A Case Study in the Evolution of Birtherism: Donald Trump

To understand the nature of birtherism, it helps to look at the case of another cultural phenomenon that has far outlasted the climate it evolved from -- Donald Trump.

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To understand the nature of birtherism, it helps to look at the case of another cultural phenomenon that has far outlasted the climate it evolved from -- Donald Trump. You might be asking yourself, how is birtherism still a thing, more than a year after President Obama released his long-form birth certificate? But that question has it backwards. How could birtherism thrive without the birth certificate? Before it was released birthers were waiting for the ultimate evidentiary shoe to drop. All attention was focused on demanding that single piece of paper. Now that the birth certificate is printed in effing Obama campaign mugs, for crissakes, the birthers can detach themselves from facts altogether and freely follow every one of their paranoid inclinations on whatever path they lead. Each false headline or inaccurate scrap of promotional material can be endlessly examined. Existence of the birth certificate was is the only proof the conspiracy needs. Why would Obama release his birth certificate if there wasn't a controversy?

Trump, too, is a product of such circular logic. His public persona is premised on his business savvy, but his success -- appearing as the host of a popular reality competition show, licensing his name to other people's real estate developments -- is all dependent on his persona of business savvy. And that is why Trump is the perfect public face of birtherism. He no longer has to prove his case, because it has already been disproven, so Trump is free to market himself and birtherism in the most flamboyant way possible.

Watch Trump go through the phases of birtherism until he finally throws of the shackles of the last remaining ties to reality:

Phase One: Say the Birthers Ask Interesting Questions. 
You don't start out full birther. You have to ease your way in. Trump dipped his toe in birtherism on Good Morning America on March 17, 2011, saying"Everybody who gives even a hint of being a birther... even a little bit of a hint... they label them as an idiot... Let me tell you, I'm a really smart guy. The reason I have a little doubt -- just a little -- is because he grew up, and nobody knew him. If ever I got the nomination, if I ever decide to run, you may go back and interview people from my kindergarten. They’ll remember me. Nobody ever comes forward. Nobody knows who he is until later in his life. It’s very strange. The whole thing is very strange."
Phase Two: Say the Documents Raise More Questions Than They Answer.
Obama had released only his "certificate of live birth," not the long-form document, when Trump went on The View March 23, 2011. Trump wasn't saying that he thought Obama was born in Kenya, just that the document in question raised some questions. "I've seen people take a $100 bill and make a $1,000,000 bill," he said. "There's something on that birth certificate that [Obama] doesn't like." Birthers rejoiced, saying Trump "might very well succeed in diminishing the sting of the 'birther' label."
Phase Three: Do Some Fact Finding.
Trump sent "people" to Hawaii to research Obama's origins in early April. What they were finding, he would not say.
Phase Four: Say You Can't Help But Go Full Birther.
On April 7, 2011, Trump said on The Today Show, "Three weeks ago when I started, I thought he was probably born in this country. I have a much bigger doubt than I did before. His grandmother said he was born in Kenya... I'm starting to think he was not born here." He can't help it, you see? He's just forced by the facts -- and Obama's stonewalling.
Phase Five: Turn an Implicitly Racial Charge into an Explicitly Racial One
Trump said he had other questions about Obama's background in an April 26 interview with The Associated Press: "I heard [Obama] was a terrible student, terrible... How does a bad student go to Columbia and then to Harvard?" The answer you are supposed to assume is that he got in with bad grades because he's black. The birther conspiracy theory has a racial tinge, because it suggests Obama isn't "one of us" -- he's some kind of outsider. But the affirmative action charge is explicitly about him being black. As bad as Obama not being a citizen might be -- it could be merely a symptom of something worse.
Phase Six: Take Credit for Birth Certificate Being Released
When Obama released his long-form birth certificate April 27, 2011, Trump said he was "proud." "I've accomplished something that no one else has been able to accomplish... I want to look at it, but I hope it's true... But he should have done it a long time ago." See that? Trump bought himself some time, left a little bit of room for doubt to return to the issue later, but made himself look reasonable enough that almost every single Republican presidential candidate met with him latter that summer.
Phase Seven: Keep Quiet
Trump quit talking about the birther issue and endorsed Mitt Romney.
Phase Eight: Embrace "New" Evidence
Even though what should be the ultimate evidence of Obama's citizenship -- his birth certificate -- has been out for a year, some conservative blogs have discovered sloppy mistakes in the promotional materials offered by Obama's publisher. Trump has seized on them. “That’s what he told the literary agent,” Trump told The Daily Beast's Lloyd Grove Friday. "That's the way life works… He didn't know he was running for president, so he told the truth. The literary agent wrote down what he said… He said he was born in Kenya and raised in Indonesia… Now they're saying it was a mistake. Just like his Kenyan grandmother said he was born in Kenya, and she pointed down the road to the hospital, and after people started screaming at her she said, 'Oh, I mean Hawaii.' Give me a break."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.