Donald Trump has come to represent a lot of things. A giant wall. A ban on Muslims. Great deals. Twitter insults.
But nothing symbolizes Trump more than the issue that created Trump as a political force in the first place: birtherism.
Trump gleefully promoted the birther conspiracy for five years. Given multiple opportunities in this campaign to abandon the idea, Trump demurred. Just this year on CNN, Trump said he was going to write a book on Obama’s real birthplace.
“[I]t will do very successfully [sic],” Trump told Wolf Blitzer.
The Trump campaign, more broadly, is premised on the idea that Obama is a fraud who has turned the country over to foreigners.
After the gun massacre in Orlando that left 49 people dead in June, Trump suggested that Obama could have stopped it but “had something else in mind.”
“The something else in mind, people can’t believe it,” Trump said.
Except Trump’s supporters did believe it. 59 percent of them, according to one recent poll, believe Obama was secretly born outside the United States. Just 13 percent believe he is a Christian.
Trump even started calling Obama the “founder of ISIS.”
“Make America Great Again,” after all, does not refer to the American economy. The economy was hemorrhaging 750,000 jobs per month when Obama took office. It’s now added jobs for a record 78 consecutive months.
Birtherism, on the other hand, captures all the lodestars of the Trump campaign: anti-intellectualism, xenophobia, irrational confidence and the belief that the public — through the media — is easily manipulated.
We will Make America Great Again by erasing the legacy of a fraudulent foreigner.
Between Kenya and a hard place
But at some point the original expression of birtherism — the idea that Obama was born in another country — became more of a burden than a benefit. Those that were attracted to the idea had gotten the message and it wasn’t helping attract new supporters.
Trump’s new group of advisers started publicly saying Trump believed Obama was a U.S. citizen.
Trump, however, was not ready to let go. Asked last Thursday by the Washington Post if he believed Obama was a U.S. citizen, Trump said he “didn’t want to answer that yet.” He also made it clear his staff did not speak for him on the issue.
Trump was in a bind. What could be more off-brand than admitting a mistake, acknowledging the facts and showing remorse for your actions?
But then, Trump and his campaign came up with the perfect solution: Pretend it all never happened.
The audacity of Trump
Trump appeared in the ballroom of his new hotel in Washington, D.C. on Friday and made the following statement:
Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it. I finished it. You know what I mean. President Barack Obama was born in the United States. Period. Now we all want to get back to making America strong and great again.
It was a short but absolutely breathtaking expression of pure mendacity. It was not just a lie but in fact the polar opposite of the truth.
Trump did not “finish” birtherism. He brought it into prominence and perpetuated it.
His bluster about Obama’s birthplace in 2011, catnip for cable news, did prompt Obama to release his long-form birth certificate. But Trump rejected its authenticity and pushed the birther conspiracy for years.
An 'extremely credible source' has called my office and told me that @BarackObama's birth certificate is a fraud.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 6, 2012
Why do the Republicans keep apologizing on the so called "birther" issue? No more apologies–take the offensive!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 27, 2012
How amazing, the State Health Director who verified copies of Obama’s “birth certificate” died in plane crash today. All others lived
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 12, 2013
Attention all hackers: You are hacking everything else so please hack Obama's college records (destroyed?) and check "place of birth"
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 6, 2014
During the 2016 campaign, Trump pointedly rejected multiple opportunities to abandon the conspiracy.
The politics of projection
But Trump wasn’t satisfied with merely denying his own public statements. He went further, claiming that it was actually Hillary Clinton who was responsible for birtherism.
The “evidence” brought out to support this claim is ludicrous. At first, the Trump campaign seized on the fact that Hillary Clinton fired a campaign volunteer in 2008 who forwarded an email suggesting Obama was a Muslim. This, of course, is the opposite of perpetuating a conspiracy.
Later a reporter claimed that Sidney Blumenthal, a friend of the Clintons but not a member of the 2008 campaign, approached him privately and encouraged him to investigate rumors that Obama was born in Africa. Blumenthal denies the allegations. But even if the allegations were true, this is not at all equivalent to Trump’s public, five-year campaign to sow doubts about Obama’s legitimacy as president.
Multiple news organizations fact checked this claim and found no facts to support it.
Donald Trump’s ridiculous claim that Hillary Clinton started the birther movement“You know who started the birther movement? You know who started it? Do you know who questioned his birth certificate…www.washingtonpost.comNo, Hillary Clinton did not start the ‘birther’ movementHillary Clinton says rival Donald Trump owes President Barack Obama and the American people an apology for his role in…www.usatoday.comNo, Clinton didn’t start the birther thing. This guy did.After years of denying the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s presidency, it was only in the midst of his own presidential…www.politico.comFrom Trump’s perspective, however, the important part is not whether Hillary was responsible for birtherism. It’s the fact that people will be attracted to the idea that Hillary was responsible for birtherism, whether it is true or not.
Rallying around a lie
Trump’s short statement was an insult to the intelligence of the American voter. But it was also immediately embraced — not only by his campaign but also by the larger Republican Party apparatus.
Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican Party, said birtherism was the fault of “Hillary Clinton herself, her supporters, her interns, her staffers.”
— Sopan Deb (@SopanDeb) September 18, 2016
The same day, Priebus announced that the party would punish Republicans who refused to endorse Trump.
The crescendo of Trumpism
The abandonment of birtherism, which created Trumpism, is the ultimate expression of Trumpism itself. Trump bases his appeal not on policies but on spectacles.
It is the Trump campaign subsuming itself to survive.
What is important, for Trump and his supporters, is not the truth of his comments but the emotional power of the stunt. Trump stood in front of the cameras and flatly denied something everyone knows is true — his role in spreading birtherism — and then pinned it on Hillary.
If you believe Obama is a fraud and the media is hopelessly corrupt, this is something worth cheering, regardless of the truth.
It is something that you would see as a plot twist in professional wrestling, rather than a campaign for president of the United States. The French philosopher Roland Barthes explained how this works.
The logical conclusion of the contest does not interest the wrestling-fan, while on the contrary a boxing-match always implies a science of the future. In other words, wrestling is a sum of spectacles, of which no single one is a function: each moment imposes the total knowledge of a passion which rises erect and alone, without ever extending to the crowning moment of a result.
Fundamentally, Trump and his campaign are making a bet that the American public is easily manipulated and not interested in facts.
If he’s successful in simultaneously energizing his core supporters and appeasing moderates who were skittish about his embrace of conspiracy theories, the bet may pay off.
We’ll find out in November.