How deranged anti-Obama conspiracy theories led America to Donald Trump

Folklorist Patricia Turner on how unhinged right-wing paranoia about the first Black president tore America apart

By Kathryn Joyce

Investigative Reporter

Published September 6, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

President Barack Obama speaks to the press in the Briefing Room of the White House April 27, 2011 in Washington, DC. US President Barack Obama released a long form version of his birth certificate after extended criticism by those who do not believe he was born in the United States. (Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama speaks to the press in the Briefing Room of the White House April 27, 2011 in Washington, DC. US President Barack Obama released a long form version of his birth certificate after extended criticism by those who do not believe he was born in the United States. (Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

In 2007, a widely forwarded email went viral, claiming that then-candidate Barack Obama hoped to replace the national anthem with Coca-Cola's 1971 advertising campaign song "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)." The email claimed that Obama had actually said that during an appearance on "Meet the Press," while explaining why he didn't wear an American flag pin and refused to put his hand over his heart when the anthem was played, suggesting that if the Coke jingle replaced the anthem, "then I might salute it." According to the email, Obama went on to say the U.S. flag should be redesigned; that the U.S. should  disarm "to the level of acceptance to our Middle East Brethren"; and that when he was president, "CHANGE" would quickly "overwhelm the United States of America." 

From the distance of 15 years, it's easy to chalk that viral email — whose text was originally intended as satire — up as the same kind of "fake news" that proliferated during Donald Trump's presidential campaign, with Facebook posts and Macedonian-owned websites claiming that Obama had just banned the Pledge of Allegiance or the pope had endorsed Trump. After two years of moral panic around critical race theory, it's also easy to recognize the subtext that a Black person is unpatriotic by definition. 

Yet that story is just one among dozens of similar examples: Obama was accused of disowning the Boy Scouts, court-martialing Christian service members or plotting to kill white people with Ebola. He was called a secret Muslim, a secret Kenyan, a secret Indonesian or secretly gay. As the conspiracy theories expanded to Michelle Obama, she had allegedly ordered that a picture of her in royal garb be put on a postage stamp, or was a Black nationalist or perhaps transgender. 

All of this was more than just an early example of the disinformation age that became impossible to ignore a decade later. According to Patricia Turner, a professor of African American studies and folklorist at UCLA and author of the new book "Trash Talk: Anti-Obama Lore and Race in the Twenty-First Century," the sort of folk legend represented by the anthem email directly helped pave the way for Trump and today's political climate. 

Folklorists, Turner says, "scrutinize the manifestations of everyday life," looking at all sorts of genres of folklore from material culture and music to proverbs, urban legends, rumors and conspiracy theories. In folklorists' assessment of various forms of disinformation — which is often also a manifestation of folklore — there are subtle distinctions: the rumor that Obama "wasn't even born in the U.S." was fleshed out into the conspiracy theory that Obama's mother gave birth in Kenya and officials in Hawaii later helped cover it up. 

Both are clearly racist, as well as, on a more basic level, "trash talk" disparaging other people. But the components of folklore that they came wrapped up in gave them cover to travel farther, embed themselves deeper and, by 2016, aided in making Donald Trump president. Preventing a replay of that outcome, says Turner, requires recognizing what these forms of folklore look like, in all their potential ugliness. 

Can you talk about "trash talk" in all its forms — rumors, urban legends, conspiracy theories, disinformation — and what it has to do with folklore?

Folklorists scrutinize the manifestations of everyday life, looking at genres like proverbs, legends, folktales, music, material culture. Within that "discourse of daily life," there are stories that are told as though they are true, but without any evidence offered, or at least not reliable evidence. 

To use an example from my book, the first beliefs about Barack Obama's birthplace were often circulated like, "I heard he wasn't even born in the United States." That's just a rumor — there are no characters, no plot, no beginning, middle and end. Then we would get more developed claims like, "I heard that Obama's mother went to Africa with his father, and went into labor early while she was in Kenya and the baby was born there. Then they covered it up when they came back to the United States." So now you've got a timeline, characters, a story in the "cover-up" part. Then people will do versions that involve the Hall of Records in Hawaii, and that's where it takes on the nomenclature of conspiracy theories — when there's a place of power trying to manipulate the dissemination of the information to control it. So that's the realm in which I have traveled for a couple decades now. 

