The media seems to consider the president’s ludicrous claim that his predecessor wiretapped Trump tower to be a major gaffe. You could practically feel columnists’ glee dripping off the pages of countless editorials as it became increasingly impossible to deny that President Trump was lying. Indeed, the evidence—or lack thereof—has piled up. Indeed, FBI Director James Comey, hardly a Democratic partisan, told the House Intelligence committee that he possessed “no information” to support Trump’s claims of wiretapping. Comey’s assessment echoes that of Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who concluded that there “never was” evidence that President Obama tapped Trump Tower. “If you take the president literally, it never happened,” Nunes, a staunch Trump ally, elaborated.
It should be clear to all but the most wild-eyed conspiracy theorists that Donald Trump’s paranoid tweetstorm is, at best, a figment of his imagination and, at worst, a deliberate attempt to deflect media at a time when the president is dealing with threats to his agenda on multiple fronts. Given Trump’s history of manipulating the media, the latter scenario is all too plausible. James Comey’s announcement that the FBI is investigating the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, as well as the disastrous rollout of the Republican Party’s ill-conceived “replacement” for Obamacare, provide ample incentive for Trump to direct public attention elsewhere. Whether he receives negative or positive attention for his latest whopper is almost irrelevant as long as it serves as a suitable distraction.
While Trump may well have diminished the stature of his office by parroting a conspiracy theory he stumbled upon in a Breitbart article, there is no reason to assume he will pay a political price. The “crisis of credibility” narrative pushed by the mainstream media demonstrates a lack of understanding of how Trump operates. For a president who cares more about his standing amongst a small slice of the population than the American people as a whole, his wiretapping lie may be functioning exactly as it was intended.
Among those who care about the factual veracity of Trump’s statement, the president already lacks a shred of credibility. Trump’s base, on the other hand, has thus far not allowed reality to impact their opinion of the president they elected. Trump’s approval rating among registered Republicans has hovered between 86 and 89% since his election. News sources that correctly point out Trump’s dishonesty may well be solidifying his support among those whose loyalty he most values by feeding a sense of collective grievance embodied in President Obama and the Democratic Party. His base trusts the word of the president and alt-right media outlets far more than what they consider to be “fake news” sources like The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN. The more mainstream media sources chastise the president—and, by extension, his supporters—for buying into delusional conspiracy theories, the more they dig in their heels. Attempts to vanquish the conspiracy with facts may be doomed to failure. Why would the same Trump supporters who eagerly lapped up racist conspiracy theories about Barack Obama’s birthplace suddenly become skeptics about that very same boogieman’s capacity to spy on their pseudo-populist champion?
Furthermore, why would establishment Republicans willing to support a man who confessed to sexual assault in exchange for the promise of tax cuts and deregulation hold him accountable for an outlandish lie now that he is in a position to deliver? Despite the shroud of controversy hanging over his presidency, Trump is poised to eventually repeal Obamacare and fulfill the movement conservative dream of “dismantling the administrative state.” Essentially, other than justifiably offending Democrats and irking the handful of Republicans who have retained some semblance of respect for political norms, Trump’s wiretapping fib has changed nothing. It is just more chum for the alt-right masses, more evidence that the big, bad Washington establishment is out to get the man who has promised them everything even as he works against their interests.
The media can and should continue to call Trump on his lies and do what it can to avoid normalizing a thoroughly abnormal, abhorrent figure. But no one should assume that the success or failure of the Trump administration rests on the perceived truthfulness of the president. The Republican Party has committed to minority rule and for those that make up its base, reality is a malleable concept, one determined more by tribal and cultural resentments than by facts. If Democrats want to win over persuadable Trump voters, they should focus less on discrediting Trump and more on promoting a message and policies that address their economic concerns.
Hillary Clinton, to a large extent, based her campaign on trying to destroy Donald Trump’s reputation. She succeeded, but still lost the election. The lesson Democrats should take from her massive, humiliating defeat is that the best way to counter Trump’s lies and outrageous behavior is not exclusively going negative (or relying on op-ed pages to do so), but by offering an alternative vision. Given that Trump’s budget and healthcare plan are essentially handouts to the rich at the expense of everyone else, it shouldn’t be hard for Democrats to focus on the pocketbook issues that matter to voters far more than the norms Trump habitually violates.