04.26.11

Donald Trump's New Obama Conspiracy Theory

Not content with questioning the president's birthplace, Donald Trump is now wondering how a "terrible student" got into the Ivy League. Michelle Goldberg traces the far-right history of the claim—which reassures resentful whites that this seemingly brilliant black man isn't so smart after all.

President Obama may have released his birth certificate on Wednesday, but Donald Trump and other wingnuts have already moved on to a new conspiracy: how the president got into the Ivy League. Michelle Goldberg traces the far-right history of the claim.

The birther bit must have been getting old. Now Donald Trump has opened up a new line of attack on President Obama, accusing him of being a “terrible student” who shouldn’t have gotten into Columbia University or Harvard Law School. “How does a bad student go to Columbia and then to Harvard?” he asked the Associated Press. “I’m thinking about it, I’m certainly looking into it. Let him show his records.” He continued darkly, “There are a lot of questions that are unanswered about our president.”

Like everything Trump says about Obama lately, his comments got lots of media play. Less attention has been paid to where they came from. Conspiracy theories about Obama’s education have been floating around the far right since his presidential campaign, with some of the same people who’ve doubted the president’s birth certificate now demanding to see his college transcripts. Once again, Trump has found a way to raid the fever swamps for talking points.

Claims about Obama’s educational history date back to September 2008, when The Wall Street Journal attacked him for not releasing his school records, writing in an editorial, “Some think his transcript, if released, would reveal Mr. Obama as a mediocre student who benefited from racial preference.” Since then, Orly Taitz, queen of the birthers, has developed elaborate theories about Obama’s college years. As Taitz argues, Obama himself acknowledged that he was directionless when he started college. How, then, did he get himself accepted into the Ivy League?

Her speculation: He went as a foreign exchange student. “Sometimes students with poor grades from other countries who have citizenship in other countries can get into top universities,” she told The Daily Beast. “That might be one of the reasons why his records are not unsealed. If his records show he got into Columbia University as a foreign exchange student, then we have a serious issue with his citizenship.”

Taitz said she also believes that Obama only attended Columbia for nine months rather than two years. As proof, she offered a document from the National Student Clearinghouse database, which verifies college degrees. The record, which confirms Obama’s graduation, lists his dates of attendance as September 1982 to May 1983. Kathleen Dugan, a marketing manager at the National Student Clearinghouse, said Taitz’s document is incorrect, the result of the way she conducted her search.

Obama, in this view, is both sinister and stupid, canny enough to perpetrate one of the biggest frauds in American history but still the ultimate affirmative action baby.

“There were duplicate requests to our site from requestor Orly Taitz which, because of the way the queries were input, yielded both correct and incorrect information on past attendance dates for President Barack Obama,” said Dugan.

Taitz, naturally, said she believes there’s something more ominous at work. She noted that Obama has talked about visiting a friend in Pakistan between his sophomore and junior years of college. “The only reasonable conclusion is that he was there not a month or two, but a year and a half,” she said.

And how did this half-educated mediocrity get into Harvard Law School, and then become editor of the Harvard Law Review? Why, Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, of course! According to right-wing lore, a militant Black Muslim named Khalid Al-Mansour introduced his protégé to the prince, who presumably saw a chance to advance his Muslim world-domination agenda by grooming the young man for politics. The prince thus pulled strings on Obama’s behalf and even paid his way.

Taitz has forwarded all her information about Obama’s college years to Trump and said she is gratified to hear him raising the issue. “He might have also gotten it from other sources, too, but he definitely got it from me,” she said. Perhaps he’s also been reading the ultra-right-wing website WorldNetDaily, which ran a 2009 piece asking, “ Did radical Muslims help send Obama to Harvard?

It’s easy enough to see why this particular narrative has endured. Not only does it position the president as a Muslim Manchurian candidate with longtime ties to agents of the caliphate, but it also assures resentful whites that this seemingly brilliant black man isn’t so smart after all. In that sense, it’s of a piece with the right-wing obsession with Obama’s use of a teleprompter, and with the widespread suspicion that he didn’t really write the eloquent Dreams From My Father, a claim Trump recently made at a Tea Party rally. Obama, in this view, is both sinister and stupid, canny enough to perpetrate one of the biggest frauds in American history but still the ultimate affirmative-action baby.

Trump is clearly not as intelligent as Obama, but he’s not an idiot, either. When he blows this particular dog whistle, he knows exactly what the Republican base is hearing.

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, 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.