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Lead Balloon Ep. 17 - The Lincoln Project’s Rick Wilson: Insurrection, Business Comms & Politics

January 6 was a dark day for America, with lasting ramifications for how businesses talk about politics and Trumpism.

What constitutes "politics" in America has crept into new, ugly territory. And with the deadly Capitol insurrection on January 6, it finally became impossible for businesses to ignore the danger that rising nationalism poses to democracy.

In minutes, that realization changed everything about the way businesses and organizations communicate about politics, and the Lincoln Project is a major force driving that shift.


Lincoln Project co-founder Rick Wilson is a political strategist, a former member of the Republican party, and a media consultant with a rich, broad background in the world of political ad strategy.


And in this episode, we'll discuss the business imperative driving a growing number of conservative business organizations to turn on the modern Republican party. We’ll learn in-depth details about the strategic media offensive the Lincoln Project led against Donald Trump’s re-election. And we’ll discuss why, like it or not, the illusion separating the worlds of business and politics shattered on January 6th.


Transcript:


Dusty Weis:

For a really long time now, conventional wisdom in business has held that you don't talk politics for fear of alienating a client or a colleague who might disagree with you. And if your definition of politics involves the nuances of progressive taxation, then that's probably a pretty good policy in the workplace, but slowly, gradually, and then all at once, what constitutes politics in America has crept into new ugly territory. And on January 6th, it finally became impossible to ignore.


News Report:

It was a scene one of the darkest days in American history, a failed insurrection...


News Report:

It was a sea of lawlessness incited by the president storming the Halls of Congress.


News Report:

There's so many people they're going to push...


News Report:

The most recent casualty of the mob is Capitol police officer Brian Sicknick.


Donald Trump:

Because you'll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.


News Report:

And we are on a glide path at this point to look down the barrel of possible civil war.


Dusty Weis:

With Donald Trump's failed, but deadly Capitol insurrection, the worlds of American business and politics collided in a way that we haven't seen in this country for 156 years. And Rick Wilson, political strategist and co-founder of the Lincoln Project is helping drive the strategic communications campaign right on the cusp of that collision.


Rick Wilson:

We're a bunch of cynical jaded, 30 plus year Republican political hat consultants, but it turns out all the shit we believed in that the rest of the party abandoned or never did, fighting for those things. It's incredibly gratifying.


Dusty Weis:

In this episode. We'll talk about the business imperative, driving a growing number of conservative business organizations to turn on the modern Republican Party. We'll cover in depth, the strategic media offensive the Lincoln Project led against Donald Trump's reelection. And we'll discuss why, like it or not, the illusion separating the worlds of business and politics shattered on January 6th. I'm Dusty Weis, from Podcamp Media. This is Lead Balloon, a podcast about public relations and marketing disasters and the well-meaning communications professionals who lived them.


Dusty Weis:

Thanks for listening. Make sure you're subscribed to the show, follow Podcamp Media on social and tell a friend, if you hear anything that's interesting to you. The rise of QAnon, Trumpism, alternative facts and authoritarian political division in America are issues that have concerned me for a long time as a professional communicator and they're issues that won't just go away if we ignore them. That's part of why I'm doing this episode, but also there are some incredible lessons that we can learn from the Lincoln Project and the communications and influence apparatus they've built. I want to make one thing clear, however. January 6th, is the day that made me profoundly sad.


Dusty Weis:

It is America at the worst that it's ever been in my lifetime. But it also made me feel a more urgent need than ever before to get this country back on the right track. And so it is with today's guest. Rick Wilson is a political strategist, a former member of the Republican Party and a media consultant with a rich broad background in the world of political ad strategy. Cut his teeth in politics in the 1980s, worked on the George H. W. Bush campaign in 88, also served as a Department of Defense appointee under Dick Cheney's tenure as secretary of defense. And he created award-winning campaign ads for many people among them. Rudy Giuliani's 1997 run for the mayor of New York, but it was during Donald Trump's 2016 run for president that he helped lead a breakaway faction of Republicans, opposed to Trump's brand of politics.


Dusty Weis:

This faction coalesced in the lead up to the 2020 campaign as the Lincoln Project, a conservative SuperPAC that carried out a potent scorched earth campaign against Trump's reelection. So Mr. Wilson, we have a lot to discuss, thanks for joining us on Lead Balloon.


Rick Wilson:

Glad to be with you Dusty. Thanks so much for having me.


