Donald Trump, whose pseudo-entry into the Republican presidential sweepstakes has had the effect of making all the other candidates and near-candidates look classy by comparison, now is playing the despicable “birther” card. It figures. Everything about Trump’s career, personal life and properties, even his hairstyle, has been an exercise in bad taste.
This tactic plays to the lowest lights in the Republican party, about 70% of whose members harbor serious doubts about President Obama’s place of birth. This is not surprising: it is pure confirmation bias. Most Republicans don’t like Obama, and so don’t trust him. The confusion about his birth certificate feeds that distrust, and confirms it. It seems plausible to them that such an untrustworthy sort is hiding his true place of birth. To someone who trusts the President, this is not plausible. The slow-motion furor over his citizenship confirms their already formed beliefs too: that the Republicans are fools and racists.
Conspiracy theories, of which this is one, always are the product of distrust. Because they a built out of dark suppositions woven from the normal coincidences and random events of life, they are easy to sustain; because they can usually only be debunked by proving a negative, they are harder to kill than the Hydra. Can we prove that War Secretary Stanton wasn’t in league with Booth to pave the way for Lincoln’s assassination? Can we prove the FDR didn’t have advance notice that Pearl Harbor would be bombed? Can we prove that there wasn’t another gunman on that grassy knoll?
Nah. And we can’t prove that Barack Obama wasn’t spirited into Hawaii from Kenya or Malaysia or Mars sometime after his supposed birthday, at least in the absence of a certifiably genuine birth certificate, which no one, apparently including the President, can’t put their hands on. Lots of Americans are in similar positions regarding their birth certificate, but they don’t have a hoard of political enemies hell-bent on proving they are fraudulent citizens.(Amusingly, Trump out his own birth certificate online, and it turned out that it wasn’t the document he thought it was.) The Donald explained to Candy Crowley on CNN that the two newspaper announcements of Obama’s birth could have been planted there to aid in the deception, since they were eight days late. Trump emphasizes that none of Obama’s relatives can say which hospital he was born in, or who the doctor was that delivered him. Oh-oh! Not only do none of my living relatives know which Boston hospital I was born in, but neither can I.
I admit it. I was born in Kenya.
Trump’s birther fantasies have only one purpose, and that is to be disrespectful of the President of the United States, to imply that he is not a legitimate leader, and to suggest that he is living a lie. There is no other. If, in a development that I deem as likely as the appointment of Charlie Sheen as Secretary of Agriculture, it was shown that President Obama was, in fact not born in the U.S., the odds are that nothing would happen. He would probably not be impeached, certainly not convicted by a two-thirds majority of the Senate. Maybe the most rabid Republicans could force a Constitutional crisis of some sort…gee, just what we need! Absolutely nothing good could come from proof that the birthers are right, if such proof existed.
The biggest boon to Obama-haters comes from just repeating the “suggestion” over and over again. This is the “Big Lie” tactic, and Hitler was right: it works. It has worked recently for the Democrats, who have eroded Sarah Palin’s popular support by relentlessly asserting that she is illiterate, uncivil and a dits, though she is none of these. (Bonus Quiz: In 100 words or less, explain how Palin’s famous comment about “death panels” was more outrageous and deserving of media criticism than Rep. Louise Slaughter’s (D-NY) statement during last week’s budget debate that “In ’94 people were elected simply to come here to kill the National Endowment for the Arts. Now they’re here to kill women.” ) They used the same tactic to convince many Americans that George W. Bush was some kind of idiot savant, though objective evidence indicates that he is at least as smart as Al Gore, and smarter than John Kerry… though, in fairness, who isn’t?
The President of the United States does not deserve abject obeisance, but he does deserve the presumption of good will and honesty. He also deserves the public’s respect and loyalty, neither of which are served by maintaining corrosive conspiracy theories to undermine his authority that can never be proven and would grievously harm the country if they were.
The birther fantasy does do some good however: it is an accurate indicator of seriousness, judgment and character, telling us that public figures who endorse it have none. It would have served that purpose with Donald Trump, except that it isn’t telling us anything we didn’t already know.