On the Birth Certificate Idiocracy

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1) "And you know it." The "affably" acid comments in the first 20 seconds of this clip (from the White House) almost justify the whole birther extravaganza. Well, actually, they don't --and don't even come close. But the hyper-controlled Obama's decision to let out that bit of bile about how the press works, including dropping the affable mask for a few seconds with the punchline "and you know it," reveals the real feelings of every politician about the instincts and workings of the press. (I wrote about this in Breaking the News.)  It's fascinating to see how Obama instantly, perhaps instinctively, lightens the mood again with a heartier-than-needed laugh, and his super-radiant smile, at a mild witticism someone calls from the crowd. But that doesn't take away the edge of the way he began.
 

1A) You can hear a more deliberate and in a way tougher version of this "the press is crazy" analysis for about 45 seconds, starting around time 2:00. There is another little drip of acid at time 2:35 when he talks about "most of the same news outlets represented here." And it's worth watching right to the end.

2) Language alert. This alone disproves Donald Trump's crock-of-shit* insulting and preposterous assertions that Obama was an affirmative action or charity admittee to the Ivy Leagues who couldn't really cut it on his own IQ or test scores, as if there weren't already evidence enough: It is his use at time 0:50 of the word "bemusement" in its proper sense (puzzlement, confusion) rather than what most people think it means (mild amusement). I would like to have someone ask Trump what he thinks the word means. Maybe some variant on "easement"? [* Update: OK, it's a sign of defeat to resort to profanity. My exasperation is a sign of how I feel about this line of slurs. First, whatever is wrong with Obama, no sane person thinks he's stupid. Second, I wonder how many people think Donald Trump is in a position to judge Obama's smarts. Third, there is no avoiding the racist connotation of saying that a successful black person got there -- wink wink -- through special treatment. "Of course the black guy ended up as editor of the Law Review. What do you expect?" So I should just have said that rather than "crock of shit." On the other hand, a crock of shit is what this is.]

3) Tribal knowledge vs actual knowledge front: Yesterday, about half of all Republicans thought Obama was foreign born, and therefore an illegal occupant of the White House. How many Republicans will think the same thing one week from now? My guess is: about half. We've reached that stage on just about everything. It's probably been true of human beings throughout time, but is more obviously significant in politics now, that generally people don't act like scientific investigators, or judges in moot-court competitions, when parsing the logic and evidence behind competing arguments to come up with political views. They go on loyalty, and tradition, and hope, and fear, and self-interest, and generosity, and all the rest -- as the second half of my recent article on the new media discussed.

Here we have a wonderful real-world test: if "actual knowledge" mattered, the number of people who thought Obama was foreign-born would approach zero by next week -- with exceptions for illiterates, the mentally disabled, paranoid schizophrenics, etc. My guess is that the figures will barely change.

4) Back to the language front: Whether carefully calculated or off-the-cuff, Obama's use of the term "carnival barkers" at time 4:05 was perfect.

5) Speaking of carnival barkers: Every member of the political press knows that the chance of Donald Trump becoming the 45th President of the United States is zero. I say that the chance of Sarah Palin becoming president is extremely low but greater than zero. I will take any bet at any odds against Trump becoming president, for reasons I'll boil down to this: the same circumstances that would make Obama so vulnerable that a Trump could beat him (economic, political, military, or social chaos of any kind you want to imagine), would simultaneously motivate the Republican party to choose a "real" candidate with the best chance of winning the election and running the government. That is, if the Republicans think they have a serious chance to win, they're not going to blow that chance with Trump.

My real point is: knowing for sure that Trump's "lead" in the GOP polls now is a quaint artifact of name recognition, and knowing that there is no chance that his "colorful" background and prima donna manner could stand the long grueling, humiliating ordeal of the primaries and the caucuses and the endless interviews, how long will the press keep acting as the megaphone for this carnival barker? Why aren't they jumping all over him now, for the patent idiocy of his "birther" claim, rather than acting as if somehow he has scored a point by making Obama react? In reality, he'll be on the stage with the press' megaphone until people get bored with him -- which gradually but undeniably has happened to Palin.

6) Why didn't Obama do this before? Who knows. Perhaps some genius strategy to enmire the Republicans with the nuttiest part of their constituency? Perhaps a prideful sense that this kind of "prove it" gesture was beneath him? Perhaps resentment at the obvious racial component of the "not born here" sentiment? I don't know. But consistent with point #3 above, it probably wouldn't have made any difference.

This is not a great day for the press. For anybody, really -- but maybe a tie for worstness between Trump himself and those who have been barkers for his sideshow.

Back to "real" work. For more from The Atlantic, see Josh Green, Garance Franke-Ruta, Chris Good, and Adam Martin.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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