Though every day of this campaign has seemed to bring some new stunning development, there are a few moments that will stand out when we look back on 2016 to try to understand exactly what happened and what it says about us and our political system. One of those moments happened today, when Donald Trump held an event at his new hotel in Washington to address his long effort to convince people that Barack Obama was not born in the United States.
Almost everything Trump is about and what he represents could be seen in his brief statement and what led up to it. To put it simply:
* He skillfully manipulated the media to maximize attention to himself.
* He told an obvious, indisputable lie about Hillary Clinton.
* He falsely took credit for something he didn’t do.
* He tried to evade responsibility for his successful efforts to foment and exploit racism.
And all in 30 seconds. It’s hard to imagine a more succinct summary of the Trump campaign than that.
In case you missed it, Trump and his campaign began building up anticipation for today’s event yesterday, when aides began telling reporters that he had finally decided that President Obama was indeed an American. Those reporters naturally noted that he had never said so himself; whenever he’s been asked the question, he either explicitly raised doubts about it or said he didn’t want to talk about it.
The fact of this lie and the question of whether he would continue it only drew more attention to today’s event As Trump told Maria Bartiromo of the Fox Business Channel this morning, “We have to keep the suspense going, okay?” And here’s what he said when it finally happened:
“Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it. I finished it, you know what I mean. President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period. Now we all want to get back to making America strong and great again.”
Neither Hillary Clinton nor her campaign ever questioned Obama’s birthplace in 2008, as Trump claims. Every fact-checker has verified that. Trump is lying.
As for him finishing it, it’s true that in 2011 Trump began his birther crusade, and it’s true that President Obama eventually made his birth certificate public. But Trump didn’t finish anything. If I told you that the apple sitting on your table is not a real apple but is actually filled with diamonds, and you cut it open and said, “Look, idiot, it’s an apple,” I couldn’t reply, “You should compliment me, because I have proven once and for all that that’s an apple!”
Furthermore — and this is important — until today Trump never stopped stoking the birther myth (here’s a handy roundup of statements Trump has made to that effect, continuing through this year). While Trump obviously wants praise for finally dropping his birtherism (and I’m sure in some quarters he’ll get it), this statement should be added to the list of outrageously reprehensible, dishonest things Trump has said.
The birther issue itself is Trump’s campaign in microcosm. He looked at the Republican electorate, identified their ugliest feelings, and understood that those feelings were not being validated and promoted sufficiently by other Republican politicians. Those politicians might use implication, winks and nods, or subtle insinuation to communicate to voters that they felt the same way they did. They’d say “I take Obama at his word” that he isn’t a secret Muslim, as though it were in dispute and they were doing him a favor by believing him, or they’d talk about Obama not having the same patriotic feelings as the rest of us. It was reasonably satisfying to Republican voters, but Trump knew he could go a lot farther.
He knew that on this issue as on so many other issues, there was a space to be occupied where other Republicans feared to go, if you just took the ugly thing the Republican base was thinking and echoed it back at them, explicitly and plainly. Mexicans are rapists and criminals, we have to keep out all the Muslims, bomb the s–t out of ’em and knock the crap out of ’em, he’d say. And the base would cheer.
We can’t mince words about this. Trump’s entire birther effort was racist in its intent and racist in its execution. He didn’t keep pounding this myth because he’s so stupid he actually believed there was some question about where Obama was born. He didn’t have his doubts raised by the investigators he claimed to have sent to Hawaii to ferret out the truth — indeed, there’s no evidence he actually ever sent anyone there, even though he said, “They cannot believe what they are finding.” He didn’t have doubts about Obama’s birthplace when he expressed them in 2011, or 2012, or 2013, or 2014, or 2015, or 2016. He kept up the birtherism all this time because he saw that he could use racism to his advantage.
If you’re wondering why Trump gets zero percent in some polls among African American voters, this is the reason. The entire birther crusade, but particularly Trump’s leading part in it, isn’t just about Barack Obama in particular. It’s an unfathomably cruel and dispiriting message to send to African Americans. It says to them, no matter how smart and hard-working you are, no matter how much you achieve, no matter how carefully you make yourself unthreatening to the white majority, no matter how deftly you manage to move through the most elite institutions in America and dazzle everyone with your talents, you will still not be accepted as a genuine citizen of this country. You could become president of the United States and they will literally demand to see your papers, and even when you give in to this vile demand they will still deny that you are American.
According to an NBC/SurveyMonkey poll taken just a month ago, only 27 percent of Republicans think Barack Obama was born in the United States, and Donald Trump is a big part of the reason. Even now that the country’s most prominent birther has supposedly changed his mind on the subject, they’ll probably still refuse to believe the truth.
Donald Trump spent five years pumping this poison into the American political bloodstream, and now he’s trying to lie his way out of any responsibility for what he has done. What does it say about us if he succeeds?