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.
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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.