Most people, if they've thought about it all, tend to date the start of our new conspiracy theory era back to around 2016, with the arrival of things like Pizzagate. You trace a far longer lineage, to well before Obama was elected.

I kind of expected that Barack and Michelle Obama would trigger this kind of thing when they burst on the scene in 2004. They arrived at the same time as social media and all the ways the internet democratized voices and access to a wide swath of the public. So there were two parallel things: the first prominent African-American couple likely to move into the White House, at the same time that people could express how they felt about that, good or bad, in more and more ways, more and more frequently on their computers. 

I kind of expected that Barack and Michelle Obama would trigger this kind of thing: They arrived at the same time as social media and all the ways the internet democratized public voices.

The first anti-Obama "lore" that I documented — the beliefs that he was Muslim and that he wasn't patriotic — circulated via email attachments, faxes and even things like church barbecues. As he made his way through his first and second terms, there were more and more people with Facebook accounts, on Twitter or using Reddit, and they were using all those channels to communicate how they were responding to him. And if you went to the places where the voters who became Trump's base were, you could see an increasingly toxic range of conspiracy theories, legends and rumors about him and Michelle. 

Is there one most telling piece of anti-Obama folklore you found? 

It's hard to pick one! One thing that's interesting to me is how all of the conventional anti-African-American female stereotypes got attached to Michelle Obama, almost as though someone had a book of anti-Black stereotypes and went chapter by chapter. She was attacked for living "rent free" in the White House and traveling extravagantly, so the "welfare queen" association was attached to her. There was the rumor that she wanted a postage stamp made of herself, and she chose an image where there's a crown on her head, suggesting to those who believed it that she had delusions of grandeur. There are memes that show her in stereotypical "ghetto tramp" clothing — really risqué clothing you would associate with a nearly X-rated hip hop video — and associations of her with primates, as Black women have often been compared to apes. And there were claims that she didn't have the intellectual acumen to get into and succeed at the universities and law school she went to — that she was just an affirmative action baby. Taken together, that is a list of all the things Black women are stereotyped by. As with Barack, it was just so extraordinarily thorough. 

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With Barack, for the first four or five years, it was all very identity-based. That he's not the religion he says he is; that he's not the political person he says he is, but that he's a socialist, communist or "globalist"; that he's not the sexual orientation that he tells us — that's the "Bathhouse Barry" cycle, which accuses him of having been popular in Chicago bathhouses at some point. And certainly that he wasn't born where he said he was: that he was not born in Hawaii, but, in some versions, in Kenya, in other versions, in Indonesia. It's like the fullness of his identity was just completely, thoroughly attacked. 

I'm often asked: haven't other politicians, like John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton, all been affected by unfounded rumors and conspiracy theories also? And yes, all of them were. But there was not the degree of thoroughness that there is with the Obamas. 

At first glance, many of these examples just seem like especially gross forms of racism. Why is it important for us to understand them as conspiracy theories, urban legends and folklore?

Very few people openly profess to be racist, so the conspiracy theories and mistruths give them what they want to consider "evidence." They don't want to say they hate Barack Obama because he's Black; they want to say they hate Barack Obama because he told the world he was an American, but he's really an African. That somehow enables them to attack him without having to suffer the accusation of racism. 

I spend much too much of my time looking at the comment sections of news stories. One of the things you notice there is how people will defend discussing Barack and Michelle Obama in the most reprehensible terms by saying, "I don't have this hate because they're Black, I have it because of these attributes." But of course, all the attributes are incorrect. 

Other scholars who study conspiracy theories note that they flourish more easily when they tap into people's pre-existing prejudices, stereotypes or fears. To what extent is that the case here?

I absolutely think that's the case. They also flourish more easily in what are perceived as times of upheaval and great change, when people feel like the earth is shifting under their feet. Clearly, for that pre-MAGA crowd, when Barack Obama was elected in 2008, that was a time of significant national upheaval. To the people who put Barack Obama in office, it was a logical outcome of decades of progress on the racial front. But the folks on the right saw that time as confusing and were very, very uncentered by it. 

Do you think that was predestined to happen, with such a large step in U.S. history? Or was it the result of this perfect storm, coinciding with widespread adoption of the internet and social media?

To the people who put Obama in office, it was the logical outcome of decades of racial progress. But folks on the right saw that time as confusing and were very uncentered by it.

