A hopeful theory about politics, information, and mass culture
Donald Trump is now king of the birthers.
On its face, this is a good thing for birtherism. The phenomenon has long wanted for a popular figure to carry its banner forward, from the musty corners of conspiracy theory, into the open crowds of mass culture. Trump is a better-known and possibly more likable figure than Orly Taitz. He's tied for first place among GOP 2012 contenders in CNN's latest poll. Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm that advertises nonpartisan polling, shows him leading hands-down.
Birtherism seems to be alive and well, as a Fox News poll recently showed 24 percent of Americans thinking President Obama wasn't born in the U.S. Among Republicans, 37 percent held that view.
But Trump will bring about birtherism's ultimate end. Here's how.
For one thing, most political observers see Trump as a joke, but let's move past that. I don't know that birtherism can really be unpopularized by any association. Birtherism is difficult to lower.
But Trump's ambitions have already brought about the one thing that can combat birtherism most effectively: fact-checking.
Major news outlets are now rehashing the facts of birtherism, in light of Trump's presidential talk. The more that people hear, for instance, that CNN has viewed Obama's certification of live birth* in person and that Hawaii vouches for it, the fewer birthers there will be.
Let's examine, for a minute, how "birtherism" -- widespread questioning of Obama's birthplace -- works in our political culture.
Birtherism relies heavily on misinformation and uncertainty. It reminds us that public views are probably less fact driven than we'd like to think. They're more like mass impressions, with feeling, logic, and "truth" leading individuals to answer polls, express views to other people, and vote (or not vote) in ways that connect them to morally and emotionally significant universes, as much as to agreed upon "facts."
It also persists out of reasonable agnosticism and empirical skepticism. If a rational person hasn't investigated Obama's birthplace, or read news stories written by those who have, he/she logically would say "I don't know" when asked if Obama was born here.
Many Republican politicians have given that same response. The assumed subtext has been that these politicians are playing to conspiracy theories, but their uncertainty is sometimes legitimate. This represents a failure by the media to ask better questions, such as: Should we be investigating whether the president is constitutionally eligible for the office he holds?
I, myself, held the same uncertainty for a while. I didn't think Obama's birthplace was a particularly important question, so, for a while, I never looked into it. I read headlines and skimmed the first sentences of news stories. I wasn't too concerned. When people asked whether I thought Obama was born in Hawaii, I'd say, "How should I know? I wasn't there." As I read about it, that changed.
Agnosticism, by the way, is GOP hopeful Herman Cain's stance on birtherism. While Cain's base might include birthers, he tells reporters he hasn't looked into it and doesn't have an opinion, at all. This has been taken by some liberal media outlets as full-on birtherism, but it's not.
Hazy questions, hazy answers, and misinformation have kept birtherism alive. When Roy Blunt, the Republican congressman who had served as GOP whip until January 2009, was asked later that year about Obama's birthplace, he called it a "legitimate question." Which it is, since presidents are required by the Constitution to have been born here. But Blunt didn't seem to know that the president's campaign had produced a certificate of live birth, and a spokesman soon told reporters that Blunt did think Obama was born here. Adding to the mishmash, unedited footage also showed Blunt acknowledging that he didn't "have any reason not to believe" that Obama was born here.
This type of all-around confusion has allowed birtherism to prosper.
People hear such things and receive chain birther emails, and they don't investigate. They don't have the time or inclination, or they don't know where to look for a good answer. Birtherism remained an uncertainty for 10 percent of the recent Fox News poll. Of the 24 percent who held it as an opinion, some probably weren't sure but chose to believe because it reinforced some view they already had about Obama. (Just a guess.)
Thankfully, Trump is now forcing prominent Republicans to take a stand.
That's not to say prominent Republicans haven't rejected birtherism before. But Trump has brought up the contrast levels. Lines are being drawn.
Rep. Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin, as far as I can tell, are the only GOP White House hopefuls that are playing in the birther sands. Bachmann is barely doing so. She recently asked why Obama can't put birtherism to rest by allowing a legal expert to verify his birth certificate. We can decide for ourselves whether Bachmann played to birther views, but it's certainly different from what Trump is doing. Newt Gingrich hasn't commented, and a spokesman chose to leave it at that.
As 2012 rolls on, one hopes the birther winds blow away from Trump, and that any fence-sitters who want the tea party vote will, eventually, reject birtherism too. GOP insiders have started to publicly call Trump an embarrassment, and, if they're right, continued exposure of fact will erode his standing.
Birtherism's arc has stagnated, with suspicions about as prevalent today as they were in 2009. The rising action of birtherism's story is no longer rising, which leaves political audiences unsatisfied. Every plot needs needs a crisis, and Trump may just be the Iago-type catalyst to bring this one to a head.
The GOP will turn against birtherism once and for all in 2012, we have to hope. The birther ranks will dwindle, and facts will be so thoroughly forced upon the public that there's no more uncertainty on which truthy suspicions can thrive.
At the end, we'll have Donald Trump to thank.
Image credit: Joshua Roberts/Reuters
Drop-down image credit: Reuters
*This post originally stated that CNN had viewed Obama's original birth certificate. CNN did not view the original birth certificate, but rather the state-released certification of live birth (a different document). Former Hawaii's Department of Health Director Dr. Chiyome Fukino, not CNN, said she has viewed the original document and vouches for its validity. We regret the error.
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