04.27.11

Birthers Who Won't Give Up

Obama has released his birth certificate as birthers long demanded, but instead of standing down, right wing extremists, Donald Trump, and even mainstream Republicans are attacking the president and dredging up new conspiracy theories. It's all too predictable—and shameful, writes John Avlon.

Conspiracy entrepreneurs are, by definition, shameless.

Nonetheless, it was impressive to see so many professional polarizers be forced to face facts—namely that the president was indeed born in the United States—and still find a way to weasel out of accountability.

There was no “sorry” or “my bad” or “apologies for dragging your name and our nation through the mud by encouraging unhinged birther conspiracy theories.”

Instead, Donald Trump declared “I'm very proud of myself, because I've accomplished something that no one else has been able to accomplish"—and, just in case anybody missed the self-congratulation, “ I really did a great job.” This is the political equivalent of lighting a house on fire, calling 911 and then expecting a medal.

The author of the spectacularly ill-timed and ill-titled Where’s the Birth Certificate? Jerome Corsi, tried to save face by moving the goal posts for marketing purposes: “Public pressure finally forced Obama to do what he did today. Now the game begins. Nixon thought he could stop the Watergate scandal from unfolding by releasing a few tapes. All that did was fuel the fire… When people read the book, they will see that Obama is not eligible to be president."

The queen of the birthers, Orly Taitz, tried a similar tack, calling the birth certificate’s release “a step in the right direction, just like the release of the Watergate tapes was a step in the right direction by Richard Nixon... We have to continue with transparency that Barack Obama has promised the nation, and continue working on this issue, getting to the bottom of the facts."

Today, because the fringe is blurring with the base, conservative leaders seem afraid to confront the unhinged extremists in their midst.

Pamela Geller, the author of The Post American Presidency: The Obama Administration’s War on America, emailed The Daily Beast ‘....In what could be considered a psyop on the American people, the birth certificate issue is being used to smear the Republicans in general as 'birthers,' conspiracy nuts who have given themselves over to right-wing nuttery.’ I wonder more than ever if Obama is simply playing politics with this issue and still not being honest with the American people.”

Influential websites that have given encouragement to the birther movement, from the Drudge Report to WorldNetDaily, gave prominent real estate to opinions that still called the long-form birth certificate into doubt, arguing variously that Obama’s father’s African citizenship disqualified the president from being ‘”natural born,” to questioning whether the document’s authenticity could ever be truly verified because the attending physician died in 2003.

As Jonathan Swift warned centuries ago, “you cannot reason a person out of something they were not reasoned into.”

Leading Republican political figures notably did not take the opportunity to declare the birther conspiracy theory over and done —despite the long-term political benefit of getting this crazy uncle permanently back in the attic.

Instead, Mitt Romney released a short statement via Twitter criticizing the president for releasing the document: "What President Obama should really be releasing is a jobs plan." Sarah Palin took a break from playing the victim to play blame-the-victim, tweeting “…Don't let the WH distract you w/the birth crt from what Bernanke says today. Stay focused, eh?" (And what’s with the Canadian ‘eh’ tick, Ms. Real America?)

Perhaps it’s too much to hope that the smug, “I take the president at his word” sound bite offered by Republican leadership in recent months will now be replaced by a simple “the president was born in the United States and anyone who still thinks otherwise should consider seeking psychiatric help.”

The birther conspiracy theory should now be placed on the ash heap of presidential derangement syndromes that date back to at least the John Birch Society’s founder declaring President Dwight David Eisenhower a “dedicated, conscious agent of the communist conspiracy”—or, a Soviet spy. The sad difference is that back then William F. Buckley had the decency to denounce that fringe fear-mongering because he realized that it could discredit the entire conservative movement. Today, because the fringe is blurring with the base, conservative leaders seem afraid to confront the unhinged extremists in their midst.

There are echoes of past conspiracy theories evident in the birther nonsense—it is the 'Marxist Manchurian Candidate' narrative (directed at Bill Clinton by WorldNetDaily in the late 1990s) overlaid with the 'Obama is Muslim' myths that have also infected our discourse. It’s worth noting, however, that the birther equivalent of the Bush years—the 9/11 “Truthers”—would never have been allowed to make such inroads into national debates or presidential politics in 2004 or 2008, by Republicans or Democrats.

Part of the panic among responsible Republicans in recent weeks, Karl Rove among them, was recognizing that Trump had received a bump in the polls by pandering to the birther crowd. Polls that showed 51 percent of Republican primary voters doubted whether the president was born in the United States provided evidence of the real costs that came with encouraging Obama Derangement Syndrome for political gain—the inmates start to run the asylum.

Unfortunately, the paranoid style in American politics will endure. There will still be birthers populating the fringes of online discourse. The more enterprising will move onto new frontiers of conspiracy theory—such as Trump’s new effort to call into question the president’s academic record, an affirmative action dig that tries to deepen the narrative of Obama as a monstrous fraud. Some in the media will follow this line of questioning because it is “controversial,” while ignoring policy debates that will actually affect the future of our nation because they are considered too serious to be sexy.

History will be more unforgiving and see the birther conspiracy more clearly than we have in our contemporary debates. It will be hard to miss the fact that so much time and energy was spent trying to prove the illegitimacy and un-American-ness of our first black president. It will seem shameful. And it is.

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John Avlon's most recent book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.