This Wednesday morning become one of the most surreal and ridiculous moments in the history of American politics when the White House decided to release copies of President Barack Obama’s “long form birth certificate,” in an attempt to quiet conspiracy theorists who believe the president was born elsewhere. The president had already released a version certified by the state of Hawaii, but because of the “volume of requests” for the birth certificate, the president asked the state to make an exception and release the original document.
It’s tempting to make this simply about reality television personality Donald Trump, who rocketed to the top of the Republican presidential field by promoting the slander that the president wasn’t born in the United States. But there are a number of other factors that created the current situation. Chief among them is that Trump’s lunacy emboldened conservative media sources to fully embrace birtherism. According to Media Matters, Fox News has spent over two hours promoting false claims about Obama’s birthplace across 54 segments, and only in ten did Fox News hosts challenge those claims. This isn’t just about Trump. All he did was encourage the communications wing of the conservative movement to go into overdrive in an attempt to make birtherism mainstream.
Aside from being one of the most idiotic moments in American political history, this marks a level of personal humiliation no previous president has ever been asked to endure. Other presidents have been the target of crazy conspiracy theories, sure, but few have been as self-evidently absurd as birtherism. None has been so clearly rooted in anxieties about the president’s racial identity, because no previous American president has been black.
This whole situation is an embarrassment to the country. Yesterday Jesse Jackson described birtherism as racial “code,” but there’s nothing “coded” about it. It’s just racism. I don’t mean that everyone who has doubts about the president’s birthplace is racist. Rather, the vast majority have been deliberately misled by an unscrupulous conservative media and by conservative elites who have failed or refused to challenge these doubts.
And birtherism is only one of a number of racially charged conspiracy theories that have bubbled out of the right-wing swamp and have been allowed to fester by conservative elites. Those who have spent the last two years clinging to the notion that the president wasn’t born in the United States, who have alleged that the president wasn’t intelligent enough to write his own autobiography or somehow coasted to magna cum laude at Harvard law, are carrying on new varieties of an old, dying tradition of American racism. Similar accusations dogged early black writers like Frederick Douglass and Phyllis Wheatley, whose brilliance provoked an existential crisis among people incapable of abandoning myths of black intellectual inferiority.
Whether this farce ends or continues is entirely dependent on those who nurtured the rumors in the first place. This is an opportunity for conservative elites, who have finally come around to the possibility that the outsize hatred of the president they’ve cultivated as an asset for the past two years might actually hurt them politically, to purge birtherism from mainstream conservative discourse.
Sadly, those who fostered doubts about the president’s citizenship are unlikely to relent in the face of factual proof, because birtherism was never about the facts. For its most ardent proponents, it was and is about their inability to accept the legitimacy of a black man in the White House. Nothing about the decision to release the president’s birth certificate can change that.