It’s depressing and profoundly revealing that Mitt Romney thinks that insinuations about President Obama’s citizenship pass for aww-shucks campaign trail humor, which certainly seemed to be the subtext of his remarks in Michigan today, when he noted “Nobody has ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know that this is the place that I was born and raised.”
The existence and persistence of birtherism is the terrible, ugly joke here, not the substance of that conspiracy theory. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in a long essay for The Atlantic this month, “The goal of all this is to delegitimize Obama’s presidency. If Obama is not truly American, then America has still never had a black president.” The lengths people will go to delude themselves in service of that backwards wish have a horrible humor to them, magnified by the actual drain on public resources and the president’s time they’ve occasioned. If Leonard Wibberley, author of Cold War satire The Mouse That Roared about a small country that goes to war with the United States in hopes of being badly defeated and then given the kind of development aid that Japan and Germany received after World War II, only to accidentally win, was writing for the age of Obama, he might have come up with a variation of birtherism.
That Romney thinks it’s funny to play into this mass delusion speaks either to his discomfort with humor, or a conviction that nasty pandering is the clearest road to a November victory. Either way, it reflects poorly on his character. And a man whose deepest liabilities concern his foreignness from the experiences of the people who he would like to have as his constituents, from his offshore bank accounts to his wealth to the unfortunate treatment of his faith as a cult, might want to think carefully before entering into a contest with Barack Obama about whose life is more deeply rooted in the American tradition.