04.21.11

The Democrats' Birther Book Boon

Once a trademark of the fringe right, Obama birth conspiracies are dominating the GOP’s discourse—and now, Amazon’s bestseller list. Michelle Goldberg on why that’s good news for Democrats.

There probably are some politicians who are very nervous about the fact that Jerome Corsi’s new book, Where's the Birth Certificate? The Case that Barack Obama is not Eligible to be President has already rocketed to the top spot on Amazon weeks before its publication date. None of them are Democrats. Throughout the last two years, the conservative movement has mainstreamed once-fringe elements, encouraging ever more outré speculation about our president and his origins. Now the Republican Party has a birther problem it can’t control.

The list of prominent conservatives who have winked at birtherism is long. Earlier this month, Rush Limbaugh said, “We’ve got somebody about whom there are legitimate citizenship questions here, serving as president.” In March, Mike Huckabee said Obama grew up in Kenya and thus probably sympathized with the Mau Mau Rebellion against the British, though he later tried to pretend that he’d simply gotten Kenya and Indonesia mixed up. Sean Hannity has continually raised questions about Obama’s birth certificate. Michele Bachmann said that, running for president, “I think the first thing I would do in the first debate is offer my birth certificate so we can get that off the table.”

And, not surprisingly, many conservatives have taken their leaders at their word. A New York Times/CBS poll released Thursday shows that only 32 percent of Republican voters believe Obama was born in the United States. The numbers are even worse in Iowa, a hugely important state in the primaries. There, a Public Policy Polling survey recently found that only 26 percent of Republicans believe that the president was born in this country; 48 percent say he wasn’t, and the remaining 26 percent aren’t sure.

Some Republicans, slightly aghast at the madness dominating their party, have tried to play down these numbers. In February, Debra Saunders penned a column titled, “Birthers? Or simply don't like Obama?” suggesting that some people who claim not to believe Obama was born in the United States are really just signaling their rejection of the president. “I'm sick of the left—PPP is a Democratic polling firm, with a reputation for accuracy—flogging a story that makes Republicans look like rubes,” she complained.

Nevertheless, there are clear signs that some Republicans take birtherism very seriously indeed. In the PPP poll, 23 percent of Republican voters said they wouldn’t support a candidate “who stated clearly that Obama was born in the U.S.” Thirty-nine percent weren’t sure if they would. And Donald Trump’s vocal birtherism has clearly rocketed him to the forefront of the Republican pack. “Among the hardcore birthers, Trump leads with 37 percent, almost three times as much support as anyone else,” another PPP survey found.

For even moderately serious conservatives, this is a problem, because they know it makes their movement look nuts. “Within our party, we’ve got to be very careful about allowing these people who are the birthers and the 9/11-deniers to get too high a profile and say too much without setting the record straight,” Karl Rove told Fox News earlier this year.

Book Beast: The ‘Scholar’ Behind the Right’s Obama Conspiracies Increasingly, conservatives are trying to replace one conspiracy theory with another, accusing liberals of spreading birtherism in order to discredit their ideological foes. “Every conservative outlet has already shot down this rumor,” Ann Coulter claimed on Fox this month, blaming “liberal cable stations” for keeping it alive. Even Michele Bachmann recently made an abrupt turnabout on the issue, declaring it a settled question.

Increasingly, conservatives are trying to replace one conspiracy theory with another, accusing liberals of spreading birtherism.

But it was the Drudge Report, not liberal cable stations, that was hyping Corsi’s work Thursday  with an “exclusive” titled, “Book to Reveal Obama’s True Identity?” Nor was it liberals who’ve made Corsi a star of the Tea Party circuit. And it certainly wasn’t the left that made the Arizona legislature pass a bill requiring presidential candidates to produce long-form birth certificates, or, failing that, two or more other documents such as hospital birth records and circumcision papers. While Republican Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed it, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal says he’ll sign similar legislation if it gets to him. Birther bills are pending in a number of other states, including Oklahoma, Texas and Indiana. In Indiana, the bill would put governor Mitch Daniels, a likely presidential candidate, in a tough position, forcing him to choose between catering to the Republican base and preserving his reputation for sanity.

The conservative movement has long believed that major institutions of mainstream American life—the media, the courts, science and academia—are irredeemably corrupted by liberal bias. It has responded by creating its own, alternative reality, ideologically consistent but full of falsehood. For years, the Republican Party has benefited from a base sealed in an epistemological bubble. Now it’s finding out that when you encourage people to cut themselves off from reality, you can’t always dictate when it’s time to let in a little bit of truth.

Michelle Goldberg is a journalist based in New York. She is the author of The New York Times bestseller Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism and The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World, winner of the 2008 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award and the Ernesta Drinker Ballard Book Prize. Goldberg's work has appeared in Glamour, Rolling Stone, The Nation, New York magazine, The Guardian (UK) and The New Republic. Her third book, about the world-traveling adventuress, actress and yoga evangelist Indra Devi, will be published by Knopf in 2012.