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Showtime’s ‘Lincoln Project’ Doc Is a Waste of Time

This five-part docuseries doesn't bring anything new to the table.

Key art for THE LINCOLN PROJECT. Photo credit: Courtesy of SHOWTIME.

“The Lincoln Project”

Courtesy of SHOWTIME

It’s a weird time to watch politics on television, and I’m not just talking about political discussions that take place nightly on CNN or Fox News. If you watch stuff like “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” or “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” they’d tell you since Trump left office there’s been little respite. Our COVID deaths remain high, women’s reproductive rights are being demolished, and police brutality still happens, nothing’s changed. But to watch political limited series or documentaries, there’s a feeling some type of wall has been breached. Like “Gutsy,” “The Lincoln Project” feels too simplistic in its presentation of the nuances that ended up destroying the group internally. Add in the fact that our world already feels worse than it did in 2020 and it feels instantly dated.

You probably remember seeing at least one ad crafted by the Lincoln Project that ran during the lead-up to the 2020 election. As co-founder Rick Wilson says in the doc, the group enjoyed trolling Trump because they knew he tended to take things so personally. The twist is that those who comprised The Lincoln Project considered themselves Republicans. Co-founder Steve Schmidt worked for John McCain’s presidential campaign, while others members openly discussed their love for the Republican party and would have previously never considered campaigning for someone like Joe Biden.

And yet throughout the series’ five episodes, which takes place in the months leading up to the 2020 election and after the inauguration, it’s easy to wonder what this documentary hopes to accomplish. The group is fully formed when the doc starts and focuses on their attempts to take down Trump.  The audience already knows Trump wasn’t re-elected, so the focus balances between the Project’s anti-Trump campaign and their own personal in-fighting. But as we’ve seen with “Gutsy,” the people involved in trying to evoke change often don’t see the forest for the trees. In this case, accusations of members engaged in sexual misconduct and financial misappropriation pop up, which tends to get more weight than other problems the group suffers from, including its complete lack of minority members.

It’s disappointing the doc never really engages with that fact. Though we see two Black people throughout the entire five-episode series, documentarians Karim Amer and Fisher Stevens never seem to question their subjects about how racially imbalanced the power structure of the group is. If anything, it reminds the audience that for all these people’s seemingly good intentions, they’re still espousing a privilege they aren’t even aware of.

(L-R): Ron Steslow, Mike Madrid, Jennifer Horn, Reed Galen, Rick Wilson and Steve Schmidt in THE LINCOLN PROJECT, "Eve of Destruction". Photo credit: Courtesy of SHOWTIME.

“The Lincoln Project”

Courtesy of SHOWTIME

That’s the biggest failing of “The Lincoln Project.” The documentary leaves the viewer thinking the reason the organization deteriorated falls into the bland idea that absolute power corrupts absolutely. It also says (in a way that maybe isn’t intentional) that this is exactly who these people and, by extension, the Republican party have always been. Audiences can’t be surprised that the group would use the same tactics and loopholes of campaign finance reform to pad their wallets, or that they’d immediately throw their white female founders under the bus when the men are in trouble. Removing Trump isn’t the main problem, and the documentary ends before things for the group get really bad, essentially letting them off the hook.

The documentary feels like it’s from another era. A viewer likely comes away thinking the Lincoln Project is a net good, but there’s no strong point-of-view other than these Republicans helped defeat Trump. It doesn’t dive deep enough into their own historical ideology to show anything other than “Well, they achieved this at least.” In the interest of giving “both sides,” the overall effect feels toothless. With what’s happened in the last two years with the Supreme Court and Republican power in the Senate, hearing this group of people presume that Trump has just influenced a few people is comical. One of the younger staffers says this is how America has always been and he’s right, but the lasting impact of the documentary isn’t that; it’s how a bunch of white people imploded a beneficial project with their own petty BS.

The world of political documentary wants to continue painting in shades of gray when things feel far more black and white than they’ve ever been. If political docs don’t want to feel dated right away, as “The Lincoln Project” does, then there needs to be a more active awareness and ability to be honest about shortcomings. A simplistic message is easy, but it’s not lasting.

“The Lincoln Project” airs on Showtime starting October 7.

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