The Lincoln Project's Columbus connection

Andy Downing
Jef Taylor

Video editor Jef Taylor has logged countless hours watching video footage of President Donald Trump in the last three months. He’s scoured televised interviews, picked apart debates and town halls, and witnessed the president’s stump speeches with such stunning regularity that he started to pick up on seemingly random vocal tics.

“[Trump] was doing this bit for a while where he’d be like: ‘Darling, I want to go out to dinner’; ‘Darling, we can’t watch TV because the power is out again because of the windmills,’ which was a hit on wind power,” said Taylor, who compared Trump’s approach to his stump speeches with a standup comedian sharpening and refining a bit over a period of weeks and months. “And he did this ‘darling’ thing so many times that I put together a supercut of him just saying it over and over: ‘Darling, darling, darling…’”

In a previous life, Taylor would create these types of Trump-themed videos for his own amusement  a hobby that started a couple of years back with montages such as “Trump, Remixed (Kim Jong Un),” which combines random snippets of the president’s speech into a rhythmic, avant-garde musical collage. “I’ve always made short films and random, weird videos, and Trump’s speeches just seemed like prime material to remix,” Taylor said. “I don’t know how many of his speeches you’ve seen  I’ve watched more than I’d care to admit  but he tends to repeat the same things quite a bit, he talks about himself in the third person, he says crazy offensive things. It’s not a traditional political speech, where he has talking points he's returning to. He tends to go off-book and start rambling incoherently, and that can be prime material.”

But since July, Taylor, who moved to Columbus from New York City two years ago, has been crafting Trump-themed viral videos as part of the rapid response team for the Lincoln Project, a political action committee formed by a group of Republican Never Trumpers in late 2019 with the aim of defeating the president in his reelection campaign.

“It’s just a weird year, a really weird year,” repeated Taylor, who was laid off from his job as an art director of video for Abercrombie & Fitch amid pandemic-driven cutbacks this summer before landing in his current role. “If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be editing videos for a group of anti-Trump Republicans, I would have told you, ‘You’re out of your mind.’”

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The rise of the Lincoln Project, founded in late 2019 by a group of longtime Republican operatives that includes Rick Wilson, Steve Schmidt and George Conway, among others, speaks to the number of Americans who believe Trump to be an immediate threat to democracy, regardless of party affiliation. Since its formation, the group has raised millions of dollars via donors from both parties, amassing a following of more than 2.5 million users on Twitter. The Lincoln Project utilizes these resources to fund and share viral videos mocking the president’s intelligence, leadership and patriotism, casting him as a bumbling, used car salesman-esque con man, as seen in recent video “Regeneron,” which mimics a 1980s infomercial (and which Taylor created).

While the group has drawn bipartisan support, it’s similarly been subjected to criticisms from both sides. Trump has repeatedly called the group’s founders “losers” on social media, and he responded to the viral video “Mourning in Americawith a series of Twitter posts. On the left,some have questioned the group’s motives, wondering if its efforts could be aimed at claiming a degree of credit for a Democratic victory, which might allow it to claim a seat at the table to lobby the Biden administration against interests like health care expansion or a rise in the tax rate on the wealthy. (Not to mention, it could be argued that the group’s founders helped to lay the groundwork for a Trump presidency.)

The Lincoln Project’s expenditures and top-heavy financial structurehave also been called into question by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research group based in Washington, D.C. that tracks the effect of money on elections and public policy. Financial disclosures showed the group spent $13 million on operating procedures in the third quarter, in addition to $23.9 million in independent expenditures, a portion of which was routed to firms run by its founders.

At the same time, the group has alsolaunched a website aimed at tracking voter suppression and created videoslambasting Republican hypocrisy in the party’s current efforts to push through a new Supreme Court justice in the weeks leading to the election  rallying points championed by Democrats that arguably fall outside of the narrower scope of taking down Trump.

“If Trump loses, and, God willing, he will, it might shift the political landscape in terms of how I feel about [the Lincoln Project],” said Taylor, who imagines political lines will be drawn post-election, with some Never Trumpers resuming roles within the Republican machine. “But the people in charge of the project, they approve all of the videos, and there are some videos they’ve approved where I was surprised they were willing to go there. I give them a lot of credit because of the willingness to go so far in an effort to get rid of this toxic president.”

Constant immersions in MAGAdom has come with a mental cost for Taylor, who was already counting down the days to the election when we spoke in early October, raising new, longer-term concerns for the future state of the union. 

“[The job] hasn’t changed my view of American politics, but it’s made me more concerned for the state of American politics right now,” Taylor said. “I often wonder, what’s going to happen after the election? If we get rid of Trump, does America return to any semblance of the relative normalcy we had before him? Or is politics going to be this complete, off-the-rail shit show for the foreseeable future?

"I think some people see the election as some sort of pressure release valve, but where does all that crazy energy go when it gets released?”

But for now, at least, Taylor, perhaps more than most Americans, is keeping his eyes firmly glued to the obscene reality show unfolding in front of him.

“It’s off the rails, but it’s fascinating,” he said. “It’s a great show, let’s say that. It’s a dark, dark, entertaining TV show that we are all locked into. And let’s not pretend we’re all not paying attention. Because, ultimately, everyone loves a train wreck, and this is the best train wreck of all time. I mean, are you notentertained?”