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 writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder