(AP/Stephen B. Morton)

Birtherism goes mainstream: Donald Trump, Barack Obama and the radicalization of the GOP

Once confined to the fringe, the birther movement has swept the Republican Party. Where is the media coverage?


Eric Boehlert
September 10, 2015 12:45PM (UTC)
This article originally appeared on Media Matters

The Republican birther brigade really is one of the most astonishing political stories in recent years. What's truly bewildering and newsworthy is that the birther ranks are apparently expanding and likely number in the millions nationwide. The fact that Republican frontrunner Donald Trump personally vouched for the baseless, anti-Obama conspiracy theory has only elevated its significance.

So why does the press continue to largely turn a blind eye to the telling spectacle?

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Amidst the avalanche of news coverage and commentary about Trump's campaign, the birther strain that runs through important parts of the Republican Party (the claim that Obama's secretly a Kenya-born Muslim) has not been a focal point for Beltway reporters and pundits. The media's birther blind spot is part of the larger press failure to grasp, and accurately detail, the truly radical nature of the Republican Party under President Obama.

For instance, since June 1, the New York Times has published approximately 180 articles or columns that included the word "Trump" five or more times, according to Nexis. But just a handful of those have made any mention of Trump's previous birth certificate folly. The same goes for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times, for example: Nearly 180 detailed Trump articles and columns published since June between them, but just a few that have addressed the birther nonsense.

I'm not suggesting the topic has been completely ignored. But it is safe to say it's not a priority issue for the press, which seems otherwise consumed with all things Trump.

You can bet that if, for some very strange reason, a left-wing demagogue who previously trafficked in 9/11 Truther conspiracy theories catapulted to the front of the Democratic primary race, that incendiary fact would not be politely ignored or downplayed. But Trump's right-wing birtherism often gets a pass.

Let's face it, the press has never come to terms with the Republican Party's deep birther roots, and therefore hasn't come to terms with the radical revolution unfolding on the far right. This campaign season seems like an obvious time to do so. "We need to reckon even more urgently with what can now be called the 'Trumpists,'" Harvard professor Danielle Allen recently noted, highlighting their birther streak.

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It's true Trump's candidacy has for the most part shied away from the touchy birther issue this year. But it's also true that it was his bizarre birther campaign that catapulted Trump to Republican stardom in 2011. That year, he teamed up with Fox News and the two took the dormant issue and turned it into conservative "news," with Fox News hosting more than 50 birther segments within a seven-week span.

Eventually, the White House released Obama's long-form birth certificate and most observers laughed at Trump's political pratfall. And I think most journalists thought that was the end of the issue: The dopey birthplace allegations had been unequivocally debunked, therefore the so-called controversy had been settled, right?

Wrong.

And that's been the press' telltale failure in covering conservatives and Republicans in recent years: Facts often don't matter to them. They occupy their own tribal space and digest the same misinformation that simply feeds their often-paranoid views of Obama and Democrats.

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"They have a different sense of what is normal," Rachel Maddow observed about birthers back in 2013. "They have a different sense of what counts as reasonable politics in America -- and failing to appreciate that, means that we fail to develop reasonably accurate expectations for their behavior. And that has become really important."

That's even truer today as America's most famous birther marches towards the Republican nomination.

Trump's appealing to an often-ugly streak within the conservative movement. And he's winning over the demagoguery wing of the Republican Party. That's news.

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As Mother Jones' David Corn recently noted, "Many Republicans clearly see the president as a foreign-born secret Muslim with a clandestine plan to weaken, if not ruin, the United States--remember the death panels--and they have a dark, nearly apocalyptic view of Obama's America."

To me, that assertion seems self-evident. So why the Beltway press' reluctance to drill down deep into this troubling phenomenon? What's behind the Beltway-wide decision to pretend there isn't something seismic and disturbing going on within the Republican electorate?

Rather than having the release of Obama's birth certificate dissuade those on the far right about the birther issue, since 2011 the ranks of Republican birthers have swelled to huge proportions as the GOP base clings to the dark fantasy that Obama is an African-born impostor who's ineligible to be president or to command U.S. military forces.

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From Talking Points Memo [emphasis added]:

Nearly half of Iowans supporting real estate mogul Donald Trump's presidential campaign don't believe President Barack Obama was born in the United States, according to a poll released Tuesday.

The Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll found that 35 percent of likely Iowa Republican caucusgoers don't believe the President was born in the U.S. That "birther" share rose to 46 percent among Trump supporters, the poll found.

And from Public Policy Polling:

Trump is benefiting from a GOP electorate that thinks Barack Obama is a Muslim and was born in another country, and that immigrant children should be deported. 66% of Trump's supporters believe that Obama is a Muslim to just 12% that grant he's a Christian. 61% think Obama was not born in the United States to only 21% who accept that he was. And 63% want to amend the Constitution to eliminate birthright citizenship, to only 20% who want to keep things the way they are.

Has the modern political press ever had to deal with such a large portion of the partisan electorate that's actively allergic to facts the way birthers are? Probably not.

But I also don't think the current path of routinely downplaying the birther phenomenon and its extraordinary pull within the Republican Party is the right way to handle the story. By too often turning a blind eye to the birther juices fueling Trump's ascension, the press overlooks a defining trait in conservative politics today.

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What Ever Happened To The Obama Birther Movement?


Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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