There is going to be a lot of confusion today over what Trump does or doesn’t believe. But let’s not let two basic facts get lost in this discussion:
1) Trump has actively trafficked in this racist conspiracy theory for years, and not only that, he continued to feed it this year, even as he was running for the GOP nomination for president.
2) All indications are that Trump conceived of his birtherism as an explicitly racist appeal. While the true nature of Trump’s actual beliefs is important, since it goes to his fitness to serve as president, it’s also important that Trump explicitly tried to feed what he himself appeared to believe were racist tendencies among Republican primary voters, for political purposes.
Asked by the Post’s Robert Costa whether he believes Obama was born in Hawaii, Trump replied: “I’ll answer that question at the right time. I just don’t want to answer it yet.” Trump added that he does not talk about birtherism anymore, because he would rather talk about issues. His campaign subsequently released a statement that said:
Hillary Clinton’s campaign first raised this issue to smear then-candidate Barack Obama in her very nasty, failed 2008 campaign for President….In 2011, Mr. Trump was finally able to bring this ugly incident to its conclusion by successfully compelling President Obama to release his birth certificate. Mr. Trump did a great service to the President and the country by bringing closure to the issue that Hillary Clinton and her team first raised. Inarguably, Donald J. Trump is a closer. Having successfully obtained President Obama’s birth certificate when others could not, Mr. Trump believes that President Obama was born in the United States.
The idea that Clinton first raised the birther issue is a lie, and it should not be forgotten that this is a lie that Trump has told repeatedly. Beyond that, though, this statement’s suggestion that Trump was the hero who brought this issue to a conclusion, by forcing Obama to show his papers — and let’s face it, this is really about demanding that the first African American president show his papers, just like any other undocumented immigrant Trump would deport because his presence in the U.S. is illegitimate — hints at where this is all going. Trump may well try to bring this issue to a close by saying in his big announcement that he is the one who settled it.
But this, too, is a lie. Trump repeatedly kept alive the idea that this was not a settled issue well after Obama finally showed his papers to Sheriff Trump in 2011. As late as June of 2016, Trump told CNN’s Brian Stelter that he would “love to” keep talking about questions about Obama’s birthplace, but only refrains from doing so because it distracts from important issues. Needless to say, that does not constitute treating this as a settled issue. Meanwhile, Buzzfeed turned up another example, in which Trump continued questioning the validity of Obama’s birth certificate as late as 2014. A Trump tweet in 2013 put scare quotes around Obama’s “birth certificate.”
Obviously, the whole point of claiming Trump forced this issue to a conclusion is to allow him to put this behind him — to improve his appeal among white swing voters — while avoiding accountability for the act of feeding the conspiracy in the first place, and while continuing to wink at the “deplorables” in his base by signaling that their birtherism is not just perfectly acceptable, but admirable. He’s still one of them. Trump may do something like this again today.
But what must not be forgotten here is what motivated Trump’s birther appeals in the first place. The New York Times recently reported on a six-week stretch of time in early 2011 when Trump first latched onto birtherism, and concluded that Trump explicitly saw this as a way of using racist appeals as an entry into GOP primary politics. As the Times put it:
Trump recognized an opportunity to connect with the electorate over an issue many considered taboo: the discomfort, in some quarters of American society, with the election of the nation’s first black president. He harnessed it for political gain, beginning his connection with the largely white Republican base that, in his 2016 campaign, helped clinch his party’s nomination.
What’s more, Trump explicitly saw an opportunity to mainstream birtherism, according to his longtime confidant, Roger Stone. As Stone told the Times, many Republican base voters “believe the president is foreign-born, and Trump has an ability to interject any idea that is outside of the mainstream into the mainstream.”
And so, the debate over what Trump really believes must not be permitted to distract from the full and true nature of Trump’s starring role in this whole despicable tale. That full story should not be airbrushed out of today’s coverage. Trump explicitly fashioned himself as the world’s most famous birther, because he recognized that Republican primary voters were uncomfortable with the idea of the first African American president. He seized upon birtherism as an original entree into their political consciousnesses. In so doing, he also expressly hoped to mainstream this fringe racist idea. While Trump’s personal birtherism goes to the heart of just how unfit for the presidency Trump really is, so, too, does Trump’s willingness — whatever his actual beliefs — to use such racist appeals to win over others.