Dusty Weis:

The reason that I wanted to have you on the show is because since the riot at the Capitol, there has been a big and sudden shift in the way that business and politics intersect. In a lot of business organizations that used to be this sort of artificial agnosticism of Republican, Democrat. We don't take sides. Our public affairs team is going to donate to both sides so that we've got a seat at the table, and then we won't speak of it otherwise. In a lot of ways, you were on the vanguard of a movement to break away from that way of doing business and say, Donald Trump is not just another side of the same coin. He's something different, he's something dangerous. And I think that history will now show you to have been right. So what brought you to that realization and why was it so hard for so many elements of the business world and the conservative rank and file to face that reckoning until it was too late.


Rick Wilson:

Dusty, one of the things we understood very early on in the process was that if you normalize the abnormal, if you normalize the criminal, if you normalize the corrupt, if you normalize the unconstitutional, you will get more of it. If you subsidize it, you will get more of it. That hearkens back to a very profoundly conservative economic model. And we looked at what was keeping the sedition caucus afloat? And it's corporate America. Guys like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley and Rick Scott and Ron Johnson and Tommy Tuberville and Sydney Hyde Smith, and others who were on the floor of the U.S. Senate, arguing that we should take up in the Senate, the principles of the failed lawsuits that Trump had attempted in like Ohio and Georgia and Pennsylvania and Michigan and Wisconsin, that we should take up the principles of the lawsuits in order to reverse the election.


Rick Wilson:

Well, we did a two-step analysis of it. The first step was okay, what is it they will accomplish if the Senate begins to reverse this election? Well, to do it, they have to disenfranchise tens of millions of African-American voters. That's the bottom line. When you say, "We think Philadelphia is full of voter fraud," what you are saying is black people shouldn't vote. We're going to reverse their votes so Donald Trump can stay in office. African-Americans shouldn't have their votes counted. So we've put this in the face of companies now, on two axes, the first is you are either with the results of this election, the forces of our traditional constitutional republic and our democracy, or you're with the new Jim Crow caucus in the Senate. And Josh Hawley is proud to be a leader of the Jim Crow caucus. And Ted Cruz is proud to be a leader of the Jim Crow caucus, and Rick Scott is proud to be a leader of the Jim Crow caucus.


Rick Wilson:

They don't care about black votes any more than they care about black lives. But when Rick Scott, who is the head of the NRSC, goes out to Coca-Cola or Google or Ford or Boeing and says, "Hey, I need $5 million. I need your vig for my campaigns." Those companies now have to own that Rick Scott is a leader of attempting to disenfranchise millions of black voters, that he has adopted an overtly racist position against black voters. And these companies, all of them, every single one of them has signed a diversity pledge. They have said that our clients and our corporate culture are going to reflect the values of our communities. And we're not going to engage in any kind of racist policies. Well, if you give money to the NRSC right now, you have a caucus that runs that operation that is overtly racially prejudiced against African-American voters. And they said so on the record. Now the second part of it is we knew this was pretty clear with most American corporations being pro-sedition and being pro-insurrection and being pro-violent terrorist attacks on our U.S. Capitol, is also bad marketing.


Dusty Weis:

Not typically something that you want associated with your brand.


Rick Wilson:

You really don't. You really want to keep that away from your brand. And I'll break a little news here with you. We're hearing that InBev, the owners of Anheuser-Busch a great Missouri company. They're very unhappy with Josh Hawley right now, while Josh Hawley is out there giving the first and encouraging the rioters and telling them that it on the floor of the Senate. "You're crazy conspiracy is real, come and take power." Well, guess what? When you've got a company like Anheuser-Busch, they don't want a guy like that associated with their brand.


Rick Wilson:

So he's about to lose a major funding source in his home state and a major employer in his home state is now looking at the sky as political and brand poison. Look, every company in America makes decisions on who they want to endorse, who they want to support, how their donations reflect upon them is now something that is not hidden away in the obscure Folkways of Washington. It's a public record and our group, we don't care about the term boycott. We think it's out of date. We think it doesn't reflect the realities of modern social media and modern campaign media.


Rick Wilson:

What we prefer to do is exposure. We call it making people famous. So if you're a company that supports Josh Hawley, or Ted Cruz, or Rick Scott, or Ron Johnson, or any of these other folks, we're going to make that, no, we're going to say, Hey, the X, Y, Z company, it supports people who called for a violent revolution. It supports people who wanted to disenfranchise African-American voters.


