Adam Serwer on birtherism:
Birtherism was a statement of values, a way to express allegiance to a particular notion of American identity, one that became the central theme of the Trump campaign itself: To Make America Great Again, to turn back the clock to an era where white political and cultural hegemony was unthreatened by black people, by immigrants, by people of a different faith. By people like Barack Obama. The calls to disavow birtherism missed the point: Trump’s entire campaign was birtherism.
Trump won the Republican primary, and united the party, in part because his run was focused on the psychic wound of the first black presidency. He had, after all, humiliated and humbled Obama. None of the other Republican candidates could make such a claim. None could say, as Trump could, that they had put the first black president in his place. And so none could offer an answer to the anguish that produced birtherism. That very same anguish helped Trump win the presidency.
You could call birtherism a conspiracy theory, sure. But in 2020, looking at the Trump administration’s efforts to diminish the power of minority voters, imprison child migrants, ban Muslim travelers from entering the country, and criminalize his political opposition, it could be more accurately described as the governing ideology of the United States.
One unfortunate side effect of Hillary Clinton getting 48% of the popular vote for president while Donald Trump got 46% is that it has allowed many people to avoid grappling with the fact that America did, in fact, elect Donald Trump president. This is the man that our system selected, because this is the man our system considered the most appropriate representative of that system. And Serwer is right: He is an appropriate representative, because Donald Trump represents the dominant historical vision of America in the eyes of its dominant social group: White people.
As Zack Beauchamp points out, the new fake pseudo-scandal about Obama, creatively dubbed “Obamagate” by our wordsmith president, is just another example of the same thing:
Birtherism was the idea that Obama was not entitled to this legitimacy in a very literal sense. Because foreign-born individuals are not legally eligible for the presidency, it claimed, Obama’s victory was unlawful: The people were duped by a fake American. It gives reason for people afflicted by generalized racial panic to justify their belief that Obama did not deserve to be in the Oval Office — and thus, did not deserve the respect or authority they’ve conferred on his white predecessors.
Obamagate operates in essentially the same fashion. It argues that Obama was not a legitimate leader because he broke the law (somehow). He masterminded a conspiracy to undermine Trump, who is the people’s “authentic” representative, and illegally coordinated the “deep state” in its counterattack on the duly elected president.
The racial politics are, similarly, just barely below the surface. In labeling Obama “foreign,” Trump positioned a black president as alien to the rightful and correct order of things in the United States. In labeling Obama “criminal,” he’s drawing on centuries of stereotyping of black people as criminals who need to be reined in by white authority figures.
Obamagate, like birtherism, directly embodies the grievances many whites have with recent challenges to white dominance. It signals to them that Trump could not stand the fact of this man’s presence in the office: the political equivalent of describing Obama as a “thug.”
Conspiracy theories are by their nature impossible to disprove. After Obama released his “longform” birth certificate from Hawaii, Trump repeatedly insisted that it was forged. The absence of evidence for the claim that Obama persecuted Flynn — a man who, to be clear, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI — is no obstacle to Trump pursuing it.
This allows the crusade to go on as long as it’s useful. Whenever Trump needs to rally the political faithful, to gin up his most hardcore supporters, he can dial up the racism dial to 11 by seizing on some anti-Obama conspiracy theory. Just by making these wild allegations, Trump force serious coverage of them by credulous reporters — allegedly balanced reporting that just aims to teach the controversy, as it were.
For an illustration of the latter truth, this is how NBC News is covering Trump’s wild lies about Obama and Michael Flynn:
There’s “no hard evidence,” but I bet there are still “troubling questions” of some sort or another!
The establishment media can’t describe Donald Trump accurately because that would require describing America accurately. And that would require acknowledging that this country is ruled by conspiracy-addled white supremacists, because its dominant social group consists of conspiracy-addled white supremacists.
Donald Trump is not a freak historical event: He is merely the latest iteration of what this country has always been about.