Last Friday at a press conference held at his new Washington, D.C., hotel, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump made the following announcement about President Barack Obama’s place of birth:
"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."
Here was Trump, once again, engaging in an act of shameless compulsive mendacity: Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton is not the wellspring of the birther conspiracy theory. In reality, Trump has spent five years fanning its fires. That Trump would then want praise and credit for ending a lie that he actually gave life to is beyond absurd.
Ultimately, Trump’s disavowal of his claim that Obama was born outside of the country — and is thus ineligible to be president of the United States — will do nothing to change the minds of the 61 percent of Trump supporters who have embraced such a fiction. And there may be a backfire effect to Trump’s recent announcement: It is the nature of conspiracy theories that the more they are denied and refuted that their credibility and power often grows among the faithful.
At its core, birtherism is an effort to delegitimize Obama, the United States’ first black president. This ploy did real harm to Obama’s ability to conduct the people’s business and confront the dire challenges facing the United States after the disastrous George W. Bush presidency. Plain and simple: Birtherism was and is a national distraction and embarrassment.
On a fundamental level, it's just tedious, run-of-the-mill conspiracy theory fare mated with white supremacist invective. U.S. presidents are often dogged by conspiracy theories — that America’s first black president Obama would be targeted by a conspiracy theory that mines white racism for its force and power should not be surprising.
But there is a deeper, uglier and more vicious element to Trump’s birther conspiracy theory — one little commented upon by the American corporate news media. For birthers, Obama is a black usurper and “affirmative action” candidate whose life accomplishments are unearned and unwarranted. To that end, in the birther imagination Obama was not qualified to attend Columbia University and is a fraud who somehow conned or was given unearned special dispensation and privileges in order to become a professor at the University of Chicago Law School.
Trump has repeatedly returned to these themes in the five years that he has spent advancing birtherism.
Such claims are a slap in the face of black America. To suggest that Obama’s life successes are a result of his being a racial “token” or “unqualified” minority are charges that many African-Americans — especially those who are the first black people to hold their job titles or to work in formerly all white spaces — can deeply relate to. For this and many other reasons, African-Americans overwhelmingly support Obama and are fiercely protective of him because in his fight to defend his competency and ability on the global stage, they also see their own personal struggles.
The assertions that black and brown men (and women) are taking opportunities from white men that the latter are “entitled to” and have “earned” are absurd. These claims are the fitful projections of white racist paranoiac thinking. Unfortunately, such delusions hold great power over white conservatives. The feeling that “undeserving” black Americans are somehow “taking” opportunities from white people is a hallmark of the white racial resentment and overt bigotry that Trump and other Republicans have used to fuel their political campaigns
For example, a June 2016 public opinion poll by Reuters/Ipsos found that “nearly half of Trump’s supporters described African-Americans as more ‘violent’ than whites.” It also discovered, “The same proportion described African-Americans as more ‘criminal’ than whites, while 40 percent described them as more ‘lazy’ than whites.” In addition, Reuters found, "Some 31 percent of Trump supporters said they ‘strongly agree’ that ‘social policies, such as affirmative action, discriminate unfairly against white people,’ compared with 21 percent of Cruz supporters, 17 percent of Kasich supporters and 16 percent of Clinton supporters.”
Political scientists have documented how white racial resentment and overt bigotry are driving partisanship and support for Trump specifically and the Republican Party more generally.
These social forces operate within a larger context: As the 2016 American National Election Studies has documented more than half of white respondents believe, “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if black people would only try harder they could be just as well-off as whites.”
The white rage and racial resentment embodied captured by these public opinion polls and other social science research is the beating heart of the right wing’s crusade “to take back our country” and “Make America Great Again.” Trump and the Republican Party’s revanchism are deeply tied to the color line and cannot be easily decoupled from it.
Ultimately, Obama’s two terms in office have not been a panacea for black America. He has not pursued targeted economic and political policies that would help remedy the specific challenges and harms done to African-Americans. The black community has not yet recovered from the economic calamity of the Bush years. Black youth unemployment remains too high — at about 19 percent. Obama too often defaults to the mode of “lecturer in chief” when speaking to black Americans about the problems in their communities.
But African-Americans are politically sophisticated. They understand the structural and personal limitations imposed on Obama because of his skin color and by an obstructionist Republican Party that has abandoned any pretense of responsible governance in order to try to bring down the country’s first black president. Black Americans also value the symbolic progress and opportunities made possible by Obama’s twice being elected to the White House, as well as the material and substantive improvements he has made to their lives by making health care more accessible and improving the overall economy.
Along with having “the talk” about how to survive day-to-day encounters with America’s police, young black folks are also told by their parents and other mentors that that they have to do twice as well to get half as far as white people. As African-Americans watched President Obama succeed despite the racist opposition he faced, we knew that he too had learned the same lesson. Obama’s successes are our successes. And this is why we feel the barbs, racism and vitriol thrown at him so intensely and also smile so earnestly when, with his effortless cool pose and sharp intelligence, he triumphs over the opposition.
When President Obama produced his birth certificate at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, he mocked and embarrassed Trump. Black Americans savored that moment because Trump’s racist birther conspiracy theory was an affront to our national belonging and citizenship as well.
Trump’s rejection of birtherism can and will do nothing to remedy his racist insults toward Obama and black America. The slur is too great, the racist vitriol too toxic. And thus no amount of “black outreach” by Trump or the GOP can undo this harm or bridge the chasm they actively created.