Why Birthers Won't Die
When the Rapture failed to commence on the day California preacher Harold Camping had promised, writers speculating about how his acolytes would respond turned to the sociology classic When Prophecy Fails. Published in 1956, the book examined members of a UFO cult whose leader had predicted the destruction of North America in a cataclysmic flood. When North America stubbornly continued to exist, the cult's core members were not disillusioned. Rather, in a pattern that recurred in many similar situations, their attempts to manage their cognitive dissonance spurred them to new heights of enthusiasm and proselytization.
So it is with birtherism. This week, Jerome Corsi's new book, Where's the Birth Certificate? The Case That Barack Obama Is Not Eligible to Be President, made its debut at No. 6 on The New York Times bestseller list, albeit with a little dagger icon next to it, used to indicate bulk orders. That's a step down from his The Obama Nation, which made the top of the list. But the new book's success shows that even though Obama released his long-form birth certificate, conspiracy theories about his origins won't die.
More than that, though, Corsi's book suggests that birtherism is mutating in sinister ways, becoming much more explicitly racist. If you read between the lines, Where's the Birth Certificate? doesn't just argue that Obama is ineligible to hold the office. It implies that all children of immigrants, and perhaps all people of color, are as well.
Much of Where's the Birth Certificate? rehashes old, debunked stories meant to cast doubt on Obama's birth in Hawaii. But the book also claims that even if Obama was born in the United States, he still might not be a "natural-born citizen" because of his father's foreign citizenship, which would make him ineligible for the presidency. To make this argument, Corsi dredges up a constitutional theory popular in white supremacist and anti-immigrant circles, making an invidious distinction between those granted citizenship by the 14th Amendment and those who were citizens under the Constitution as originally written.
"Obama and his defenders want to transform the eligibility question into a matter of whether Obama is a citizen under the 14th Amendment," Corsi writes. "If that succeeds, then the eligibility impediments arising from the foreign citizenship of Obama's father simply disappear."
Corsi clearly knows better than to make his argument in explicitly white supremacist terms. Instead, he roots his arguments in a more socially acceptable anti-immigrant ideology.
Corsi's ideas about a lesser sort of 14th Amendment citizenship have deep roots on the far right. Ratified in 1868, the amendment banished the whites-only version of citizenship affirmed in the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision. "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside," the amendment says.
For decades, white supremacists have insisted that the citizenship defined in this amendment is of an inferior kind. Leonard Zeskind described their argument in his book Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement From the Margins to the Mainstream: "The Fourteenth Amendment had created a special class of citizens… This special class received its rights from the government through an individual's contract with the state. Sovereigns, on the other hand, those descended from the original (white) sovereigns, still received their rights (and responsibilities) from God."
Corsi, a reporter for WorldNetDaily, has a history of racist associations. As Media Matters for America has reported, he's appeared on James Edwards' "pro-white" radio show, and Edwards claims to have helped Corsi with Where's the Birth Certificate?, writing last month, "Dr. Corsi… personally emailed me a few months ago for some assistance on a story closely related to the contents of this book. I was happy to oblige and work behind-the-scenes with both Dr. Corsi and World Net Daily on this matter."
Nevertheless, Corsi clearly knows better than to make his argument in explicitly white supremacist terms. Instead, he roots his arguments in a more socially acceptable anti-immigrant ideology. His introduction is titled "The Undocumented Worker in the Oval Office," and he writes about "birthright tourism" and "anchor babies" to explain his dubious distinctions between different types of citizens. "The same questions plaguing Obama may also surface if Republican Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal ever runs for president," Corsi writes. "Even though he was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on June 10, 1971, Jindal's parents were citizens of India when he was born, residing at that time in the United States on visa permits."
But Corsi's ideas about the 14th Amendment, if taken seriously, wouldn't just affect the children of immigrants—they could disqualify all black people from the presidency. "Obama defenders who want to define him as a natural-born citizen because he is native-born and a citizen under the 14th Amendment are engaged in an effort to redefine Article 2, Section 1, away from its original natural law meaning," Corsi writes. The original meaning, of course, did not encompass black people. That's why we needed the 14th Amendment in the first place.
Corsi is, in many ways, a preposterous figure. He's fallen far since 2004, when he co-authored the influential Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry. These days, he's broadly seen as a crank; in addition to birtherism, he's dabbled in 9/11 Truth and wrote a book warning of an imminent merger of the United States, Canada, and Mexico. But with Where's the Birth Certificate? he's managed to get a book steeped in white nationalist extremism onto The New York Times bestseller list. His movement might be diminished, but it's still there, and it's more rabid than ever.
Michelle Goldberg is a senior contributing writer for The Daily Beast/Newsweek. 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.