What's Behind the Birther Nonsense?

Why conspiracy theories refuse to die


The release of President Barack Obama's birth certificate should put the issue of his natural-born citizenship to rest for good. But of course it won't. To true believers in a conspiracy theory, evidence disproving the conspiracy only proves how vast the conspiracy really is. And sure enough, it took all of two nanoseconds Wednesday morning before birthers began questioning the legitimacy of the long-form certificate. "The signatures on the bottom have white around them like they were erased," noted one of many doubters on the Free Republic website.

According to a USA Today poll released earlier this week, only 38 percent of Americans feel certain that Obama was born in the United States. Given that Obama won 53 percent of the popular vote in 2008, this means some people might have doubted whether he was eligible for the office but voted for him anyway.

Among their number, no doubt, are all those Hawaiian officials who are covering up the vast, decades-long conspiracy—a conspiracy so far-sighted that it planted fake birth announcements in the newspapers half a century ago. Because, you know, even three years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 required hotels and restaurants to serve black people, the conspirators knew America one day would elect a black president, and they were going to make darn sure it was that Obama kid from Kenya. Sounds completely plausible!

Democratic activists and major media outlets—pardon the redundancy—profess to be horrified by the persistence of questions about Obama's nationality, and they are entirely sincere about that. Party activists are always terribly saddened by anything that makes the other side look bad. This is why members of the press are reluctant to ask Republican candidates about Obama's citizenship more than five or six times per interview. You don't want to keep rumors going through pointless repetition.

To be sure, Republicans have not shown much reluctance about keeping the issue alive themselves. Some of the more responsible voices in the party have said Obama claims to be a citizen of the United States, and far be it from them to doubt word of a man who has broken so many campaign promises. Others, such as Michelle Bachman, maintain a studious agnosticism. Then there is Donald Trump, who promised—any day now!—to reveal the stunning new information that certain unnamed sources have assured him raises very serious doubts about whether Hawaii is really a state. Or something like that.

You do have to wonder why Republican activists refused to let the issue drop. Have they thought this through? Suppose, through some astounding turn of events, that someone does manage to prove Obama was not born in the United States. Suppose further that Obama, who has been in on a conspiracy to defraud the entire nation since he was a wee lad, suddenly and inexplicably decides not to keep it up by contesting the evidence. Then what? Presumably, he leaves office. And then? President Biden takes over. 'Twas a famous victory.

Those Republicans who seriously have suspected that Obama was born abroad might not have played the movie through to the final credits like that. Or if they have, perhaps they thought the revelation would do as much permanent damage to the Democratic Party as the Watergate scandal did to the Republicans. After Richard Nixon resigned in 1974, the GOP was unable to elect a Republican to the White House for a full six years.

The birthers probably don't hold any concrete expectations about where the unmasking of the conspiracy might lead. They're not really interested in the validity of claims about citizenship. After all, Republicans didn't object to the nomination of John McCain, even though he was born in the Panama Canal Zone. Many still would vote for Barry Goldwater, given the chance—even though he was born in Phoenix in 1909, three years before Arizona became a state.

No, the obsession about Obama's birth certificate is more a way to deny him legitimacy. In that, it resembles the two biggest conspiracy theories about George W. Bush. The first was that Bush was not duly elected; rather, he was "selected" by five or seven justices of the Supreme Court in 2000. (Google "Bush stole 2000 election" for some entertaining reading on that score.) And shortly after the 2004 election, Gallup found that three in 10 Democrats believed Bush stole that election as well.

The second conspiracy held that "9/11 was an inside job," as the bumper stickers said. Writing in Politico recently, Ben Smith reported 22.6 percent of Democrats said it was "very likely" that "people in the federal government either assisted in the 9/11 attacks or took no action to stop the attacks because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East," while another 28 percent of Democrats said it was "somewhat likely."

Before the Bush ("Regime change begins at home!") administration was the Clinton administration—itself the subject of a variety of conspiracy theories involving Oliver North, drug cartels, and the "murder" of Vince Foster. Not to mention an impeachment trial ostensibly about lying under oath that really was more about the fact that Republicans hated Clinton with a passion hotter than the hinges of hell.

No doubt the conspiracy theorists in each of these instances sincerely believe they're very interested in getting to the bottom of things, while the conspiracy theorists on the other side are just plain nuts. Two decades' worth of paranoid fantasizing, however, suggests that the real cause of the theories is not some actual diabolical conspiracy but the fact that some people did not get their way in the last election, and simply refuse to accept it.

A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. This article originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.