Rick Wilson:

We have an integrated operation. We don't just roll out one thing, We don't just dump out a viral app. We work our social media campaign, our paid media campaign with our ad base, our digital ads. And so we're able to get out there and make a meaningful impact in these discussions, but really quickly. And one of the reasons we do it is because these days you can't just issue an anodyne statement from your PR shop that goes to the general counsel's office, and expresses concern or furrows your eyebrows. Now you're accountable. So if you're a CEO, you've got to ask yourself, do I want to go and have my corporate dealings with the Republican National Committee or the Senatorial Committee or the Congressional Committee? Become a part of whether or not my earnings call has to explain it at the end of the quarter.


Rick Wilson:

Do I want to have to explain this to investors, do I want to explain this to stakeholders, shareholders, contractors, vendors, customers? No, because we're not in normal times anymore, because what the Republican Party did in the house and the Senate, I mean, in the House, you got 149 guys who were all in on a lunatic conspiracy theory and sought to overturn the results of a free and fair election by once again, I'm going repeat this until I'm blue in the face, disenfranchising tens of millions of African-American voters.


Dusty Weis:

And it's worth pointing out, remain comfortable with that...


Rick Wilson:

Absolutely.


Dusty Weis:

Voted in favor of that even after armed people, stormed the Capitol.


Rick Wilson:

Yeah. Look, these people have hoped for a long time to get it both ways. Oh, well, you know, we're going to still help out Congresswoman Crazy Pants or a Senator Race Baiter, but it's just cost of doing business. It's how Washington works. Well, guess what? There's a third force in the market now, and that is public exposure. That is public attention, that is focused by a group that knows how to focus attention onto you. So our goal is to force the Republican Party to radically reform itself. And that means if you want this to stop, it's easy. Expel Josh Hawley, expel Ted Cruz, remove Scott as the head of the Republican Congressional Committee. Kevin McCarthy is entirely unacceptable as a minority leader in the house because he represents a caucus that has abandoned every principle, except for the political expedience of a racial trick to disqualify an election and hold Donald Trump in power.


Dusty Weis:

What I find interesting about it, what I find effective about it is that in the ensuing years, since Citizens United, the Supreme court decision, that essentially created the idea of a super PAC in the years, since then, it's almost like everybody in politics, everybody in corporate communication has been dancing around the fact that money is the driving force in politics. And then the Lincoln Project comes along and says, "We're going to weaponize this concept, acknowledge that money is the driving force in politics and use it to affect real change." Is there an irony in that the fact that for a long time, we've all wrung our hands about, oh, Citizens United, all this money in politics. oh, it's and you guys just come right out and say, "No, you know what? We're going to use this power for good."


Rick Wilson:

Well, the irony here is all of us were practitioners of this art between us we probably placed, I don't know, a half a billion dollars, a super back money in the last 30 years who knows 20 years who knows some enormous number. Right? Well, we understand all the tricks, we come from this world. And the idea that you were going to pass some regulatory structure, you got citizens because you did McCain-Feingold and McCain-Feingold pretended money didn't really have a Ohm's Law of moving to the path of least resistance, but it does. And so we understood that you can't regulate your way out of this problem.


Rick Wilson:

You have to cause the behavior on the supply side, not on the demand side, the supply side of this is corporate America. The supply side of this is major companies who have boards and stakeholders and customers and public facing exposure. Look I'm an economic conservative, I believe markets do magical things. I believe markets do change behaviors. So we've created an outside market force in a space that previously was dominated by two things. One, the availability of corporate money and two a demand structure by the incumbent parties in DC, that said, you will achieve the regulatory outcomes you want if you pay us money, it's brutally cynical, but it's exactly what the world looks like.


Rick Wilson:

Well, now we've forced an externality into the situation that a lot of companies have decided it is not worth this fight. And by the end of this year, we're looking right now that the Republicans have lost somewhere around 30 to $40 million of revenue from these companies that would have gone to candidates and campaigns at every level. Our goal is very simple. It is to raise that pain level to the point where it's $150 million or $200 million. And at that point, they're going to be stuck in a box canyon.


Rick Wilson:

They can turn around and come back out to the light and they can try to reform themselves and try to get back to being a constitutional governance party rather than a party based on a personality cult or, and look, we're just as happy on this outcome too, they can drive themselves further into the crazy, become the party of QAnon, conspiracy theories, of violent revolution, armed groups, MAGA terrorism, yall Qaeda, as we call it, the proud boys, the guys who wear Auschwitz T-shirts to the rallies and no one blinks an eye, the people who carry Confederate battle flags into the sacred space of our legislative body, and no one blinks an eye, none of them cared until they got caught.


Rick Wilson:

And none of them cared until there was somebody out there who wasn't a defensive force anymore. It was an offensive force. They should understand: they're the prey, we're the hunters. And we will continue to do so. As long as, as folks keep proposing their confidence in us. And as long as we keep getting results in this fight.


