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Source: Vanity Fair
He’s not a #Resistance superstar like Rick Wilson and George Conway, but Tea Party veteran Ben Howe is a creative force behind the anti-Trump Super PAC pissing off the president and, ideally, convincing disillusioned Republicans to vote Biden.
“IT HAD BEEN MY PERSONAL MISSION TO HAVE HIM CALL ME A LOSER”
Prior to Donald Trump’s 1 a.m. Twitter rant last month raging against the “group of RINO Republican…loser types” at the “so-called Lincoln Project,” Ben Howe, a video editor and one of the top creative minds behind the super PAC’s notorious anti-Trump ads, had avoided associating himself with the group. “I didn’t publicly acknowledge my involvement until the president went after our ‘Mourning in America’ ad,” Howe told me during a phone interview, referencing a viral Lincoln Project spot blasting the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. “Once he did that—well, it had been my personal mission to have him call me a loser someday. So, I was like, Okay, I can’t stay quiet anymore.”
Like the Lincoln Project’s other members, Howe—the creative mind, video editor, and, he said, sometimes narrating voice on many of the group’s ads—spent years supporting conservative policies and working on various Republican campaigns. In December, in an effort to help ensure Trump doesn’t win a second term, Howe joined forces with Rick Wilson, a Defense Department appointee under then secretary Dick Cheney and GOP strategist who contributed to Rudy Giuliani’s winning mayoral ad campaigns; George Conway, a Washington attorney and husband of top Trump aide Kellyanne Conway who in 2017 was considered for a number of Justice Department posts before turning on the White House; Steve Schmidt, a top strategist for George W. Bush’s 2004 bid, operations chief for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, and campaign manager for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2006 reelection bid for California governor; and John Weaver, the chief strategist for John Kasich’s 2016 presidential campaign. Considered turncoats due to their shared opposition to Trump, the group united under the name of Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, and formed a super PAC with the explicit goal of preventing Trump from being reelected by swaying swing voters and moderate Republicans—and pissing him off in the process.
Howe first honed his skills as an ad creator working for the anti-Obama Tea Party movement. He launched his political ad-making career after his business, a trademark-research firm, went under during the recession. In 2010, he created a video promoting the Tea Party for RedState, a conservative website where his brother, Caleb Howe, wrote at the time. Following the clip’s semi-viral success, Howe was contracted by FreedomWorks, a Koch-founded advocacy group that played a major role in astroturfing the Tea Party wave, for another video. His success, he said, resulted in him working with the Heritage Foundation on video proposals of their own. His new company, Mister Smith Media, which he told me is named after the 1939 political dramedy starring Jimmy Stewart, went on to craft online clips and ads for Ted Cruz’s inaugural Senate campaign, which has arguably proven to be the Tea Party’s most enduring success in Washington.
In subsequent years, Howe told me his company continued to make videos for Heritage, National Review, and Senator John Cornyn, another Texas Republican. He didn’t predict, nor was he prepared for, the rise of Trump, but for him it represented a breaking point. During the 2016 election, he vowed to phone bank for Hillary Clinton if Trump won the nomination. He subsequently created an oppo documentary about the Trump campaign titled The Sociopath “in January of that year before I even left the party,” he said.
His defection, he said, made him highly unpopular in his former circles. “I stayed consistent with all the stuff that we said during the Tea Party, while they’ve moved on, in defense of party, which was something they said they would never do,” he said, referencing his Trump-aligned former friends, peers, and colleagues who now attack him and the Lincoln Project’s work on Twitter. “And somehow, I’m doing something nefarious. I changed nothing. I’m still saying the same things I said before Trump came along.… When we were at the Tea Party rally, it was literally, ‘It don’t matter if you got an R next to your name.’”
It’s rare to see a political ad that’s as widely praised, decried, and covered as a Lincoln Project spot. One reason for the group’s rapid rise is their weaponization of Trump’s own language against him—a willingness to get down in the kind of dirt that many Democratic ads won’t touch. In one recent spot, titled “#TrumpIsNotWell,” the Lincoln Project zoomed in on clips of the president struggling to walk down a ramp and drink a glass of water with one hand. In a script reminiscent of the Trump campaign’s mockery of Joe Biden’s health, and Hillary Clinton’s before him, an ominous voice can be heard calling Trump “shaky” and “weak,” questioning his “secretive midnight run to Walter Reed Medical Center,” and announcing, “Something’s wrong with Donald Trump.” The Lincoln Project has spent significantly less than PACs receiving comparable levels of attention—a reported $2.75 million on TV ads and $1.2 million on Facebook ads thus far—but makes up for with it with ostensibly out-of-bounds shots.
So far, the strategy has proven to be highly effective at getting under the president’s skin—so much so that, according to the Daily Beast, the Trump campaign shelled out over the past month $400,000 for cable news ads in the Washington, D.C. market, an area that trends deep blue, in part to counter the anti-Trump spots filling the air space. The Lincoln Project has made the D.C. market its primary on-air focus, spending $380,000 in the area, per Politico, on its most sustained marketing campaign—one targeting Trump, rather than swing voters. The group has also timed ad buys in New Jersey to catch the president during his golf outings at the Trump National Golf Club Bedminster, and purchased airtime in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for his coronavirus comeback campaign rally, Politico noted.
Howe, who described his creative efforts right now as the “most fulfilling and important of my life,” acknowledged the satisfaction he feels when his creations start “getting to Trump.” “At the personal level, our work has two tracks for me—one is definitely ‘Ha ha!’” he said. The other track is electoral, the goal “to make one person who has been on the fence, or feel like they could never vote for a Democrat, or isn’t sure about this or that—to just, at the very least, make them pause and consider that they don’t have to be a slave to binary choice, that they don’t have to make decisions solely on what one party or another party tells them. They can actually just stop, back up, and think for themselves.” He hopes those kinds of Republican voters are forced to stop and ask, “Is this person someone I’m okay with? Would I have been okay with this guy being in charge in a true crisis like 9/11?” when they watch his videos. “And if you would be worried,” he added, “then I want to give somebody else pause to reconsider.”
Some fans of the Lincoln Project have questioned the efficacy of this strategy, suggesting that the ads only serve to anger the president and his supporters, not persuade uncertain voters. “I love seeing their stuff,” Democratic donor Robert Wolf told Politico over the weekend. “All the Democrats love watching what they’re doing, but I’m not sure yet if they are preaching to the choir or actually moving Republicans away from Trump to Biden. Either way, it’s still a net positive.” But Howe believes the provocative content reflects the president’s words and actions in a brutally honest way, rather than diluting them for civility’s sake. “Nobody undoes Trump like Trump. And I hope that voters are capable of seeing that with their own eyes and making a judgment,” he said. “How I’ve always seen it is, you don’t want to make an ad that’s telling somebody, ‘Here’s what you should think.’ You’re showing people something where the conclusion should be obvious.”
Oftentimes during the creation process, his focus is “just letting the subject tell you themselves,” which is why a number of recent scripts are primarily regurgitations of Trump quotes in which “the story can tell itself.” Howe also argues that the president’s enraged responses to the ads are their own case against his reelection. “That’s why you taunt him that way, so he’ll react,” he said. “When Trump is antagonized, he tends to show the side of himself the GOP really doesn’t want anybody to see. I enjoy the idea that they want to keep their monster caged because they foolishly believed they could cage [him], but they can’t. And that’s what I’ve been saying from the get-go.”
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