The specter of birtherism floated into the 2016 campaign last week with the suggestion by an audience member at a Donald Trump rally that President Barack Obama is a Muslim. With the possibility of liberals’ mocking cries of “Show us the long-form birf certificate!” looming out of the fog of the past like the Mary Celeste captained by Jerome Corsi, some Republicans joined Democrats to assail Trump for entertaining his old hobbyhorse and not forcefully denouncing the protestor. Though they couldn’t resist throwing in some hilarious defensiveness to make the GOP feel better about itself, which we’ll talk about in a minute.
Obviously unqualified condemnation was the smart play for the Republican Party and its surrogates if the party wants to ever start shedding voter perceptions of it as being stocked with racists. But the more reactionary wingnuts, egged on by a media that spied a shiny silly object good for a news cycle or three, just couldn’t help themselves. Which pretty much assures the story of staying alive for a while longer.
There was the obligatory muttering that the anonymous audience member must have been a plant. There was Trump’s dismissal of any moral obligation to defend Obama, as if standing up to a living Free Republic comment thread is a philosophical question and not simply a matter of being a decent human being.
But for sheer entertainment value, it is hard to beat the revival on Twitter and in right-wing media of the ancient canard that Hillary Clinton started the birther movement. For those of you unfamiliar with this story, it goes something like this. Back in early 2007, Clinton’s campaign strategist Mark Penn circulated ideas for attacking Obama, who had just announced his candidacy, during the primaries. Penn suggested casting Obama’s peripatetic and diverse childhood in a negative light, writing in a strategy memo:
[H]is roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited. I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and his values… Let’s explicitly own ‘American’ in our programs, the speeches and the values. He doesn’t.
Clinton supporters also circulated the famous photos of Obama on a trip to his father’s homeland of Kenya in 2006, clad in traditional tribal garb over his Western clothes. The overall effect was to “Otherize” the then-Senator, to cast him as being somehow less than fully American. It was a low-down attack, one that betrayed either cold-blooded calculation or desperation on the part of the Clinton campaign. It was also not exactly new, having been used in some form by a serial Republican Senate candidate named Andy Martin to smear Obama after his breakout speech at the 2004 DNC convention in Boston and survived in various permutations afterwards.
At no time, however, did Penn suggest questioning the location or provenance of Obama’s birth. All of those insane claims (that Malcolm X was his father, for example), sprouted into existence until the story of his Kenyan heritage highlighted by Clinton supporters landed in the Hulk-creating Gamma Ray Projector of the right and re-emerged, irradiated, as an out-of-control monster that absorbed in 2012 the man who is today the Republican front-runner to replace Obama in the White House.
Anyone who has been alive and sentient the last few years knows that the birther rumors have found much more purchase on the right than the left, making their way into the repertoire of attacks on Obama from elected Republican officials at the national level. Which is why this desperate attempt to pin the birth of birtherism on Hillary Clinton is so hilarious. If you tease out this logic, what conservatives are essentially saying is, How dare you spin a such a racist and outlandish rumor that only people on our end of the political spectrum have been dumb enough to fall for!
Or, as Politico reports conservative commentator Michael Medved wrote in 2009, birtherism “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.” Of course Medved then suggested that it was all a giant conspiracy to make conservatives “disgrace themselves,” proving that even when they are trying to do the right thing, right-wingers are still paranoid, grudge-bearing ninnies.
It’s important to note that attacks like this have never worked on Barack Obama, because there are more Americans disgusted by this garbage than not. Just ask 2008 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Or 2011 Donald Trump at the White House Correspondents Dinner. Birtherism is fringe garbage that should be confined to the farthest corner of the Internet. The 2008 Clinton campaign may have provided the body parts, but it was the right wing that animated the monster and set it free to shamble across the countryside scaring small children and old people alike. No amount of revisionism and whining can change that fact.