Dusty Weis:

Well, let's talk about those results for a second. You guys launched into this presidential campaign, and I think any observer will say that the Lincoln Project came out, swinging here, this history making ad campaign during the 2020 election cycle. According to an interview that you gave to Ad Age, it consisted primarily of three categories of attack, blacking ads, wedge ads, and psychological warfare. Can you explain to me the distinction and what was the strategic impetus?


Rick Wilson:

The motif we use, the metaphor we use for this is that iceberg. So the iceberg sticking out of the water, were the very flashy, viral video ads, which were for the audience of one, realistically, therefore for an audience of 500, which is the president, his senior campaign staff and the DC media. Okay? Those flashy viral video ads, were at the top of the iceberg, those were very, very carefully written and directed. They were very carefully edited and built, and they were meant to mess with Donald Trump. They were meant to get inside his decision loop, to psychologically bang away at his confidence at his campaign, at the structure of his campaign at people he trusted and didn't trust could and should trust shouldn't, shouldn't trust. We worked very hard to make him behave in ways that we wanted to. No campaign had ever done an ad series like this.


Dusty Weis:

Well, it's possible that no political candidate before would have been effectively targeted by such a campaign up to this point.


Rick Wilson:

Possibly. But we're already in the heads of Josh Hawley right now. We've done it for a second time in the space of a year, because now he's sending Ethics Committee letters complaining about whether or not people were connected to the Lincoln Project, but in Trump's case, we understood he had psychological deficits. We understood he had mental and cognitive deficits that we could exploit and hack. And we did. We made him fire his campaign manager. It had never happened before. We made him doubt the honesty of his replacement campaign manager, who he pushed him somewhat to the side. We made him worry about Jared and Ivanka for days and days on end focusing on nothing else.


Dusty Weis:

You made him spend money to run campaign ads in Washington, DC, where he never had any realistic shot of winning a majority.


Rick Wilson:

He spent millions of dollars on TV in DC against our let's say, overall, the campaign we spent, I don't know, 300 grand in DC. We were spending maybe 60 grand a month in DC. It's rounding error, almost exclusively on Fox and Fox business, where we knew Trump watched and on the golf channel. And so, and so we knew where he watched TV. We understood it partly because we had people in the White House who told us what he did and what times he watched, it was very handy to have some intelligence coming that way, but he spent millions in the course of the year in Washington, they did it because they knew he would freak out if he saw our ads and didn't see their ads. Okay?


Rick Wilson:

So that psychological warfare stuff was what people saw. And it's interesting that a lot of our critics say, "Oh, well, those ads didn't move any voters." No, [inaudible 00:19:09] we didn't mean them too. We didn't care about it. That's what we did them for... to mess with him.


Rick Wilson:

Now, out in the country, there were ads we never put on YouTube, never tweeted out, never talked about those ads were the ads targeting a very narrow slice of voters in key selected swing states. And those were states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, and Georgia and Arizona. You may have heard of those states because they were the decisive states. We went into those races, very finely targeting, two large, thematic areas. So what we call the wedge ads, those were ads meant to split off soft Republicans and independent behaviorly Republican groups. Okay? These are people who tend to be more educated. They tend to be more suburban. They tend to be more female. They tend to have kids. They tend to have kids in public school. So we knew a lot about them. And we didn't have to go into these states and win millions of voters. Like in Wisconsin, I didn't have a target list of 5 million voters.


Rick Wilson:

I had a target list of like 80,000 people. I wasn't interested in going after this gigantic knockout blow. We were very much working with fine surgical tools among those people. So the wedge ads were the things that talked about Donald Trump's cruelty and his crudity. They were the ads about women. They were the ads about kids in cages. They were the ads about the border. Those were things that we understood from our research, drove people. And they said, I can't live with that. As part of what I believe in, I can't be with the [inaudible 00:20:48] grabbing kid caging guy, we were flexible. We were fast. We were smart about where we targeted. So went into places like Maricopa County, Arizona, and worked the hell out of it. We made it unacceptable to vote for Trump. So those wedge ads were to split off new voters for our pool. And they worked. There is an ad called daughters.


Commercial Voice:

Dear daughters. He want so much for you.


Rick Wilson:

That went straight to the heart of suburban women. And it just said, "Is this the world you want to raise your daughter?" Would you let someone treat your daughter the way he treats people?


Donald Trump:

That fat, ugly face of hers?


