Paranoia about "operatives" infiltrates Romney's grassroots support in Ohio

“You have a Chicago telephone number and you're a Liberal. Get out or I'll call the sheriff.”

“There are 47 per cent of the people who will vote for the President no matter what,” Romney says in the now-famous leaked footage, recorded by waiting staff at a $50,000-a-head fundraising event back in May. “So my job is not to worry about those people.”

Well, he's certainly worrying now, and he's not the only one: there's some serious paranoia among Romney's grassroots support. Last week, a local reporter recommended I cover a dinner hosted by the Republican party of neighbouring Paulding County. He sent me the details of the event, and said he would call the organisers to tell them I'd be calling to cover it.

Their response was extraordinary. First, the Paulding County Republican Committee chair, one Jerry Zielke, called him back and told him they were tracing my phone. “We think he's a Democratic Party operative,” Zielke told him. “I know for a fact that the Democrat campaign is going to plant these guys, and we've had word that they're coming in to our area.”

Sure that there has been some sort of misunderstanding – or attack of paranoid delusion – I decided to pop round to the event and straighten out the misunderstanding. When I find Zielke and explain who I am, his reaction is instantaneous. “Get out. We know what you are. Get out,” he shouts at me, spitting crumbs. I asked why. “You have a Chicago telephone number,” he says with venom, “and you're a Liberal. Get out or I'll call the sheriff.”

I got out.

“Huh,” says Ron Farnsworth of the Paulding County Democrats, when I put the accusation of planting underground operatives to him. “No, heavens no, we're not doing that. Jerry Zielke is a new chairman, became it a couple of years ago. He's just new. We're... not sure what he's up to.”

It must be remembered that this was a county Republican event rather than a national one. The presidential campaign can't be held responsible every time a local officer is a bit, well, over-zealous. And it's hardly surprising their mood was less than celebratory. The Republicans are losing. Today's polls put Obama a crucial five points ahead in Ohio. Perhaps a communiqué of some kind has gone out through the Republicans trying to prevent further phone-camera hijinks, but the damage is already done for Romney.

This is not the only such accusation. A leaked video in El Paso, Colorado of a Romney campaign volunteer pretending to work for the county clerk's office in order to register Republican voters surfaced over the weekend, and local Republicans again claimed that a Democratic “operative” was behind it.

Later that week, outside a Paul Ryan town hall meeting in Lima, Ohio, a rag-tag band of Obama supporters in fancy dress - to call them 'operatives' would be a strain on even Jerry Zielke's credulity - are picketing underneath a huge Romney-Ryan sign on the side of an office building. Cars with “Obama for America” stickers drive by honking at the queue. In the sky, a light aircraft tows the message: “Admit it: 47 per cent aren't villains”.

Earlier today the Democrat campaign held a press conference around the corner at a local union hall. The theme of their bus tour is summarised on the side of the campaign bus. It says, in a big red stripe down the side, “Mitt Romney – Writing off the Middle Class”, and it quotes the Republican candidate from the video: “My job is not to worry about those people.”

There, I speak to Larry Donaldson, a retired engineer for General Dynamics. “Romney doesn't have empathy for the middle class,” he says. “He doesn't know what it's like. He proved it in that video.” While the Republicans search for Democratic operatives under the bed, they're missing the point: that they are losing any chance to make their case to the middle class, which is allowing the Democrats to construct the narrative: Romney the elitist, Romney out of touch.

Security at the Paul Ryan event is easier-going than in Paulding – no one threatens to call the sheriff on me this time – but the event is tightly choreographed nonetheless. Only one question from the floor, most of which are in the “I pray you can cancel Obamacare when you win” vein, seems to give Ryan pause in his practiced rhetoric. It is about the quote from the hidden-camera video, but Ryan brushes it aside, returning to his recurring theme of how the upcoming defence cuts will affect the area – Lima is the site of a large tank plant. (He fails to admit, strangely enough, that he voted in favour of those cuts.)

The Paulding County attitude toward the press has infiltrated a bit here, too, though. Outside the meeting, I speak to a boy of about 17. He's in a Romney-Ryan t-shirt with a Romney-Ryan badge, carrying a Romney-Ryan sign, and he's looking faintly lost.

