A Short History of Trump's Birtherism (And How The GOP Reacted)

From: "How The Right Lost Its Mind"

For many on the Right, the ur-conspiracy theory of the Obama presidency was the notion that Obama had not been born in the United States and was therefore not constitutionally eligible to be president. An entire cottage industry of “birthers” sprang up, complete with elaborate attempts to document the “evidence” that Obama was, in fact, a secret Kenyan. Arguably, Donald Trump launched his successful presidential bid by seizing upon the issue, which he milked for the maximum amount of publicity. Trump would eventually disavow birtherism in the final months of the 2016 campaign, while attempting to blame its origins (falsely) on his rival Hillary Clinton. But for five years, Trump had questioned Obama’s birthplace.

In March 2011, Trump appeared on the Laura Ingraham Show to declare: "He doesn't have a birth certificate, or if he does, there's something on that certificate that is very bad for him. Now, somebody told me -- and I have no idea if this is bad for him or not, but perhaps it would be -- that where it says 'religion,' it might have 'Muslim.' And if you're a Muslim, you don't change your religion, by the way." On CNN, he escalated his rhetoric, saying that “if he wasn’t born in this country, he shouldn’t be the president of the United States.” After Obama produced the certificate in April 2011, Trump briefly acknowledged his legitimacy, but quickly seemed to recant, saying “a lot of people do not think it was an authentic certificate.”

To be sure, some conservatives with megaphones denounced the birthers. Early on, talk show host Michael Medved called the movement’s leaders “crazy, nutburger, demagogue, money-hungry, exploitative, irresponsible, filthy conservative imposters” who had become “the worst enemy of the conservative movement.” Birtherism, he said, “makes us look weird. It makes us look crazy. It makes us look demented. It makes us look sick, troubled, and not suitable for civilized company.”

But despite repeated attempts to debunk the theory, many leading Republicans either stayed silent or refused to forcefully denounce the theories that were springing up. One reason for their reluctance was that “birtherism” was not fringe notion in the GOP. A Public Policy Poll in February of 2011 found that birthers had become a majority among likely Republican primary voters --  51% said they did not think Barack Obama was born in the United States. Less than a third of GOP voters -- 28 percent – said they firmly believed that he was born here, while 21 percent weren’t sure.

Those numbers helped explain why so many leading Republicans were reluctant to forcefully denounce the attempt to delegitimize the nation’s first African American president. The poll also suggested, as Steve Benen noted in the Washington Monthly, that “candidates hoping to run sane campaigns will be at a disadvantage in the coming months.” Republican voters who doubted Obama’s legitimacy tended to gravitate to candidates like Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and Mike Huckabee (all of whom would play key roles in Trump’s 2016 campaign.)

Throughout 2012, Trump used Twitter to attack Obama’s legitimacy. In one tweet, Trump insisted that “an extremely credible source,” had told him that the certificate was “a fraud.” Trump continually pressured other Republicans to embrace birtherism. In May 2012, Trump tweeted that Obama “is practically begging” GOP front runner Mitt Romney “to disavow the place of birth movement, he is afraid of it.” But Romney had notably gone out of his way to accept Trump’s endorsement. “When he accepted Trump’s endorsement during the 2012 Republican primaries,” E.J. Dionne noted, “Mitt Romney was positively giddy…”

The mogul continued his birther rants:

 In August 2012, he tweeted: “Why do the Republicans keep apologizing on the so called "birther" issue? No more apologies--take the offensive!”

In September: “Wake Up America! See article: "Israeli Science: Obama Birth Certificate is a Fake.”

Even after the election, Trump trafficked in elaborate conspiracy theories. In 2013, he tweeted: “How amazing, the State Health Director who verified copies of Obama’s “birth certificate” died in plane crash today. All others lived” (“An autopsy said her cause of death was "acute cardiac arrhythmia due to hyperventilation." “Hawaii health director killed after plane crash had infant life vest,” Hawaii News Now, March 5, 2016)

As late as 2014, Trump invited hackers to “please hack Obama’s college records (destroyed?) and check ‘place of birth.’”

Throughout his political career Trump was known for his “casual elasticity with the truth,” exhausting “an army of fact-checkers with his mischaracterization, exaggerations and fabrications.” But, The New York Times’s Michel Barbaro wrote, “this lie was different from the start, an insidious, calculated calumny that sought to undo the embrace of an African American president by the 69 million voters who elected him in 2008.”

And yet, as they embraced Trump’s candidacy, a majority of conservatives clearly did not think that the lie, or its underlying racism, was disqualifying for the presidency. By failing to push back against the birther conspiracy theories, conservatives had faced a moral and intellectual test with significant implications for the future. It was a test they failed.