Photo-illustration by Chinwe Okona

Perhaps the biggest irony of birtherism is that the guy who created it didn’t mean to.

In 2004, as Barack Obama’s star was rising following his speech at the Democratic National Convention, the columnist Andy Martin declared that Obama was a fraud, that he had “spent a lifetime running from his family heritage and religious heritage.” But Martin insists that, rather than questioning Obama’s birthplace, he was accusing him of embellishing his life story in his memoir, Dreams From My Father.

“I always maintained Obama was born in Hawaii,” Martin complained to a New Hampshire outlet in 2016. “Later, crazies took over the movement and proposed increasingly irrational and unfounded claims [like] Obama was born in Kenya. I never supported those claims in any way."

The matter surfaced in the 2008 Democratic primary, through the preferred medium of conspiracy theorists of the late George W. Bush era, the chain email, circulated by frustrated Hillary Clinton supporters. One such email described by Politico in 2011 read, “Barack Obama’s mother was living in Kenya with his Arab-African father late in her pregnancy. She was not allowed to travel by plane then, so Barack Obama was born there and his mother then took him to Hawaii to register his birth.” No amount of official government documentation—not even a pair of contemporaneous newspaper announcements—could dispel what was becoming a kind of religious dogma about the nature of Obama’s birth. Other accounts, particularly in conservative media, incorporated Martin’s original observation that Obama’s father was born a Muslim, which meant Obama was secretly a Muslim, which in the logic of conservative media also meant he was secretly a terrorist.

This gives you a vague sense of when birtherism emerged as a conspiracy theory, and of its basic contours: Birtherism is the baseless conjecture that the 44th president of the United States not only was born abroad and was therefore ineligible for the presidency, but also was a secret Muslim planning to undermine America from within. It is the combination of these two elements that transformed birtherism from mere false speculation about Obama’s birth to a statement of values about who belongs in America, and who does not. Conspiracy theories are meant to explain the unexplainable. Birtherism’s explanatory power was negligible, but as a worldview, its appeal to conservatives was enduring. By 2011, about half of Republican voters believed Obama was born abroad.

Legal challenges attempted to dislodge Obama from the ballot and the White House, such as from the birther dentist Orly Taitz, but these faltered because neither Obama’s birth certificate nor his birthplace was a mystery. Nevertheless, birtherism, though unable to prevent either his election or his reelection, would prove appealing as an explanation for his politics. In 2010, the conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza wrote in Forbes that Obama’s liberalism was in actuality a form of radical leftism transmitted through his absent father.  

“It may seem incredible to suggest that the anticolonial ideology of Barack Obama Sr. is espoused by his son, the President of the United States,” D’Souza wrote. “That is what I am saying. From a very young age and through his formative years, Obama learned to see America as a force for global domination and destruction.” Obama, D’Souza declared, was “a captive of the ideology of a Luo tribesman from the 1950s.”

The article was a faux-scholarly regurgitation of popular theory that had been fermenting in the right-wing fever swamps for some time—Rush Limbaugh told his listeners in June 2009 that Obama was “more African in his roots than he is American.” Other pundits applied D’Souza-style logic to Obama through the prism of his supposed Islamist sympathies: The federal prosecutor turned National Review pundit Andrew C. McCarthy wrote a 2010 book called The Grand Jihad, arguing that the president who had repealed the ban on openly gay service members and endorsed same-sex marriage was part of an international alliance between the American left and political Islam to impose Taliban-style Islamic law on the West.

The Washington Post editorial page promptly gave D’Souza space to summarize his theory. Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, declared that Obama’s actions were “so outside our comprehension” that “only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior can you begin to piece [them] together.” The right-wing pundit Erick Erickson announced, “I’m really beginning to believe all the stories that Obama hates the Brits because of family history. His utter contempt for the U.K. is nuts.”

To mention that America itself exists only because of a colonial rebellion would be to miss the point. The Founders, after all, were white. Obama’s fundamental transgression was not adopting the standard domestic center-left liberalism of Democratic legislators like Ted Kennedy, or the typical hawkish internationalism of Democratic presidents like Bill Clinton. It was defying the order imposed by racial caste in America, just as African rebels overthrowing European colonial regimes had. Simply seeking freedom—or, in Obama’s case, high office—was radicalism. Birtherism could not really explain Obama’s political views, but it could place him, the Democratic Party, and Democratic voters outside the boundaries of American citizenship. The left’s claim to power, in this telling, was as fraudulent as the president’s birth certificate.