By the way, here’s a crazy idea. What if Hillary Clinton’s speech about “deplorables” is one reason Trump is being forced once again to account for — and possibly back down from — his birtherism? After all, it has compelled a national debate about Trump’s racist campaign, which is probably complicating Trump’s efforts to moderate in order to appeal to college educated whites and suburban swing voters. And so, for all the obsessing over how controversial Clinton’s speech supposedly was, maybe part of the story here should be that her speech succeeded in forcing more attention to Trump’s racism, and that this is a positive thing.
UPDATE: Here’s another example of Trump keeping birtherism alive well after 2011. Last year, journalist John Harwood confronted Trump, arguing we know where Obama was born. Trump said: “You tell me. Go ahead, tell me. Where was he born?”
UPDATE II: Trump officially backed down from birtherism today, saying this:
“Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it….President Barack Obama was born in the United States. Period.”
In other words, Sheriff Trump threw Obama up against a car and forced him to show his papers. What really happened here today, as I argued above, is that Trump backed down in the face of an escalating national debate over Trump’s racism.
* TRUMP IS SEEN AS RISKIER CHOICE: The new CBS/New York Times poll finds that 67 percent say Trump is a risky choice for president, and 64 percent say he lacks the right temperament. But 60 percent say he’d force real change in Washington. The Times adds:
Mrs. Clinton, despite being as disliked as Mr. Trump, is seen as a safer option. Majorities of voters say she has the temperament for the job and would better handle foreign policy. Only 36 percent of them, however, view her as an agent of change. That perception deeply worries some Clinton campaign advisers, who want the race to hinge on Mr. Trump’s character rather than voters’ desire to upend the status quo.
No doubt, but it’s also possible that many of those who say Trump is more of a change agent also don’t want the brand of change he’s offering.
* TRUMP THINKS ‘DEPLORABLES’ FLAP HELPS HIM: Also from the Post interview, note Trump’s comments about Clinton’s claims about his “deplorable” supporters:
“It’s the single biggest mistake in this political cycle, a massive comment, bigger than 47 percent,” Trump said, a reference to Mitt Romney’s controversial 2012 statement at a fundraiser about voters who receive government benefits or pay little in taxes. “When I first heard it, I couldn’t believe that she said it.”
Of course, the argument over “deplorables” is also forcing a national debate over Trump’s racism, which probably won’t help much with college educated whites.
* CLINTON TO EMPHASIZE MORE POSITIVE MESSAGE: The New York Times reports:
After spending much of the summer hammering Mr. Trump, through both ads and stump speeches, it appears Mrs. Clinton has convinced many voters that Mr. Trump is not qualified to be president but has failed to win them over to her own candidacy….Mrs. Clinton’s aides indicate that…they will broadcast more positive commercials highlighting her past efforts on health care and her current proposals to lift wages and create jobs.
As I suggested, the Clinton camp is conceding it may have erred in thinking Trump’s own depravity would be enough to sink him, and must make a more expansive affirmative case for her candidacy.
* CLINTON RESPONDS TO PRESSURE FOR A RESET: Politico’s Annie Karni has more reporting on Clinton’s new effort to tell a more positive story about herself, noting that this will be showing up in more speeches. As Karni reports:
Many Democratic allies for months have been pressing Clinton to make the affirmative case for her own candidacy, arguing that discrediting Trump alone is only half of a strategy, one hand clapping. With 54 days to go, she began making the shift now that she’s stuck, once again, in a tight race.
Better late than never!
* GOOD ECONOMIC NEWS IS VINDICATION FOR DEMS: Paul Krugman looks at this week’s good news about rising incomes, and concludes that it is partial vindication for the Dem policy response to the Great Recession, and terrible news for GOP “trickle down” ideology:
Much of the stimulus involved expanding the social safety net, not just to protect the vulnerable, but to increase purchasing power and sustain demand. And in general Obama-era policies have tried to help families directly, rather than by showering benefits on the rich and hoping that the benefits trickle down. Now the results of this policy experiment are in, and they’re not bad. They could have been better: The stimulus should have been bigger and more sustained….Still, progressive policies have worked, and the critics of those policies have been proved wrong.
It’s also worth recalling that conservatives wrongly predicted economic disaster from Bill Clinton’s tax hikes, too.
* THE TWEET OF THE DAY, HOPELESSLY-GULLIBLE-MEDIA EDITION: Bill Kristol predicts how the press will handle Trump’s moderation of his birtherism:
Of course, the “media” does not have to choose to help Trump in this fashion. It can instead choose to hold Trump accountable for his birtherism — for the full story of it.