There are ways it was fairly predictable. Whenever there is a perceived forward movement for African Americans, there has always been a backlash. The post-Civil War Reconstruction era, where we had Southern African Americans in Congress and business owners having all kinds of success, came to a really abrupt halt with the installation of the Jim Crow era. In World Wars I and II, African Americans were encouraged to sign up for the draft, assured it would prove once and for all that they were deserving of full citizenship, and in both instances, the opposite was true. After all of the legislation and Supreme Court cases of the 1950s, '60s and '70s, we started to hear talk about a "post-racial America," but then we got the anti-affirmative action movements and so forth. 

So history suggests that as African Americans become more distributed throughout American society — educationally, economically, residentially — that distribution is met by some people saying, "It's about time," and by other people as, "Go back to your place." And it was exacerbated by the fact that the first Black president was someone with an idiosyncratic name that could be used to evoke all the hate-mongering of 9/11 and also by the rise of the internet. 

To what extent is it fair to say that this wealth of anti-Obama lore and conspiracy theory helped pave the way for Trump? 

I think that was a very significant factor in Trump's election and what we saw on Jan. 6 and the whole Big Lie. In the book, I talk about the 2008 campaign, when John McCain responds to a member of his audience repeating the "Obama is a Muslim" comment by saying, essentially, "No, he's a good family man." McCain actually felt some backlash for that — they wanted a candidate who was as anti-Obama on those identity issues as they were. Similarly, Mitt Romney wanted to win a fair fight in his election. But when Donald Trump was campaigning and had a moment when an audience member evoked the "Obama is a Muslim" remark, he put the camera on him and just rode that moment for all it was worth. And he got elected! 

Also, although he was running against Hillary Clinton at the time, remember how frequently he bashed Obama. The political pundits would say, "You're not supposed to run against the lame duck. You're supposed to run against your actual opponent." But Trump was running against Obama, because he knew that in order for him to get across the finish line, he needed to bring along the voters who absolutely hated Obama, based on their distribution in terms of the electoral counts. 

Could you talk about the 2014 conspiracy theories related to the Ebola outbreak? Ebola hoaxes — like claims of an outbreak in Atlanta that never happened — were among the first instances of Russian disinformation that became recognized, as people started to understand we were in a dangerous new information landscape. But what you write about here both predates that and goes beyond it.

Well, we had this outbreak of a disease named Ebola during the presidency of someone named Obama, who some people were saying was from Africa himself. It was a lose-lose situation, because Obama was being called upon to deploy American resources to mitigate an outbreak in Africa and many people were saying, "That's Africa's problem, we don't have to worry about that." 

Eventually, he sent financial and human resources to help contain the outbreak, and that really triggered some people. There were all these images [like memes blending Obama's name and campaign logo with "Ebola"] getting emailed around and posted on Facebook. Then we got to the point where there were various versions of [memes] suggesting he actually wanted to perpetuate the Ebola outbreak. 

If I were teaching this, I would use this as another example of something that shows the nuance between rumors and full conspiracy theories. Some were very simple: People saying things like, "I don't know, there's just something up with that Ebola." And then there were the fully-realized conspiracy theories — which I would not be surprised if they came from a Russian bot — that said Obama sent American soldiers to Africa so they would contract Ebola, come back to the United States, spread the disease to their families and neighbors and kill off white Americans, which would enable Obama to realize his ultimate goal: to replace all those dead white Americans with Muslims and Africans. So this is early "replacement theory," although people didn't call it that at the time. 

We had this outbreak of a disease named Ebola during the presidency of someone named Obama, who some people were saying was from Africa himself. It was a lose-lose situation.

There's some evidence that the most salient political issue for many voters in the midterms in 2014 was Ebola. My colleagues in political science were looking at the popular polls and what people were saying about whether Obama should be sending $6 billion to Africa. But I don't think they were looking at the really malicious materials on the most right-wing websites that were getting an awful lot of traffic from people who then went and voted for Republicans in that election. And that election is key to understanding Trump's election. It's also why we weren't able to put Merrick Garland on the Supreme Court. So the Ebola beliefs to me are very consequential and I don't know that people understand how rampant they were. 

You write about how the New Yorker published a cover at one point that tried to satirize anti-Obama narratives, but potentially ended up amplifying them instead. Why is it so hard to squash this sort of lore?