The Republican establishment attempted to balance the base’s embrace of birtherism with the pressure they were facing from Democrats to denounce it. At first, Republican leaders like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell said they accepted Obama “at his word,” a non-disavowal that allowed space for the possibility that Obama was lying about his background. But by the 2012 presidential election, even the GOP standard-bearer, Mitt Romney, felt obligated to pay direct tribute to birtherism. “Now I love being home, in this place where Ann and I were raised, where both of us were born,” Romney told supporters at a campaign rally in Michigan in August to cheers and laughter. “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate; they know that this is the place that we were born and raised.” The virtue of the joke is that it makes the target responsible for the racism directed against him; if Obama did not want his birthplace questioned, he should have been white.

Romney’s birther joke was preceded by another key development, the alliance between the reality-show celebrity Donald Trump and Fox News. In the spring of 2011, as the Republican primary got under way, Trump embraced the birther theory wholesale, wielding his trademark innuendos and falsehoods. Fox News then picked up the crusade, devoting hours of airtime to his insinuations.

“He doesn’t have a birth certificate. He may have one, but there is something on that birth certificate—maybe religion, maybe it says he’s a Muslim; I don’t know,” Trump told Fox News in late March of that year. “I have people that have been studying it and they cannot believe what they’re finding,” he told NBC in early April. “I may tie my tax returns into Obama’s birth certificate,” he suggested later that month. Trump rose sharply in the primary polls, but never formally ran, instead endorsing Romney, who gushed, “It means a great deal to me to have the endorsement of Mr. Trump.”

The episode appeared to conclude with the 45th president successfully forcing the 44th to show his papers. On April 27, the White House released Obama’s “long form” birth certificate. This temporarily embarrassed Trump and led to a dip in the number of Americans questioning Obama’s birthplace. At the White House Correspondents’ Dinner that year, Obama mocked Trump as he sat and seethed, red-faced, in the audience.

Fox News, foreshadowing its essential symbiosis with the Trump campaign, and later the Trump presidency, framed the reality-show star’s crusade as a great victory. “It legitimizes his candidacy,” Dick Morris told Bill O’Reilly in April 2011. “It empowers Trump,” O’Reilly agreed.  Here was a glimpse of the future, in which the reality-show star would make some outrageously false claim, and the whole of conservative media would rush to make that falsehood true through rote repetition.

Trump’s dalliance with birtherism did not harm his presidential prospects when the 2016 primary came around, because, unlike most conspiracy theories, birtherism was never meant to answer a factual query. Birtherism is not trying to explain some purportedly mysterious phenomenon, like Tupac Shakur’s unending posthumous releases, the lingering sight of water condensation behind aircraft, or how 19 hijackers evaded detection and managed to execute the most successful terrorist attack in American history. These theories are outlandish, weird, and offensive, but they are all attempts at answering actual questions, even if those questions are stupid. Birtherism was, from the beginning, an answer looking for a question to justify itself.

Birtherism was a statement of values, a way to express allegiance to a particular notion of American identity, one that became the central theme of the Trump campaign itself: To Make America Great Again, to turn back the clock to an era where white political and cultural hegemony was unthreatened by black people, by immigrants, by people of a different faith. By people like Barack Obama. The calls to disavow birtherism missed the point: Trump’s entire campaign was birtherism.

Trump won the Republican primary, and united the party, in part because his run was focused on the psychic wound of the first black presidency. He had, after all, humiliated and humbled Obama. None of the other Republican candidates could make such a claim. None could say, as Trump could, that they had put the first black president in his place. And so none could offer an answer to the anguish that produced birtherism. That very same anguish helped Trump win the presidency.

You could call birtherism a conspiracy theory, sure. But in 2020, looking at the Trump administration’s efforts to diminish the power of minority voters, imprison child migrants, ban Muslim travelers from entering the country, and criminalize his political opposition, it could be more accurately described as the governing ideology of the United States.