Fear of a Foreign President
Making sense of the birther conspiracy theorists
If you're obsessed with the president's birth certificate, the political class is now obsessed with you. Over the course of July, the media have devoted ever more attention to birthers, that unruly faction obsessed with the idea that Barack Obama and his allies are covering up the true circumstances of his birth. The exact details vary from theorist to theorist, but the usual payoff is that Obama was born in Kenya, not Hawaii, and therefore is ineligible for the presidency.
Once a subterranean enthusiasm, birther talk is bubbling up on TV and in Congress. Several significant media figures, including Lou Dobbs of CNN and Glenn Beck of Fox News, have given birtherism a sympathetic hearing, and 10 House Republicans co-sponsored a birther-backed bill this month that would require prospective presidential candidates to release their birth certificates before running. The reaction to all this activity has been a mix of glee from Democrats, dread from mainstream Republicans, and occasional spasms of fear-mongering, as when Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center told NPR that such conspiracy theories might presage another Oklahoma City bombing.
Everyone should just calm down. The birthers are silly and wrong, but they aren't uncharted territory. At any given time, the base of a political party—often, but not always, the opposition party—is apt to grab hold of a conspiracy theory that's considered déclassé in Washington. Sometimes the idea has at least a grain of truth; other times it's simply ridiculous. Either way, if the notion becomes popular enough with grassroots activists, some of the Beltway's rougher-edged pundits and politicians will start bringing it up. The other party will ridicule them, and their more uptown co-partisans will wince.
This is normal political behavior. It does not signal the implosion of the Republican Party, and it will not "erase what remains of the GOP's credibility with the electorate." At worst it will make some specific Republicans look like jackasses, which may or may not hurt their political prospects down the road. The electorate is down on the GOP because it associates the party with a recession, a series of scandals, and an unpopular war, not because a few congressmen are playing footsy with a fringe theory.
But if birtherism doesn't say much about the future of the Republicans or the general state of American politics, it still might yield some insights into the minds of the believers themselves. On the surface, Obama's place of birth is a pretty bizarre fixation. Birtherism is frequently lumped together with trutherism, the dubious belief that George W. Bush either had advance warning of 9/11 or actively planned the attacks. But say what you will about the truthers' standards of proof, at least the intensity of their anger makes sense. If a new piece of evidence emerged that suddenly, conclusively proved the truthers right, the most loyal Bush Republicans would start howling for the heads of the conspirators. If a new piece of evidence emerged that suddenly, conclusively proved the birthers right, the most loyal Obama Democrats would just shrug. Speaking as an Obama critic: Even if I believed the birthers were onto something, the possibility that the president is covering up his origins would rank approximately 435th on my list of complaints about his administration, just ahead of his reported fondness for Michael Bay movies.
So what's the appeal? I see at least three deeper motives running beneath the birther milieu, each inflaming different (though sometimes overlapping) segments of the movement.
Wishing for a magic bullet. This is the most obvious explanation: the search for that bolt of lightning that will end Obama's career without the pain of political persuasion. The birth-certificate obsession started to take off during the Democratic primaries last year, when Hillary Clinton's hard-core supporters started looking for a magic bullet that would remove her chief rival for the nomination. After Clinton left the race, the theory continued to attract new believers—but suddenly they all hailed from the right, because that's where Obama's new foes were to be found. First came the political need, then came the belief. If you went to a birther convention today, one pair of sentences you would almost certainly not hear is: "I strongly support Obama's ideas about global warming, health care reform, and transforming the automobile industry. It's just too bad he's ineligible to be president."
It's a bit like an old Doonesbury strip. Two congressmen are commiserating over their trouble getting across the idea that Richard Nixon committed impeachable offenses. "If only he'd knock over a bank or something," one of them finally sighs. "By George, we'd have him then!" the other replies excitedly.
Fear of foreign influence. For many birthers, Obama's origins are bound up with a general suspicion of the foreign. It's no surprise that the highest-profile media figure to give the birthers a friendly venue is Lou Dobbs, the fiercely protectionist and anti-immigrant TV and radio host. Discussing Obama's birth certificate last week, Dobbs declared that he was "starting to think we have a, we have a document issue. You suppose he's un— no, I won't even use the word undocumented. It wouldn't be right."
It was a joke: a pun on the word "document." I assume Dobbs doesn't believe Obama is actually an illegal alien. But jokes have meanings, and Dobbs—perhaps intuitively, perhaps by design—was bringing an implicit link into the open: the connection between the fear of foreign settlers and the fear of a foreign president.
Where Dobbs will only joke and wink, others will speak in earnest. Later that week, on the TV show Hardball, G. Gordon Liddy—one Watergate figure who probably would have knocked over a bank if the president requested it—was asked what Obama would be if he were born abroad and never naturalized. "An illegal alien," Liddy replied.
There's already plenty in the president's biography to make nativists anxious. He spent a chunk of his childhood in Indonesia. His father came from Kenya. When young Obama did live in the U.S., it was in Hawaii, the one American state that isn't actually a part of the Americas. If you don't conceive of the United States as a multicultural nation, the president's life is reason enough to consider the man metaphorically foreign. And if there's one thing conspiracy theories are good at, it's transmuting the metaphorical into the real.
Excessive reverence. In a perverse way, birtherism is the flip side of the Obama cult: It's a way to keep your respect for the Oval Office intact while hating the man who occupies it. In his 2008 book The Cult of the Presidency, Gene Healy noted that while trust in our presidents has declined since Watergate, "the inflated expectations people have for the office—what they want from a president—remain as high as ever….From popular culture to the academy to the voting booth, we curse the king, all the while pining for Camelot."
What happens when someone who reveres the presidency despises the president? In the past you might, say, denounce Bill Clinton as a "stain" on the institution, thus mentally separating office from officeholder. But if you could challenge the president's legitimacy entirely, that's all the more satisfying. The throne is still the throne; it's just that the man sitting in it is a pretender.
I can't claim credit for that metaphor. Surf through the birther hangouts online and you'll see a lot of semi-royalist rhetoric on display. One writer declares that "when Barack Obama officially entered the office of President, he became, in essence, a 'pretender to the throne.'" Another calls him "our present Pretender to the Presidency." An "open letter" suggests that the man might be a "usurper." Yet another writer, mixing monarchist and nativist rhetoric, jumps from describing Obama as "the quasi-Muslim, marginal American in the White House" to calling him—yes—"almost certainly a Pretender to the Throne."
Of course these people aren't actual royalists. But their reflexive rhetoric reflects one of the worst things about the birthers—and one way they do resemble many far more respectable Republicans. Some of us object when Washington tries to take control of car companies and banks because we don't like to see so much power concentrated in one place. Others are more interested in the identity of the man in power. The problem with Barack Obama isn't that he's not qualified to be president. It's that no president is qualified to do the things Barack Obama wants to do.
Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason magazine.