This rather eventful election season has lately become a content-creation gold rush in one area in particular: advertisements against Donald Trump.
Perhaps it’s because certain people think Americans need all the help they can get against the QAnon misinformation spreading on social media. Maybe it’s so-called Never Trump Republicans trying to curry favor with a potentially ascendant Democrat administration. Could be that these ads are just where the hot action is right now, and creatives are making them for the love of the game. (Probably not!)
In any case, the internet airwaves are currently clogged with attention-grabbing odes to Trump’s malevolent brand of incompetence—and worse.
Just this week, Book of Eli filmmaker Albert Hughes came off the bench with his contribution to the genre, and noted criminal Michael Cohen took his face turn against his former boss “Mr. Trump” to its logical conclusion with a similar-themed ad of his own. The Hughes ad is an almost subliminal assault of descriptive words flashing by, with corresponding images of Trump embodying them, while the Cohen ad is a capsule version of his whole shtick since he pleaded guilty to tax evasion and campaign finance violations (among other things) two years ago, which is pointing out all the crimes he was privy to during his long tenure as Trump’s “fixer,” whatever the hell that means.
As John Mulaney might say, we’re well past that.
Imagine a Trump voter who has made it through the last four years with their support intact having a dark night of the soul after seeing the word “skulduggery” and an image of Trump looking shifty.
Imagine that same person or their ideological twin deciding that a fallen-on-hard-times Michael Cohen’s word is the one they will finally take over the living avatar of all their grievances.
The PAC that made the Cohen ad, American Bridge, had a resonant viral hit last spring with its “Failed to Act” ad, highlighting Trump’s horrendous response to the pandemic, long before the COVID-19 death toll spiked. Most of the group’s ads, however, get a relatively piddling number of views, in the low thousands or fewer.
They are but one of many voices screaming dire warnings into the electoral echo chamber, for a multitude of reasons.
Beyond whatever temporary emotional salve and “Got ’em” impulses that these ads inspire among a class of mainstream liberal resistance types, is there an approach among the growing cohort of anti-Trump ad ad-makers that feels like it could actually win the sweepstakes they’re playing?
The Lincoln Project
Popularity: 548,000 subscribers. With ads regularly clearing the million-view mark, they are by far the most well-known dedicated anti-Trump ad house.
Active since: January 2020
Style: Designed to get under Trump’s skin, these ads are personal, brutal, and professional. The focus is typically split between ads that puncture Trump’s self-image as a tough guy who always wins, and ads exposing how antithetical Trump’s behavior is toward traditional Republican values. However, there’s also room for odd flights of fancy, including this short film about a man waking up from a coma (3.8 million views) and a sitcom-y look at Trump’s “humor” called “Trumpfeld” (2.7 million views).
Who’s involved: Notable Never Trumpers Rick Wilson, Reed Galen, Ron Steslow, Mike Madrid, Steve Schmidt, and up until earlier this week, George Conway.
The verdict: While this crew is great at rapid response—churning out a video about Trump’s unwise Goodyear boycott a day after it happened—their motives are ultimately more suspicious than the videos are useful. Also, the Lincoln Project has repeatedly stolen material for its Twitter presence.
Republican Voters Against Trump
Popularity: 121,000+ subscribers, with ads regularly clearing the 100,000 views mark.
Active since: May 2020
Style: Like its title claims, these ads are coming from the Lincoln Project-y viewpoint of disenchanted Republicans. They range from rapid-response ads about how Trump’s former guru Steve Bannon fleeced true believers on their Build the Wall dollars (the day after Bannon got arrested for it) to ads that use the president’s own words against him. But RVAT’s signature move is recording testimonials from recently former Republicans, Republican veterans, and high-profile gets such as Trump’s former DHS chief of staff, Miles Taylor, going on the record about the president’s myriad dangerous flaws.
Who’s involved: RVAT (they probably added Voters into the title just to avoid a RAT acronym) is paid for and funded by Defending Democracy Together, an advocacy organization created by Republicans including noted Iraq War hawk Bill Kristol and former New Jersey governor and George W. Bush’s EPA chief Christine Todd Whitman.
The verdict: While Bill Kristol is certainly an odd bedfellow for liberals to share, RVAT’s agenda beyond defeating Trump is either well-hidden or nonexistent. And some of those testimonials seem like they might actually help plant a seed of doubt if emailed to one’s on-the-fence Trump-supporting uncle, if such a person can be said to exist in late-summer 2020.
Popularity: 58,700+ subscribers, with a significant percentage of their prolific output pulling in multi-hundred thousand views.
Active since: Although the YouTube account has been going since 2010, indicating a since-excised previous stream of content, the group started operating as an anti-Trump house in April.
Style: A bit more loose, verging on silly, than its Republican-created counterparts but often covering much of the same ground. One recurring theme is videos wishing “Bye” to some member of Trump’s administration, or Fox News cheerleaders, even though they never seem to leave.
Who’s involved: Ben, Brett, and Jordan Meiselas, a law firm partner, Emmy-winning video editor, and marketing account supervisor, respectively.
The verdict: These videos are more designed to get liberals angry or smirking enough to pass them around, rather than persuade one’s QAnon-flirting mom. While the latter task seems extremely difficult and unlikely, the former seems almost pointless by now.
Popularity: 10,200+ subscribers, with videos only occasionally breaking the 100k views mark.
Active since: June 2020
Style: Less polished and shorter ads highlighting Trump’s many-splendored shortcomings and those who prop them up, like Tucker Carlson.
Who’s involved: Unclear. Really American is funded by a same-named PAC that seems to deliberately obscure its members. The organization did not respond to an email request for more information.
The verdict: If this were the only outlet making anti-Trump ads, they would be well worth a look. Unfortunately for them, they are not.