‘He Gets Us’ and Sleazy ‘Swift Boat’ Ads Share a Central Figure — Further Evidence of a Right-Wing Bait-and-Switch

One of the funnier developments in the ongoing drama around the “He Gets Us” campaign that aired pro-Jesus ads during the Grammy Awards and the Super Bowl has been the attacks from numerous evangelicals on social media who berate the PR messaging for being so “woke” it’s “unbiblical”:

Right-wing hacks on Fox News and elsewhere have also mocked liberals and progressives criticizing “He Gets Us” or working to expose the agenda behind it, adding to the chorus of whiny and shortsighted zealots who consider this fauxgressive bait-and-switch ad campaign that actually benefits their cause to be an unacceptable compromise of the gospel.

I’ve been among those digging into the campaign’s funding and goals since it was first introduced about a year ago, and the evidence is unequivocal that “He Gets Us” is designed to pull people into the kinds of churches that will teach them to conflate their faith with voting Republican and going “cuckoo for culture wars.” As a result, it’s filled me with a bit of well-earned schadenfreude to watch the evangelical and Reformed infighting about whether the campaign is “biblical.”

While we don’t have precise data, it seems that many of today’s right-wing, mostly White evangelicals are in no mood to play along with the slick strategy of their more branding-savvy coreligionists. And their criticism apparently gave Christian Pinkston, a right-wing PR veteran, such a big sad that he had to go whine about it in Religion News Service. And that’s where things get really funny, at least to me. But funny or not, things certainly get revealing.

Bringing in other examples of recent conservative Christian infighting—over Chick-fil-A’s new cauliflower sandwiches (you can’t make this stuff up) and the Asbury revival specifically—Pinkston opined that just about anything Christians do “faces an immediate host of unconstructive and ungracious criticism, nitpicking and mockery.” 

And this backlash doesn’t come “only from the world (which should be expected),” Pinkston goes on, employing a catchall term that authoritarian Christians routinely use to encompass everything and everyone that exists outside of authoritarian Christianity, including liberal and progressive Christians. “The world,” for authoritarian Christians, is a “fallen” realm that is riddled with “demonic influences.”

Thus, criticism from “the world” aside, what really seems to get Pinkston’s undies in a bunch is the “ungracious” attacks from other Christians. And Pinkston knows a thing or two about being ungracious. After all, he was one of the operators behind the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” smear campaign against John Kerry, as well as the guilt-by-association campaign against Barack Obama over his friendly relationship with Bill Ayers—two of the most deceitful political campaigns of the past two decades. 

In his op-ed, Pinkston laments, “We need to stop this Christian cannibalism.” He then states, “My communications firm represents ‘He Gets Us,’ so I had a close-up view of many of the criticisms that rolled in from Christians.” If Pinkston’s involvement with “He Gets Us” was public information before, no one seems to have come across it despite numerous efforts to shine light on the forces behind the initiative, and this revelation is a big deal.

Once Pinkston outed his relationship to the “He Gets Us Campaign,” it didn’t take bloggers long to sound the alarm about the sordid history of Pinkston’s involvement with some of the most notoriously vile Republican political attack ads of all time. How a seasoned operator like Pinkston thought that revealing such information could go well for him or the “He Gets Us” campaign is a mystery. Could he have really forgotten that the kids these days love them some Google?

For the younger folks or those with shorter political memories, the “tl;dr” for these campaigns is as follows.

During the 2004 presidential election cycle, Democratic candidate John Kerry’s campaign drew attention to Kerry’s service as a Swift Boat commander in Vietnam, where he earned a Purple Heart for being injured in combat. Without a shred of evidence, the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” group claimed that the history of Kerry’s heroism under fire was fabricated, simultaneously impugning Kerry’s patriotism by criticizing his subsequent opposition to the war (a position that many, myself included, would consider patriotic). 

The brazen hypocrisy from the “support our troops” crowd was obvious, and only served to underscore that the fundamentally anti-democratic American Right considers Democrats, liberals, and progressives “unpatriotic” and “un-American” simply by virtue of their ideological disagreements. But the hypocrisy didn’t matter for how things played out. The Swift Boat ads undoubtedly contributed to tanking Kerry’s chances against incumbent George W. Bush, and the campaign led to the rise of the term “swiftboating” to describe particularly ugly or flat-out false campaigns of political character assassination.

As for the 2008 election cycle, Pinkston’s group, American Issues Project, crafted ads that implied Obama was soft on terrorism given his association with Bill Ayers, who was among the founders of the Weather Underground, a far-left revolutionary group that was behind some political bombings in the 1960s. Of course, by the time Obama knew Ayers, the latter was a mild-mannered college professor decades removed from his days as a militant Leftist. 

But Republicans ran with attempts to tie Obama to “terrorism,” perhaps most iconically in Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s accusation that the then candidate “pals around with terrorists.” In the context of the 2008 election, this rhetoric clearly entailed thinly veiled racism, and went hand-in-hand with right-wing accusations that Obama was a crypto-Muslim.

To get back to the “He Gets Us” campaign, why should any of us take its messaging about “loving our enemies” and rising above political polarization at face value now that we know who the producers of the ads “pal around” with? While the right-wing agenda of “He Gets Us” was already clear to those willing to look at the evidence, Pinkston couldn’t have given a better present to the “He Gets Us” campaign’s liberal and progressive critics than he did by simply revealing his affiliation if he’d gift-wrapped his op-ed and tied it up with a bow.

Here’s hoping this comedy of unforced errors continues. Not only do we all need a laugh. The public also deserves to know what the real agenda behind “He Gets Us” is, and the more exposure, the better.