I think the New Yorker had the best of intentions. They thought people would interpret the cover as commentary on what the fringe was saying and how ludicrous it was. There's a term, "Onionized," describing when something is published in the Onion and people circulate it as though it's true. And that's what happened with the New Yorker cover. There were people who looked at that and said, "The New Yorker's telling me that Michelle Obama was a radical. See, I told you." I don't think that the editors saw that coming, but that was a really key moment. And after it happened, it would have been wise for journalists and political advisers to realize that it was really telling.

Another example I write about was when a satirical writer wrote this piece claiming that Obama wanted to replace the national anthem with "I Want to Teach the World to Sing." It was intended to poke fun at the anti-patriotism beliefs that were circulating at the time, but instead it was just added to the inventory of people who said, "Here's what's wrong with Obama. He won't wear a flag pin, he won't salute the flag, he won't sing the 'Star-Spangled Banner' and now he wants to replace it with 'I Want to Teach the World to Sing.'" It's really telling when significant segments of the population don't — or don't want to — recognize satire when it's put in front of them. It means that the mainstream media have to be really conscientious about that. 

Are there more effective ways to take this stuff on? 

There's something I think has potential to help, although I'm not quite sure how it would look. Another thing that exacerbated the dissemination of anti-Obama lore is that people quickly figured out how to make it a revenue stream — from people soliciting contributions to go to Hawaii to uncover "the truth" about the birth certificate to people selling anti-Obama T-shirts to whole anti-Obama websites that generated advertising revenue from gun manufacturers. A lot of people were surprised by how wealthy Alex Jones has become from Infowars, and he was as anti-Obama as any of them. So I think one way of diminishing this is to call that out. 

There's always this notion that the way to diminish the narratives is to provide people with evidence of the truth. But for someone predisposed to thinking that way, there's no amount of evidence that would convince them Barack Obama was born in Hawaii. They just can't wrap their brains around that.

It's really telling when significant segments of the population don't recognize satire when it's put in front of them. The media has to be really conscientious about that.

But maybe the way in is to say, "Let's figure out how much money this website that you donated to pulled in. Did you ever get a report back on what this person found in Hawaii? Whatever happened with that?" Most of us don't want to be taken advantage of financially, no matter where they're coming from. Actually, in terms of education, it wouldn't be the worst idea for us to learn a lot more about how to be good consumers of many things that are sold to us on the internet. If I search for an office chair today, tomorrow my feed is going to be filled with people trying to sell me an office chair. When I search around politics, I'm given back the politics that I search for, along with ads. So one of my potential remedies is to educate people about the ways other people are trying to take advantage of them. 

How much of a threat are these issues right now? 

I really wish I could say we'd hit bottom. But I don't think we have. A lot depends on what we see with the midterms this year and what happens in 2024. It's unknown. 

I was just looking at the coverage of the fact that Barack and Michelle Obama's portraits are finally going up in the White House this Wednesday, after Trump became the first president to refuse to invite back the former president and first lady so that their portraits could be installed. Biden had promised that would be a priority for him and he's making good on it this week. 

But I could write another book about the comments on what should be a nice feel-good story. They're replete with references to "Obama and Mike coming back" — which is the way they refer to Michelle Obama, because they want people to think that they think she was born a man — and how much it will cost the taxpayers for them to return to the White House, when they live in Dupont Circle. The story I found this morning already had 228 comments, and I think I could probably match them to each chapter of my book. There's a lot about the deep state. A lot of metaphors about Barack being a puppet master still advancing his own agenda through Biden. So they're still very much out there. Obama still lives rent-free in the imagination of the far right to this day. 

As to your question about where this all ends, it will end, but I don't have a crystal ball on my desk to tell me when. The moments I'm watching for are the midterm election and then 2024. 

In spite of several decades of being immersed in this material, I'm a glass-half-full kind of person. But people have got to take the sort of stuff I've researched seriously. You need to understand all the things that happened in 2014 that created that midterm election, if you want to avoid that in the future. I'm a real information-is-power person and a very anti-silo person. If you live in your own echo chamber politically, you're unprepared to confront and strategize around what the other side is doing. You've got to read the comments section. 

By Kathryn Joyce

Kathryn Joyce was an investigative reporter at Salon, and the author of two books: "The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption" and "Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement."

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Authors Barack Obama Birtherism Books Conspiracy Theory Interview Patricia Turner Trash Talk