Back in February, during the Before Time, I wrote about a billboard created by the Lincoln Project, a group of prominent anti-Trump Republicans.
The New Hampshire billboard
I was not, to put it diplomatically, a fan.
Last week the Lincoln Project made a much bigger splash with a one-minute video, “Mourning in America,” posted online. This week the spot appeared in three key broadcast markets: Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Fort Meyers-Naples, Florida; and the state of Ohio.
The ad looks a lot slicker than the billboard. Its creators claim it took only “a matter of hours” to produce, cost only $5,000, and got 1.5 million views before the three-state release. That sounds like an impressive return on investment.
But the ad falls apart under scrutiny. Let’s take a look at its three rhetorical failings.
Rick Wilson, a Lincoln Project co-founder and the author of Everything Trump Touches Dies, talked to the Washingtonian shortly after the release of the ad. He was asked “why the ad took off.” His answer:
The moment we saw Trump besmirching and befouling the Lincoln Memorial for his campaign interview [link], 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.
I asked rhetoric expert Jay Heinrichs, whose essential book Thank You for Arguing is now in its third edition, what he thought about Wilson’s reasoning. He responded in an email in which he imagined talking directly to Wilson:
Congratulations! You struck a chord with people old enough to remember the 1984 election. Beautifully executed downbeat—everything sucks, Trump’s to blame. Now: what's the upbeat? Making your audience miserable does not set them up for persuasion. You need a bright and shiny alternative (assuming you can polish your 77-year-old candidate to a high sheen). To get an audience on your side, you need to make them feel positive. So, to riff off another ancient campaign ad: Where’s the relief?
If you need a refresher, here’s that 1984 Reagan spot, narrated by gravelly-voiced Hal Riney.*
So many happy white people!
(Keep in mind that for Republicans of a certain age, and even for their juniors, Ronald Reagan qualifies for sainthood. Many of the rest of us beg to differ.)
I’d go further. Mourning/morning may tickle Wilson’s punny bone, but it’s a puzzling homophone that works best, if at all, in print. And starting the voiceover with “There’s mourning…” compounds the problem. There is (or there are or it is) is one of the weakest ways to begin a sentence. Consider how much more effective that opening would have been with a pronoun: “We’re mourning in America.”
Still shot from the “Mourning in America” ad
Now take a look at the transcript of the ad.
“Under the leadership of Donald Trump” echoes “Under the leadership of Ronald Reagan,” but it’s a mistake. Rule #1 of framing, according to linguistic George Lakoff: Don’t think of an elephant. If you want listeners to associate Donald Trump with incompetence and other negative qualities, don’t tie his name to “leadership.” Say, instead, “under the mismanagement of Donald Trump” or simply “under Donald Trump” (which connects his name to under-performance and under-achievement).**
Memo to Joe Biden: Don’t fall into this leadership trap.
The ad’s third error is the same one I pointed out in my critique of the New Hampshire billboard: no call to action. Yes, things are terrible, and Trump is making them worse. So what’s the solution? Impeach again? Vote Democratic? Stay home, wring your hands, and ask existential questions?
None of this seems to have bothered Rick Wilson and his Lincoln Project colleagues.
Why, I wondered. Wilson offers a clue in his Washingtonian interview.
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.
In other words, the viewer who really counts is sitting in his bathrobe in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and raging at his TV set. They’ve succeeded in poking the bear, but you don’t need to spend $5,000 to achieve that aim. This bear is thin-skinned and easily pokeable. Far better to focus on changing minds capable of change, and swaying voters to do something about a clear and present danger.
* Yes, the voiceover begins with “It’s,” which I’ve just told you is weak. But “morning in America” is so powerful that we overlook the flaw.
** Jay Heinrichs disagrees with my criticism.“My advice to clients is, ‘Start with reality,’” he wrote to me. “And Trump is the nation’s leader.”