By Jefferson Flanders
The tone and tactics of the Birther movement—those who dispute Barack Obama’s American citizenship and consequently, his legitimacy as America’s 44th president—are eerily familiar. Birthers embody that mixture of “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” that historian Richard Hofstadter indelibly called the “Paranoid Style in American Politics.”
But before the liberal-left chortles too loudly about the GOP being in thrall to this ragtag group of right-wingers, it would do well to remember its own problems with conspiracy theorists. Truthers and Buffs are the liberal-left’s own variations on Birthers. Truthers, of course, claim that Bush administration neo-conservatives engineered the 9/11 attacks in 2001, while Buffs have long asserted US government complicity in the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy. As Hofstadter rightly noted in this 1964 essay, “[M]ovements of suspicious discontent” are common to both ends of the political spectrum.
Birthers began the Obama citizenship controversy in 2008 with a series of lawsuits challenging the Illinois senator’s eligibility to run for president, arguing that Obama had not proved he was a natural-born citizen as required by Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution. Both FactCheck.org and the Chicago Tribune quickly debunked the claim that Obama had been born in Kenya after reviewing Obama’s Hawaii certification of live birth; subsequently, the court challenges were dismissed by properly skeptical judges.
Yet the Birthers refused to admit defeat. Indeed, like Truthers and Buffs before them, and in keeping with Hofstadter’s description of the Paranoid Style’s methodology, the curt dismissal of their claim mainly served to generate new theories. Now they argued that Obama’s release of the short-form certification of live birth was a ruse and a way of hiding his foreign origin. The long-form “vault birth certificate,” a document which includes the attending doctor’s name and hospital, and from which health officials prepare the shorter form, supposedly contained the real truth.
When Rush Limbaugh and CNN’s Lou Dobbs offered a national platform for these percolating allegations, the controversy achieved critical mass and became part of the daily news agenda. Left-leaning websites like Daily Kos and the Huffington Post mocked conservative Republicans who were slow to disavow Birthers because they feared alienating core supporters. Other liberal commentators chimed in by observing that Republicans’ receptivity to Birthers’ claims was proof that racist and nativist fears had captured the GOP. Seeking to accentuate the Republicans’ discomfort, Congressional Democrats gleefully proposed a resolution proclaiming Hawaii as President Obama’s birthplace, and it passed unanimously on July 27. A Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll released a few days later showed that only 42 percent of Republicans believed Obama had been born in the United States.
Curiously, all this occurred even while many high-profile conservative pundits, like Michelle Malkin, Ann Coulter, Michael Medved, and Bill O’Reilly, who usually set the table for the right-wing, were branding Birther claims as ludicrous, and an unwelcome distraction from the debate over Obama’s health care initiative. Some conservatives blamed Democrats, aided and abetted by a ratings-hungry media, for stoking the controversy. James Kirchick of the New York Daily News argued that the impetus for coverage of the Birthers came from liberals “. . . bent on portraying their conservative opponents as extremists—and changing the subject to help a president under increasing scrutiny for the substance of his policies . . . ”
Certainly, the extent of mainstream media coverage of the Birther movement in July was surprising, considering how little credibility its leading proponents have. Lawyer and dentist Orly Taitz, author Jerome Corsi, lawyer Philip J. Berg, and perennial candidate Alan Keyes are notorious for advancing Paranoid Style-conspiracy theories. Berg, a former deputy attorney general of Pennsylvania, had filed an Obama eligibility lawsuit (dismissed) and a RICO lawsuit (dismissed) against President George W. Bush alleging his complicity in the 9/11 attacks. Corsi has embraced the 9/11 and the JFK assassination conspiracy theories and was co-author of the anti-John Kerry book Unfit for Command, one of the opening salvos in what became known as the Swiftboating of the Massachusetts senator. In April, Keyes publicly warned that the Obama administration would stage terror attacks in order to declare martial law and establish a police state.
Indeed, while de-legitimizing Obama greatly appeals to the far right, several prominent Birthers have only a tenuous connection with the Republican Party: Corsi is a member of the Constitution Party; Keyes ran for President on the America’s Independent Party ticket; and Berg, a Democrat, supported Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy in 2008.