Rick Wilson:

And it was a knockout. It was a 80, 90% push at it. It was remarkable. The blocking ads. So we already knew there was a pool of disaffected former Republicans and independent leaning Republicans. And even some Democrats who tend to swing and vote Republican, frankly, more than people acknowledge. Okay? Those ads that address that group were the blocking ads, I'll give you a good example. Flag of treason, the Confederate flag add.


Commercial Voice:

The man who fall this flag 150 years ago, knew what it meant, treason and against their country. So why does it keep showing up today at events supporting Donald Trump?


Rick Wilson:

Which drove the Trump team crazy. They went nuts over it. Flag of treason, made those voters look at themselves and say, "Wow, am I with the fat guy wearing camo and carrying an AR-15 in one hand than a Confederate flag in the other yelling he's going to kill governor Whitmer or am I with Joe Biden?" You don't have to love Joe Biden, but you have to hate the symbol of all things that Trump, accounts. And that was the symbol of Trump. We made that the symbol of Trump, a person who was racially divisive, a person whose supporters reenacted the murder of George Floyd. We made people look at the hard truth of who he was to block them from drifting back to the Republican Party. Those blocking ads were essential because we understand what behavioral science tells us about people who are uncertain about their party. At the end of the day in the privacy of the voting booth, they often go back to the comforts of their tribe and they vote the party line.


Dusty Weis:

Even if that means covering their eyes and ignoring everything that had happened over the last five years.


Rick Wilson:

Dusty, human beings are great at creating their own ethical blind spots. So we made them keep staring at the monster. We made them keep looking at the horror. Now we were also pounding away under the radar screen with ads about COVID, because we knew that COVID was moving voters. It was a demonstration of Trump's incompetence and mendacity and his inability to actually govern. And in that regard, it made it inevitable that it was going to be a part of our campaign messaging, our campaign theme. And so it was, but you see a lot of those as we went out talking about those every day, we went out browbeating the reporters hey, write about this ad. The ads that made the viral hit parade were amazing. We didn't even post half these things to YouTube that we did. We didn't need to. The philosopher Immanuel Kant says, "There's the phenomenon, which is the unreal thing that you see."


Rick Wilson:

All right? And there's the noumenon, which is the real thing that you don't see. So the viral ads were the phenomenon, the audience of one ads were the phenomenon, the operational ads, were the noumenon. They were out there, they were doing their work. They were moving people. We were flexible and fast enough to know when we made investment somewhere that if it wasn't working, we moved out. Look, we put some money into Florida. It was in play, numbers looked good. We knew within two weeks it wasn't going to work. So we pulled that money out went into Georgia, we were in North Carolina heavy, and we saw the numbers weren't going to go our way in mid September reinvested every single bit of it into Pennsylvania, where we were going to win. So the agility we were able to push here by not working for a candidate or a campaign or a party is something that really made a big difference.


Dusty Weis:

Not just the agility of how you distributed the money, but the speed and agility with which you were out creating new content. I couldn't help, but notice that throughout the course of the year, Donald Trump would say something in the morning and by the afternoon, that would be a Lincoln Project ad out on Twitter and not something that was put together, slapdash, cheaply done either, but something very professional and flashy looking. And so coming up after the break.


Rick Wilson:

We had seven production teams during the course of the campaign at any given time, four were working, three were resting.


Dusty Weis:

A peek under the hood of the Lincoln Project's creative engine. That's in a minute here on Lead Balloon. This is Lead Balloon and I'm Dusty Weis, Rick Wilson, co-founded the Lincoln Project with the stated goal of derailing Donald Trump's campaign for president and pushing back against Trumpism. Throughout the course of the 2020 election cycle, the Lincoln Project sunk $46 million into a highly targeted, integrated ad campaign. But even more head-turning was the blazing speed with which they produced new content for that campaign.


Rick Wilson:

Our average turn time was, I mean, probably seven or eight hours. And there were always some blockades in the system. Even we have to put our ads through legal review, and voiceovers are actually the biggest delay. We had a composer, Sean Patterson does amazing work. The guy would turn out a 30 or a 60 second musical piece perfect for these ads sometimes in like 45 minutes, just a genius. So we have great editors, great composers, a pretty fast legal team too. But what it required was the core group of the creative and strategic team. We spent six, seven hours a day together on the phone or on Zoom. We eventually had a COVID pod out in Park City, Utah, where my partners, Steve and Reed, both live.


Rick Wilson:

We moved to the core of the organization out there, had COVID testing every couple of days, stayed isolated and were able to work even faster. Once we were all under one roof, but one community of roofs. And we were able to move on these things with this amazing swiftness. I think we did almost 300 pieces of video last year, ranging from the longest run that six minutes to 15 second pieces. And the average was a 60. So we pushed out a gigantic amount of content in a nine month, 10 month period. It's hard to imagine doing that again.


