Republican candidate gives a speech trying to establish their conversation bona fides, and I think all these candidates are going to try to go out and establish their conspiracy theory bona fides on the Republican side because I think that a majority of the Republican party, just as a majority accepts the central tenet of QAnon theory. A poll out yesterday that the government is controlled by a cannibalistic pedophile ring of Democrats and deep staters that Trump is trying to unravel, working with the military. A majority of the Republican party’s membership in the poll believes that. Majority of the party believes that Barack Obama is a Kenyan Muslim. Majority of the party believes a lot of crazy shit.

So we’re going to see more of that in 2024, more of it in 2022. Do you think that there’s going to be more QAnon candidates running for Congress in ’22 or less QAnon candidates in the Republican party? I’ll take a lot of money and put my chip on that there’s going to be more QAnon candidates. So look, there are not enough of these people to rule over us and to win elections, but there are enough of them to bring great destabilization to our polity and to our politics, particularly when we have a political class that is as selfish, cowardly, and as unfaithful to the discharge of their duties that we’ve ever had in the history of the country.

Silicon Valley-based journalist covering Big Tech and society. Subscribe to my newsletter here:

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