The Birtherization of the American Right

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In a month and a half or so Donald Trump will let a whole lot of people down. It’s nothing he hasn’t done before, so it won’t bother him a bit, but the folks on the other end of the deal will be feeling it for the first time. All of a sudden, Trump will be walking away richer and more famous, and whistling a happy tune, while millions of his supporters will feel cheated, conned, and used.

They are not going to be happy. They are going to wonder what happened. The answer comes in one word: “birtherism.”

The catastrophe for the right began when Trump championed the “birther” movement back in 2011, probably just for publicity. Trump argued that the first black President of the United States might have no right to hold his office. But what seemed like an amateurish stunt by a reality TV star became a virus that has ravaged the Republican Party and the right as a whole.

Three years earlier, John McCain had unequivocally slapped down claims that then-Senator Obama wasn’t a citizen. He told voters, right to their faces at public forums that Obama was a decent family man, and a citizen, that he (McCain) just happened to disagree with on issues. Politicians hate to correct or contradict a voter, and doubly so when the voter is attacking their opponent. But when John McCain led the Republican Party, he had the courage, the respect for facts, and the common decency to emphatically reject a lie when he heard one.

Trump changed all that. Trump embraced the lie that the President was not an American and began to feed it. He used his personal fame to put a veneer of credibility and respectability on the lie, and to get people talking about it (and him). The Republican Party had a choice to make – they could stand up to it, as McCain had, or run with it. They chose wrong.

Mitt Romney, who I should say has come to regret it, embraced Trump during his 2012 campaign. His Party was no longer experimenting with the big lie, they were mainlining it. Anything that might give them an edge to beat Obama must have seemed worth it. But Romney lost anyway, and the virus spread.

After 2012, the Republican Party “autopsy” pinpointed the Party’s reputation with non-whites, especially Hispanics, as the problem. It said “[i]f Hispanic Americans hear that the GOP doesn’t want them in the United States, they won’t pay attention to our next sentence.” It called for outreach to the rising minority population.

Trump went what you might call . . . a different way.

He kicked off his campaign calling Mexicans rapists. He said he would deport eleven million people. He attacked an American judge for having Hispanic ancestry. He gave his platform to white supremacists. He insulted black and Jewish Americans. But it was right in the middle of the GOP primary that he really gave his game away for good.

Before winning the nomination, Trump used his signature birtherism tactic on his Republican opponents – questioning their right to even run for President. Who were his targets? Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.  Not Bush and Kasich. Rubio and Cruz.

Those two have almost nothing in common with Obama (they’d be the first to tell you), except for one very glaring thing: they aren’t white. Trump took a look at the black President and his two Hispanic rivals and said: “hey, these guys don’t belong here. Let’s take ‘our’ country back.” And the hard right ate it up, and made Trump the nominee.

Credit Trump with this much: he knew he’d find a willing audience for calling his non-white opponents suspect or second-class at best, and illegal aliens or rapists at worst. The Republican Party needed an immune system to fight the disease, but it had sold it back in 2012. The other candidates, the Party hierarchy, and some conservative media all realized too late that they had nothing left with which they could fight off a frank racist who was discrediting their Party with millions of people who might otherwise have become its voters.

CS Lewis wrote about the methods by which devils steal men’s souls in The Screwtape Letters. One the techniques he described as being taught in Hell was this: “induce [a man] to enthrone at the center of his life a good, solid, resounding lie.” Trump did this perfectly. Even today, polls show that 41% of Republicans do not believe the President of the United States is an American. Once Trump had them believing that, he could get them to believe a lot of things (and he did).

Trump insists he opposed the Iraq war at the time and made that a centerpiece of his campaign. But it’s not true. He stated in 2002 he was in favor of the Iraq war; he didn’t criticize it until after it started. By the way, Trump also says Obama pulled out of Iraq too fast and too soon, but he also said, in 2006, that we should have pulled out faster and sooner.

Trump claimed he was against the war in Libya and that Clinton made a terrible mistake in bombing Libya. But Trump supported going in and removing Gaddafi at the time. Trump claimed that during his intelligence briefings, the briefers criticized the President. Real intelligence professionals have come forward to say no such thing would ever happen at such a briefing.

But perhaps his biggest lie of all (or so far anyway), came Friday, when, against a mountain of evidence to the contrary, Trump said that Hillary Clinton started the birther movement. In purporting to abandon birtherism, Trump decided to say it was someone else’s idea all along. Doubtless some people will actually swallow even that whopper. Maybe next he will accuse Clinton of failing in the Atlantic City casino business, or repeatedly declaring bankruptcy.

Trump’s campaign has discredited the American right. Their one-time future: Paul Ryan, Rubio, Tom Cotton, Joni Ernst, and the rest, tried to give the Presidency of this country to an unqualified, racist demagogue who lied over and over and over again to the American people. That is going to be remembered, not only by the millions who will go to the polls and defeat Trump in November, but by the millions of people Trump will let down – the people who will, like Trump’s many business partners, be left wondering what happened to them while he walks away with their souls, whistling.

 


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