Dusty Weis:

I was just going to say, I hope that everyone on the creative team has helped themselves to a nice vacation on the beach at some point since the conclusion of this campaign.


Rick Wilson:

Everybody but me.


Dusty Weis:

But I think it's also an important illustration of what you can accomplish when you, as you said, move from conviction, building on that. Another thing that I thought was remarkable about the campaign, and I was discussing this this morning with Ben Deutsch, the former vice president of communications at Coca Cola. He pointed out the fact that you guys came out from your founding and basically set your open playbook on the table and said, "This is what we're going to do. This is how we're going to do it." And that's incredibly unconventional in the realm of political communications. It's like walking into a bar fight and telling a guy "I'm going to punch you in the face, right hook," and then doing it. Strategically speaking, why was that to your advantage in this case?


Rick Wilson:

There are a lot of people in campaigns who are obsessed with this marshal affect, where they talk about nuking people and cluster bombing people and blazing them down, all this and most of these guys have never been in a bar fight. They've never been punched in the face. Okay? I don't just mean that metaphorically. I mean, they haven't ever been in a bar fight and we're scrappers. And we were knock-around guys in our youths. And so all of us are ready to get into battles. And I will tell somebody, I'm going to do this to you. I'm going to go after you on this axis of your personality or this axis of your record. And then they obsess about it and they think about it. And they overact. And they overreact. When we said that we were going to point out Donald Trump's physical and mental infirmities, and we kept doing it.


Rick Wilson:

We got to the point where we made Donald Trump spend 15 minutes on a stage showing us he could drink water with one hand, showing us he could walk down a ramp. So we're not just telegraphing our intentions. We're using that telegraphing of our intentions to tell our opponents, we give no [inaudible 00:29:30] about you. We understand who you are. We understand how to take you on, we're going to come at you. In this corporate pressure campaign, we don't view corporate America as our opponent, we think of them as people who have been temporarily caught in an old paradigm, led astray by a bunch of DC lobbyists who would say, "Hey, listen, it's all going to be okay." Trump's going to learn how to be president. It's going to be normal eventually we're going to be there to help it.


Rick Wilson:

It's [inaudible 00:30:01] and they know it. And we're going to keep calling them on it. So again, we pick our enemies properly. The best fights are the hard fights. We look at the people who want to overthrow this government. As the enemy, we look at the people who are embracing authoritarian, fascism, and nationalism. As the enemy. We look at the architects of this kind of behavior as the enemy, we look at people who threatened the republic that we love. We're a bunch of cynical, jaded, 30 plus year Republican political hack consultants. But it turns out we were the ones who actually believed in the republic, that we were the ones that didn't think that establishing a personality cult for a want to be authoritarian was a good idea.


Rick Wilson:

In a weird way we were the optimistic ones in the end, which is a great way to be. All the [inaudible 00:30:54] that we believed in that the rest of the party abandoned or never did. We still believed in the right things in our view at the end of the day and fighting for those things, it's incredibly satisfying. It's incredibly gratifying to know you're doing the right thing, even when it's the hard thing.


Dusty Weis:

I certainly picked that up from talking to your staff too, as I was reaching out to schedule this interview. And certainly you mentioned how from people that I would say lived in denial about who Donald Trump was and what he represented, you heard over and over again. "Oh, they would never actually attempt to overthrow the government, overturn the election. He's just having a hard time accepting that he lost give him time." You see the uprising on January 6th as the predictable results of what he had telegraphed from day one. There was a lot that was remarkable about that day. A lot that we'd like to forget. But one thing that struck me was actually a statement put out on paper in the moment by the National Association of Manufacturers and without hedging, they described what happened as sedition.


Dusty Weis:

They stated that President Trump had lost the election and was inciting violence. And here's a quote. "Anyone indulging conspiracy theories to raise campaign dollars is complicit. Vice-President Pence should seriously consider working with the cabinet to invoke the 25th amendment to preserve democracy." I previously worked for a separate manufacturing trade association. So when I heard the CEO of one of America's oldest, most influential, most conservative business lobbies call for the ouster of a sitting Republican president. I almost fell out of my chair, in your decades as a political communicator. Did you ever think you would see that day?


