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Could Lincoln Be Re-elected Today?, a political literacy project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, compares ads from the 2020 presidential election to a series of ads that it created using modern-day tactics for the 1864 Lincoln vs. McClellan race to help students recognize patterns of deception and develop critical thinking skills. Students will learn to recognize flaws in arguments in general and political ads in particular and to examine the criteria for evaluating candidates, past and present, for the presidency.

The patterns of deception range from out of context attacks to guilt by association. Download the lesson plan using the Lincoln vs. McClellan ads.

Guilt by Association

Guilt by association is usually defined as “the attribution of guilt (without proof) to individuals because the people they associate with are guilty.” In political ads, pictures of the attacked are juxtaposed with pictures of those the audience despises in order to falsely assert, based on some superficial similarity, that the two are ideologically, temperamentally or biographically similar. Alternatively, these forms of visual guilt by association are used to imply that because the two individuals were once seen together, or worked together in some capacity, they endorse each other’s views.

The attack ad against President Lincoln highlights his wife’s Southern heritage and alleges that she (and therefore President Lincoln) have ties to the Confederacy.

The attack ad from the Lincoln Project attempts to tie President Trump to alleged sex criminals Ghislaine Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein.

Out of Context

By ignoring parts of a statement or the context in which a statement was made, political ad makers distort our sense of what an opponent said or meant. When a selectively edited statement is repeatedly aired, we remember it as if it actually happened in the way shown in the ad.

In “Honestly Abe,” we see phrases cherry-picked from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to make it appear as though Lincoln was saying the opposite of what he actually did.

In “Regardless of Facts,” part of an anecdote then-Vice President Biden tells about Ukrainian aid is taken and woven into a misleading narrative that argues Biden engaged in a dubious quid pro quo.

Distracting Through Fear

Some political attack ads substitute fear for facts. Others offer misleading information knowing that when we are distracted by fear-eliciting images we are less likely to challenge it. The famous 1964 “Daisy” ad run by incumbent Democrat Lyndon Johnson’s campaign against Republican challenger Barry Goldwater evoked audience fears of nuclear devastation to elicit concerns about Goldwater without providing the evidence required to warrant those fears. At other times, attack ads elicit fear with evocative pictures and narrative in ways that make it less likely that we will analytically challenge the offered information. The 1988 “Willie Horton” ad by the pro-Bush National Security Action Committee did this when it included the inaccurate statements that Horton had stabbed a young man 17 times and was a first-degree murderer not eligible for parole at the time that he jumped furlough and assaulted a man and raped a woman. As a general rule, when a political ad is scary, be wary.

“Lincoln’s House of Horrors” presents a photoshopped image of Lincoln holding signs with words such as “war” and “poverty” with grim images and music in the background. There is no other messaging in the ad.

Trump’s “break in” mischaracterizes and dramatizes Biden’s position on police reform and features a home invasion and a terrified woman who is unable to get the police to help her thanks to those mischaracterized Biden policies.

Overestimating an Individual’s Power

Not only is the world a complicated place but the checks and balances in the U.S. Constitution also place very real limitations on the powers of the president. Nonetheless, candidates often aver that, if elected, they will create changes that instead require congressional legislation. Examples of rhetorical overreach in presidential campaign speeches abound.

“Believe In The Union” features an attack on Lincoln for failing to keep his “promise” to protect slavery. The reality is that the South seceded after Lincoln’s election, making that “promise” impossible for Lincoln to keep. The Civil War eventually spurred Lincoln to enact the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared slaves in rebel states free. That power would arguably not have been at Lincoln’s disposal if the war had not occurred.

In the Biden campaign’s “Deer in the Headlights,” Trump is presented as being responsible for the spread of COVID-19 and for hundreds of thousands of lost jobs. While earlier and/or different steps taken by the president could have greatly slowed the spread of the pandemic, the president alone does not have the power to save the economy or provide economic relief.

Loaded Language

Loaded language is emotionally charged language that carries strong negative or positive connotations that predispose or reflect an audience’s commitment to one course of action or conclusion over others. In the current debate over possible governmental action after the deaths of 20 young children in Newtown, Conn., “gun control” advocates and “defenders of the Second Amendment” exist in two different linguistic worlds and favor two different courses of action. The same can be said of those employing “estate tax” vs. “death tax,” “intact dilation and extraction” vs. “partial birth abortion,” “death panels” vs. “end-of-life counseling.”

Both the anti-Lincoln ad and the Trump campaign ad below feature one of the most consistent attacks in American politics: cries of socialism. The attack ad against Lincoln characterizes the Emancipation Proclamation and the income tax as socialism. The Trump ad, even though it does feature some self-described “Democratic Socialists” along with Democrats, conflates these people with authoritarian Communist leaders.

Glass House Attack

Audiences assume that an attack indicates a distinction. Why, otherwise, would an ad assert that an opponent is unqualified because he or she supported the attacked bill or behavior? In a surprising number of instances, political ads attack an opponent for a behavior, position or vote that the attacker has made as well. Those making such attacks are like the proverbial person who lives in a glass house but nonetheless throws stones.

“A Thousand Cuts” asserts that Lincoln “is bleeding us dry,” but his opponent, Gen. George B. McClellan, led Lincoln’s army into numerous battles. And critics and historians have pointed to McClellan’s incompetence on the field.

America First Action PAC blames Biden for over a hundred thousand lost jobs, but under Trump’s watch, millions of Americans have lost their jobs.