“What excites you about the Romney-Ryan campaign,” I ask him. “I dunno,” he answers, glancing around nervously and licking his lips. “He's Republican, pretty much, I guess.” An older woman, about 60, in bright pink lipstick bustles over, demands to know what the boy is doing talking to me, then stands and glares at me, arms folded. When I ask what policies of Romney and Ryan excite the boy to badge-and-t-shirt levels, she cuts in before he can reply.

“He's interested in what happens to this country,” she says with finality. “You agree with me,” she says to the boy. It is not a question. “I raised my grandkids right.”

May I take your names, I ask. “No. That's it.” She marches off, with a suspicious look back at me.

“Sorry,” the boy shrugs as he turns to follow her. “I do what she says.”

Romney is losing - polls put Obama a crucial five points ahead in Ohio. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Leader: Trump's dangerous nation

From North Korea to Virginia, the US increasingly resembles a rogue state.

When Donald Trump was elected as US president, some optimistically suggested that the White House would have a civilising effect on the erratic tycoon. Under the influence of his more experienced colleagues, they argued, he would gradually absorb the norms of international diplomacy.

After seven months, these hopes have been exposed as delusional. On 8 August, he responded to North Korea’s increasing nuclear capabilities by threatening “fire and fury like the world has never seen”. Three days later, he casually floated possible military action against Venezuela. Finally, on 12 August, he responded to a white supremacist rally in Virginia by condemning violence on “many sides” (only criticising the far right specifically after two days of outrage).

Even by Mr Trump’s low standards, it was an embarrassing week. Rather than normalising the president, elected office has merely inflated his self-regard. The consequences for the US and the world could be momentous.

North Korea’s reported acquisition of a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on an intercontinental missile (and potentially reach the US) demanded a serious response. Mr Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric was not it. His off-the-cuff remarks implied that the US could launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, leading various officials to “clarify” the US position. Kim Jong-un’s regime is rational enough to avoid a pre-emptive strike that would invite a devastating retaliation. However, there remains a risk that it misreads Mr Trump’s intentions and rushes to action.

Although the US should uphold the principle of nuclear deterrence, it must also, in good faith, pursue a diplomatic solution. The week before Mr Trump’s remarks, the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, rightly ruled out “regime change” and held out the possibility of “a dialogue”.

The North Korean regime is typically depicted as crazed, but its pursuit of nuclear weapons rests on rational foundations. The project is designed to guarantee its survival and to strengthen its bargaining hand. As such, it must be given incentives to pursue a different path.

Mr Trump’s bellicose language overshadowed the successful agreement of new UN sanctions against North Korea (targeting a third of its $3bn exports). Should these prove insufficient, the US should resume the six-party talks of the mid-2000s and even consider direct negotiations.

A failure of diplomacy could be fatal. In his recent book Destined for War, the Harvard historian Graham Allison warns that the US and China could fall prey to “Thucydides’s trap”. According to this rule, dating from the clash between Athens and Sparta, war typically results when a dominant power is challenged by an ascendent rival. North Korea, Mr Bew writes, could provide the spark for a new “great power conflict” between the US and China.

Nuclear standoffs require immense patience, resourcefulness and tact – all qualities in which Mr Trump is lacking. Though the thought likely never passed his mind, his threats to North Korea and Venezuela provide those countries with a new justification for internal repression.

Under Mr Trump’s leadership, the US is becoming an ever more fraught, polarised nation. It was no accident that the violent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, culminating in the death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer, took place under his presidency. Mr Trump’s victory empowered every racist, misogynist and bigot in the land. It was doubtless this intimate connection that prevented him from immediately condemning the white supremacists. To denounce them is, in effect, to denounce himself.

The US hardly has an unblemished history. It has been guilty of reckless, immoral interventions in Vietnam, Latin America and Iraq. But never has it been led by a man so heedless of international and domestic norms. Those Republicans who enabled Mr Trump’s rise and preserve him in office must do so no longer. There is a heightened responsibility, too, on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, the president. The Brexiteers have allowed dreams of a future US-UK trade deal to impair their morality.

Under Mr Trump, the US increasingly resembles a breed it once denounced: a rogue state. His former rival Hillary Clinton’s past warning that “a man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons” now appears alarmingly prescient.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear