In late February, Jonathan Lockwood was backstage at President Donald Trump’s rally in Colorado Springs, mingling with some of the prominent Republicans he’d worked with for nearly a decade to come up with the most vivid ways to get out the party’s messages.
In the years he’d been serving as a spokesman for upwards of 50 different conservative and GOP entities — organizations, candidates and lawmakers, including the Colorado House Republicans and then-U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman — Lockwood, 31, had honed a reputation for cutting through the clutter with a take-no-prisoners communications style his fans considered refreshing and his detractors called outrageous, always ready to turn the volume up to 11.
“The way to have success in communications is to be moderate but very extreme about it,” he told Colorado Politics.
His messaging was so colorful that The Denver Post editorial board once labeled Lockwood “flat-out deranged” after the advocacy organization he was heading unleashed an attack ad against U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet over the Colorado Democrat’s support for the Iran nuclear deal.
Fast-forward a few months, after Lockwood had returned to Oregon, where he’d been handling communications for the past three years for the state’s Senate Republican caucus, when the coronavirus pandemic hit. He applied for a job with Mike Bloomberg’s presidential campaign — the same week the former New York mayor ended his candidacy, as it turned out.
Then, after protests began to sweep the country over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, something began to change, and his lifelong ties to the Republican Party began to loosen even more.
Lockwood — who says he’s always been up front about his socially progressive views on criminal justice reform, LGBTQ rights and welcoming refugees, however at-odds with his fellow Republicans — began registering support for the Black Lives Matter movement on social media, drawing puzzled and sometimes angry reactions from Republican politicians, co-workers and long-time allies.
“I’d been saying the president needs to do an Oval Office address about race relations,” he said. “And even saying just that was somehow unacceptable; people lashed out like crazy.”
It wasn’t until Trump had a park full of protesters cleared so he could visit a church across from the White House, however, that Lockwood said he reached a full breaking point with the GOP.
“I took a step back — I need to recalibrate and figure out where am I with things,” he said. “I don’t know that the GOP is really my party anymore. Because I was so hard-hitting and bellicose with the positions I had taken, people could categorize me as a hard-core Republican. But when I saw the protesters getting gassed in D.C., leading from the 2016 election to that, I was increasingly getting irritated with things Trump said or Trump did. This isn’t just rhetoric, this is the president gassing protesters outside a church for a phony photo op with him holding up a Bible, upside-down.”
It didn’t happen all at once, Lockwood said, but as the Trump administration and its allies lobbed attacks at the LGBTQ community during June, Pride Month, he decided he’d had enough.
“There’s this common refrain from the administration, ‘We didn’t mean that.’ OK, then, why do you have to keep reexplaining and walking back everything, every time?”
As he became more vocal about his break from Trump and the Republican Party, Lockwood said many of his friends and acquaintances grew increasingly alarmed.
“People were saying things about me — everything from that I was in the New World Order or the Illuminati, and that I was a CIA agent, to saying that I’ve been replaced, literally people saying I’ve been cloned, like they say about Hillary Clinton.”
Trump, he added, “has created a dangerous following. On the right it’s become almost this Hunger Games for who can be the most pro-Trump."
"A lot of former never-Trumpers have become like super-Trumpers, because it helps them politically," he said, singling out U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, who denounced Trump before the 2016 election but has become one of the president's closest allies since.
"A lot of Republicans have come out against me for attacking Trump, and I’m like, 'You didn’t even vote for him,'" Lockwood said with a weary laugh.
In retrospect, he said the time he spent rubbing shoulders with his former cohorts at the February Trump rally looked increasingly bizarre.
"There were things Trump said, and everyone was eating up all of this no matter what he was saying, no matter how crazy. To watch Cory Gardner and Scott Tipton, who weren’t really Trump supporters, going all in for him, it was hard to stomach."
Last month, Lockwood signed up with the Lincoln Project, the increasingly provocative group of veteran Republican consultants who have made it their mission to defeat Trump and take down Republican lawmakers — including swing-state senators like Colorado’s Cory Gardner — they say have enabled what they call Trump’s threat to the Republic.
“The Republican Party today is not the Republican Party I signed up to work for. You don’t even hear Republicans talk about small government anymore. That’s why I was a Republican. I guess I’ve always been more libertarian than authoritarian,” Lockwood said, noting that he’d taken his first job — as press secretary for the House GOP caucus in Colorado, right out of college.
“I don’t see any other option than voting for Joe Biden to get our country back on track,” Lockwood said, adding that he wanted to see his vice presidential pick. “Biden has to win by a landslide so it’s very clear this is what America wanted.”
“I’ve been saying you cannot have a well-functioning society when every day is crazier than the one before. There is no sign of de-escalation. That is a threat to the republic. So I think it’s time to bring some decorum back into things. It’s time for us to get back to governance and rationality and really what made America great,” he said.
Sounding somewhat surprised to be advocating for a Democrat, Lockwood said: “It’s like, folks, this is about an election and stopping Trump, because let’s face it, Biden is not going to be a far-left extremist Trump wants to paint him to be — he’s going to 'end the suburbs'? Please,” he said, mocking one of Trump’s latest attacks against his presumptive Democratic challenger.
Lockwood said he hopes to work with the Lincoln Project, which has been churning out videos designed to irritate Trump and his campaign, as well as targeting voters who aren't being reached by Biden and Democratic groups. Nothing is set, Lockwood said, but he's been in talks with some of the group's organizers about possibly working on communications aimed at millennials.
But he hasn't abandoned the principles that kept him in the Republican Party until very recently, Lockwood insisted.
"To me, Republicans should be fighting for individual rights, limited government, limited bureaucracy, responsible spending — meaning neither no spending nor reckless spending, it means prudence — and ensuring that every American is able to reach their fullest potential so our society can reach its highest potential. And reimagining what the future can look like. I think we have lost our aspirational qualities, and Trump has replaced aspiration with antagonism."