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Juan Williams: Anti-Trump Republicans flex their muscle

The Hill logo The Hill 5/18/2020 Juan Williams, opinion contributor
Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie: Juan Williams: Anti-Trump Republicans flex their muscle © UPI Photo Juan Williams: Anti-Trump Republicans flex their muscle

Republican strategists earlier this month sent a startling message to GOP senators facing reelection: "Don't Defend Trump."

Then last week, a Rasmussen Reports poll said 23 percent of likely GOP voters agree it is a good idea for the party to "find someone other than Trump to be their nominee."

Trump's reelection hinges on maximizing turnout among his base. The Rasmussen poll suggests there are more than a few restless souls inside the Trump tent but itching to leave.

Up to now, Trump's best move to enforce loyalty in his base has been to subject anyone stepping out of line to a Twitter rant while also boasting about his high level of support among Republicans - even to the point of exaggeration.

He once claimed to be the most popular Republican president in history. That is not true.

What is true is that he is very popular among Republicans. Polling often shows him in the vicinity of 90 percent approval from GOP voters. He dotes on TV ratings and popularity in the GOP to drown out dissenting voices.

But now there is a platform for just such dissent.

It comes in the form of an ad created by The Lincoln Project, a group of Republicans acting in defiance of the enforced loyalty holding together the Party of Trump.

The ad begins by showing how Trump "ignored" the coronavirus, which has now killed more than 80,000 Americans, and left "the economy in shambles [and] more than 26 million Americans" out of work.

"There's mourning in America and under the leadership of Donald Trump, our country is weaker, and sicker, and poorer," the ad intones.

The one-minute ad has over 2.3 million views on YouTube alone.

The Lincoln Project raised more than $2 million the week after the ad aired, according to the Los Angeles Times.

As you can imagine, Trump immediately fired back.

He began on May 5 by attacking the founders of The Lincoln Project as a "group of RINO Republicans who failed badly 12 years ago, then again 8 years ago, and then got BADLY beaten by me ... doing everything possible to get even for all of their many failures."

Then on May 9, he tweeted: "These people are stone cold crazy!"

That was almost a week after he first saw the ad.

Trump's persistent anger thrilled the people behind the ad.

"We found his weakness and we're going to keep hitting it," Rick Wilson, a GOP strategist and one of the key members of The Lincoln Project, told Vanity Fair.

The other founders of The Lincoln Project include George Conway, the conservative lawyer who is the husband of Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway; John Weaver, who advised former Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R); and Steve Schmidt, who was the chief strategist for the late Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) 2008 presidential bid.

Their efforts legitimize a fast exit for every Republicans looking to pull away from enforced loyalty to Trump.

"We're creating a movement of Republicans who've decided it's better for us to defeat this flavor of Republicanism - even if it means electing a Democrat," Sarah Lenti, the executive director of The Lincoln Project, told the Wisconsin Examiner.

Lenti thinks the ad will lead more conservatives away from Trump.

"If ever there were a time when you might see Republicans move, this is it," she explained to the Examiner. She added that Trump will lose in November if only a small percentage of Republicans defect.

The emotional impact of the Lincoln Project's ad is generating envy among some Democrats who wonder why - despite Trump's consistently high disapproval ratings among all voters - they have had trouble penetrating the Trump bubble to reach dissident conservatives.

"The way that you run a presidential campaign is you're a pirate ship. ... You seize and you loot and you burn," James Carville, the Democratic strategist, said on MSNBC last week.

"Let me tell you ... these 'Never Trumper' Republicans, the Democrats could learn a lot from them. They're mean. They fight hard. And we [Democrats] don't fight like that."

The Lincoln Project's advertising also includes criticism of Republican senators whom they have accused of "spineless servility" to Trump for allowing him to take control of the party.

"I'm just disgusted by what they've been doing, really, for the last three years," Bill Kristol, the conservative commentator, told the Washington Post magazine last week.

"We're really going to pay a price for this terrible failure in leadership."

Much of the price may come in the loss of independent voters.

A Monmouth University poll released earlier this month found Joe Biden leads Trump by over 40 percentage points among voters who have a negative opinion of both candidates. Contrast that with 2016, where exit polls found that voters with negative opinions of both Trump and Hillary Clinton favored Trump by 17 points.

The Lincoln Project ads have the power to free those voters from any lingering allegiance to Trump.

Lincoln Project, keep up the good work for the country's sake. Please.

Juan Williams is an author, and a political analyst for Fox News Channel.

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