By: Daniel Dale
NEWARK, OHIO—James Cassidy didn’t need the director of the FBI to tell him Barack Obama never wiretapped Donald Trump at Trump Tower. Cassidy knew from the start that Trump made the whole thing up.
He was happy the president lied.
“He’s ruffling every feather in Washington that he can ruffle. These guys are scrambling. So: yeah! I like it. I think it’s a good thing. I want to see them jump around a little bit,” Cassidy, 58, said on Tuesday.
It was the first afternoon of spring. Cassidy, an unemployed former construction worker, was smoking outside a bar on one of the faded downtown streets of Newark, a city of 48,000 people about 45 minutes east of Columbus. When a buddy rolled up on a bicycle, they soon got to talking about their chronic pain.
Cassidy is hurting, and he wants powerful people to hurt too.
So when Trump sent Congress and the media and the big intelligence agencies into a perplexed frenzy with a four-tweet lie in early March about supposed surveillance “McCarthyism” by his “sick” predecessor, Cassidy smiled to himself.
Sure, Cassidy thought, Trump’s claim was obviously false. “Why would he? Why would Obama do that?” But Trump had promised to slap some sense into the out-of-touch Washington elites, and he was doing what he said he was going to do, wasn’t he?
“He makes them uncomfortable,” he said, “which makes me happy.”
The day prior, Trump had suffered what appeared to be a credibility catastrophe. Rarely before has a president been so publicly debunked: James Comey, the FBI chief, told a televised congressional committee that he had “no information” to corroborate Trump’s allegation about Obama. Even Republican congresspeople, the New York Times reported, were privately complaining that Trump’s tweets were undermining his presidency.
That may be true. But there was no hint of a collapsing brand this week on the streets and in the stores of two Ohio cities where Trump won more than 60 per cent of the vote in the 2016 election. In the eyes of his voters in Newark and nearby Zanesville, Trump was either correct, possibly correct, mistaken but well-intentioned, or a delightfully cunning manipulator fomenting chaos to strengthen his political hand.
“What he was wanting to do was keep things stirred up so it was all confused. He said he was going to do that from the time he started running for the election,” said the man on the bike, retired factory worker John Tolliver, 75. “That’s what it’s going to take. When they’re confused, they don’t know what they’re doing, they’re going to make a mistake, and he’s going to grab them.”
On the whole, Trump has never been viewed more negatively on matters of truth. A Quinnipiac University poll this week found that 60 per cent of Americans think he is dishonest, a new high. Time ran a cover story on Trump with the headline “Is truth dead?” The Wall Street Journal editorial board, long Trump-friendly, accused him of damaging his presidency with a “seemingly endless stream of exaggerations, evidence-free accusations, implausible denials and other falsehoods.”
Yet Trump has also managed a remarkable feat: maintaining a reputation among millions of Americans as a man of rare honesty at the same time as he launches an unprecedented daily barrage of Oval Office lies.
“Trump would have never said that (Obama wiretapped him) unless it was true,” said Robert Duffy, 73, retired from owning a trucking company, as he shopped for groceries at a Zanesville Walmart. “That’s too much of a gamble for him to take. His reputation, you know?”
Two polls this week found that about 60 per cent of Republicans believe the inaccurate wiretapping claim is accurate. And interviews about that claim with 25 of his supporters in Newark and Zanesville, a humble city of 25,000 a half-hour to the east, suggest he might not have irked even the people who think he’s wrong.
The challenge for Trump opponents is not merely that many Trump supporters believe his false claims. It is that supporters are willing to explain away the claims they don’t think are fully accurate.
Only one person in the unscientific sample, 58-year-old Zanesville retiree Daniel Jones, criticized Trump for the wiretapping story. Other skeptics rationalized it.
“He believed, truthfully, in his heart, that they were trying to tag him,” said retired Air Force employee Mark Hittle, 71, who closely follows political news. Hittle said he was sure there was “some kind” of wiretapping, though likely not by Obama himself.
Charlie Sykes, the Trump critic and former conservative talk radio host in Wisconsin, says there is an “alternative reality bubble” within the right, created in part by conservative media. Trump, he said, is both developing and exploiting this “post-truth environment,” elevating once-fringe conspiracy theorists and propagandists who will then amplify his lies.
“He is extremely aware of his ability to sort of throw these giant turd bombs out there and create disruption. And to a certain extent that’s all he really needs to do. Just create enough doubt, spread enough chaos, and he will survive.” In the long term, Sykes said, “the destruction of his credibility is potentially fatal” — but “news cycle by news cycle, it probably works for him.”
His success with lying, however temporary, reflects broader problems afflicting the U.S. political system: extreme partisan polarization and historically low trust in institutions. Trump supporters’ scant faith in institutions, actively encouraged by Trump himself, makes them skeptical of the people who have called him out on the wiretapping lie: news outlets, Democratic leaders, even law enforcement.
Darla Stewart, a 51-year-old office manager, said Obama “absolutely could have done that.” Asked about Comey’s debunking, she said: “That’s the same FBI director that let Hillary Clinton go. I don’t trust him as far as I can throw him.”
Barb Beddard, a 66-year-old retiree, began to question Trump’s claim, then stopped.
“It’s possible, but they said that there’s no … I feel the media’s against Trump, and it was done by Nixon, I wouldn’t put anything past Obama or the Clintons,” she said.
It has never been clear how much of Trump’s deceit is strategic and how much it is impulsive. But there is one thing he has known since his days as a serially untruthful businessman: attempts to correct his nonsense get far less attention than the original nonsense itself.
Anthony Skaggs, 50, a Newark engineer for a Fortune 500 company, said he had heard about the wiretapping claim. “I don’t know if I necessarily believe it,” he said, “but it wouldn’t surprise me.” He had only heard “a little bit of a blurb,” though, about Comey’s debunking.
“To tell you the truth, I’ve been turning away from the news a lot recently,” he said. “Because it gives me a headache and I need to take a break every now and then.”
He called the claim “smoke and mirrors, something to distract you away from real problems.” But he also defended Trump’s penchant for “embellishing for dramatic effect,” saying Trump was “really not that much different” from historical figures like president Teddy Roosevelt — and circus impresario P.T. Barnum.
Wes Grumme, a farmer, said he supports Trump because the president tells the truth. The wiretapping claim, he said, was a comical “joke.”
“I think that was just something just to rattle Obama. I don’t think any less of him because of it,” said Grumme, 60, as he waited for a McDonald’s order in Zanesville. “As long as he don’t keep it up continuously — every once in a while, sure, take a little stab and crack at him or something. You expect that. He’s a humorous guy.”
Robin Pierce, the owner of a men’s clothing store in Newark, said he doesn’t think anybody wiretapped Trump. But Pierce, 70, was almost gleeful as he offered an explanation for Trump’s claim.
“I think Trump just did that to freak them out — they were giving him bad times, so he gave them bad times. Mess with their brains,” he said.
He broke into a loud laugh.
“I like that,” he said. “Because we’ve had so much crap in Washington for years, and now we have someone shaking ’em up really good.”
Two retirees ate lunch on Thursday at an Italian joint in Zanesville. As Evelyn Lasure spoke on the phone for a moment, her friend Linda Bennett mocked Trump as a “baby” for his petty refusal to relinquish the attack on Obama even post-debunking.
Then Lasure, 63, returned to the conversation. She said she was not yet convinced Trump was wrong. He had, after all, always impressed her with his forthrightness.
“To me, I want to see what the person’s going to do, if he’s honest, he’s straight,” she said. “And he’s pretty straight.”