Rick Wilson:

The NAM and that team have notoriously been very straight-laced. They are hardcore free market guys in a lot of ways. And watching that statement rollout was something that I found very gratifying and I thought was a brand saving move on their part in a lot of ways. There are plenty of groups. And again, I go back to Club for Growth. They used to say that, "Oh, we're the constitutional people, we are the hold the line on spending taxes, government power and the power of the executive. Well, now they're cheerleaders for this vision of America that is profoundly anti small-d Democratic and anti small-r Republican. So watching NAM do that. And other groups started slowly come to the fore and as watching corporate America and the folks we've talked to in corporate America that we've reached out to and vice versa, they've been almost universally receptive.


Rick Wilson:

And some of them have taken a slightly lower path of resistance saying "We're giving up all donations to anybody." But in a few of those cases, their donations were like 80/20 Republican to Democrat. So they're sending a very sharp message here. And the idea that you live in a reality in your head is wrong. You have to live in the objective world of real facts about who Donald Trump was, what he was doing and what the 6th of January meant. And if you think it was just something that got a little out of hand, and you think he didn't incite the situation, or if you think the people on the Senate floor saying it's all a conspiracy overturn the election, didn't fuel this thing? You're not living in reality. You're not living in a culture of facts and empirical data and the frying pan to the face level shock that is required sometimes to break these people out is going to be with us for awhile.


Dusty Weis:

Well, and this brings us back to the importance of the ongoing push for accountability, both on your part and the part of the Lincoln Project, part of NAM and all these organizations, with the upcoming impeachment of the former president with the ongoing push for accountability. There are still a lot of voices out there who say, "Let bygones be bygones. We need unity." You wrote an opinion piece for the New York Daily News, where you said, "Talk of unity was an invitation to further deeper and more dangerous division."


Rick Wilson:

Yeah, because if you let people get away with this kind of behavior, with no accountability whatsoever, with no punishment for bad actions, you will get more of it. In economics, we talk about when you subsidize something, you'd get more of it. When you politically subsidize violence, when you politically subsidize conspiracy theories, when you politically subsidize racist attempts to disenfranchise black voters, you get more of it. That's what will happen. It is the absolute outcome you will achieve. And so the thought that you don't hold anyone accountable, that you don't expel Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, who were active encouragers of what happened on the sixth. The fact that you don't expel Lauren Boebert from the House who may well have been intimately involved in the conspiracy.


Rick Wilson:

The fact that you don't send Kevin McCarthy packing, because he let 149 of his people go on the floor and shame themselves, the Republican Party and the country, by supporting this crackpot theory and this attack on the Capitol. If you don't hold those people accountable, they'll do more of it. If as a minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, doesn't expel people who believe in QAnon from the Republican Party, you're going to get more QAnon crazies. It's not just a choice of if you don't condemn it, it goes away. If you don't condemn it, you get more of it. It expands it metastasizes. It grows. It becomes more dangerous and deadly.


Dusty Weis:

I see what's happened in the week since January 6th in the world of business. And the optimist in me gets hopeful and says, "Hey, maybe we turned a corner in understanding the differentiation here between business and politics and morality and patriotism." Am I being naive?


Rick Wilson:

Oh, you sweet, naive summer child.


Dusty Weis:

Well, the cynic in me says, this is all going to go back to the way it was in three months.


Rick Wilson:

Look, Trump isn't retreating. These people aren't retreating. They're regrouping. There's a great mistake in the Civil War, after the third day of Gettysburg, the Union army exhausted bloodied, beaten to pieces, did not pursue the Confederate army South. If they had the war could have been over in days, weeks. That idea that you let these people recover to us is absurd. You have to pursue them, you have to punish them, you have to hold them to account, you have to to make their lives politically untenable. So they can't go back and say, "I'm going to run another election where I scream about socialism and embrace QAnon and say the election was stolen and go through the same rigmarole they've been going through" because there's one of the things, our friends that Democrats do not understand. You cannot shame this Republican Party.


Rick Wilson:

You can't shame them. You can punish them. You can torture them. You can hurt them, but you can't shame them. There's no better version of Ted Cruz. There's no better version of Josh Hawley. They're not going to learn lessons. They're not going to suddenly go, "Oh my God, what did I do? I embraced insurgency and sedition." They're not going to say that. Even if they know it, they won't say it. The definitional behavioral mode of the Republican Party now is working the refs, complaining about media bias, complaining about cultural oppression and pretending that nothing they do has consequences. Unless you make enough consequences, it won't have consequences and you'll get more of the bad behavior.


Dusty Weis:

What I'm hearing here is you guys at the Lincoln Project, aren't about to fold up tents and tear down camp and go away anytime soon.


Rick Wilson:

Not for a while yet. Look, we set out to do three things to defeat Trump. We did, part of a big coalition, but we did. To defeat Trump's enablers, we have now taken four of them off the board in the U.S. Senate and to defeat Trumpism. That's a battle that's going to be a lot longer. It's not just a political fight it's a cultural fight. It's a normative behavioral fight. It's a civics fight. It's a fight in domains that aren't just electoral. They're also in education in media and entertainment in tech, there's a whole bunch of different valences that that fight has to be waged on. And sadly, even when it's not called Trumpism, it's still going to be a form of authoritarian nationalism that is growing around the world is pernicious, is dangerous as well-funded. And it's going to be something that we feel is a vital mission going forward.


Dusty Weis:

Well, it has been an absolute pleasure to get to pick your brain here. I have so many more questions I'd like to ask in a subsequent interview. Although I do have to say the events of January 2021, they're going to be with us forever. Your organization played no small part in pulling the U.S. back from the brink of something truly awful. And so I have to ask when the movie version of this saga comes out in theaters, which actor do you want to play Rick Wilson?


Rick Wilson:

Guy who played Mike Ehrmantraut, I guess in Breaking Bad. I think that's the closest parallel.


Dusty Weis:

I was going to say. That's a great option. Otherwise I think Bill Burr could do a very fine job as well. Mr. Wilson, thank you so much for your time. Rick Wilson is a political strategist and media consultant, a co-founder of the Lincoln Project. Thank you for joining us on Lead Balloon.


Rick Wilson:

Your bet, Dusty. Thanks so much for sharing your time.


Dusty Weis:

You know, me, I like football analogies. And ultimately, if we boil down the Lincoln Project message it's this. If the refs aren't calling penalties for pass interference then pass interference becomes a common strategy in a football game. If politicians who undermine elections, foment insurrection, and encourage violence, don't face consequences then undermining elections, fomenting insurrection, and encouraging violence become a common strategy in politics. A friend of mine said to me recently, "Hey man, you should watch what you say. There are Trump supporters out there in the business world, and it could hurt your business if they hear you talk like that." He's not wrong. I get that, but I would sooner be true to my country then put my business interests before my values.


Dusty Weis:

Granted, yes, I speak from a position of privilege when I say something like that, and I'm fully aware of that. COVID lockdown. It's been tough in a lot of ways, but working from home is also a daily reminder of why I do what I do. I haven't woken up to an alarm in months because every morning, bright and early, my two and a half year old son wanders to wake me up now. And it's at that moment that I'm reminded that I don't care if he and his sister grow up with a dad who's a successful business owner, but I care like everything if they grow up in a country that's better than America was on January 6th.


Dusty Weis:

That is going to do it for this episode of Lead Balloon. Please make sure that you're subscribed in your favorite app and tell all your friends in PR and marketing if they haven't already. Lead Balloon is produced by Podcamp Media, where we provide branded podcast production solutions for businesses, check out our website, podcampmedia.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. And if you've got a great tale to tell, reach out to me directly dusty@podcampmedia.com. We'll get back to some fun PR and marketing stories in the next episodes I promise, but until the next time folks, thanks for listening. I'm Dusty Weis.


Dusty Weis:

Hi, it’s Dusty again… adding a brief post-script to this episode in light of new information.

This episode with Rick Wilson was recorded and produced between January 26 and January 29.


On January 31, the New York Times reported that another Lincoln Project co-founder, John Weaver, is the subject of harassment complaints by 21 men who say they received unsolicited, sexually-provocative messages from him over the years.


The Lincoln Project immediately cut all ties with Weaver, and released this statement:


“John Weaver led a secret life that was built on a foundation of deception at every level. He is a predator, a liar and an abuser. We extend our deepest sympathies to those who were targeted by his deplorable and predatory behavior. We are disgusted and outraged that someone in a position of power and trust would use it for these means.
The totality of his deceptions are beyond anything any of us could have imagined and we are absolutely shocked and sickened by it. Like so many, we have been betrayed and deceived by John Weaver. We are grateful beyond words that at no time was John Weaver in the physical presence of any member of the Lincoln Project.”

Weaver, for his part, denies the allegations.


I’m mentioning it here because, 1) it’s in the news, and 2) if it had been in the news when I spoke with Rick Wilson, I’d have asked him about it as a matter of principle. It seems at this juncture like the organization has handled the matter appropriately.


And at any rate, I think the Lincoln Project’s mission is important and there’s important value in the conversation you just heard with Rick Wilson, so I continued with the scheduled release of this episode on February 2nd.


Once again, thanks for listening, and be well.


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