It Doesn't Matter Who Started Birtherism; What Matters Is Who Seized It

Trump and Clinton both have dirty hands.


State of Hawaii

The most meta debate of the campaign season is the dispute about where birtherism was born. Last week Donald Trump claimed that Hillary Clinton "started the birther controversy." The Clinton camp quickly denied the charge. James Asher, Washington bureau chief at McClatchy back in '08, then said that Clinton advisor Sid Blumenthal had shopped the story to him and that he had then subsequently sent a reporter to Kenya to look into it. Blumenthal issued his own denial. Yesterday the McClatchy reporter who went to Africa confirmed that he'd had the assignment but couldn't confirm whether Blumenthal had anything to do with it. So the facts are now hazy enough that people can believe pretty much whatever they're already inclined to believe, which is just as well since that's the natural state of the partisan mind in the last two months of a campaign anyway.

For most of those partisans, the key question here isn't What is true? but Who will win this week's gotcha cycle? Since I don't much care about that, I will get this part of the post out of the way quickly:

1. Whether or not the Clinton campaign played a role in spreading the birther tale, Trump's claim that they "started" the rumor is almost certainly false. The story did get its first big wave of attention when it took hold among some of Hillary's hard-core supporters. But it also circulated early in some of the right's online hangouts. It is unclear where precisely the game of telephone began, though Loren Collins has made a pretty good case that it started with someone misconstruing a hypothetical question in a comment thread at The Volokh Conspiracy, an origin story that appeals to my sense of the absurd.

In any event, the Trump campaign tried to back up its assertion about the yarn's origins by pointing to (a) a March 2007 memo from Clinton campaign advisor Mark Penn, which did not in fact bring up birtherism, and (b) a conversation on Morning Joe, which didn't cite any sources. So if your chief interest here is adding yet another item to the list of facts that Trump and his people have gotten wrong, then congratulations: Your collection is now larger.

2. That said, the real point of dispute here isn't who started birtherism; it's who seized it. Trump definitely did. Clinton's campaign may have done so too, depending on how much stock you put in Asher's story (and in older, less-well-sourced rumors). I'm inclined to believe Asher, because Blumenthal has been spreading smeary stories on the Clintons' behalf since the '90s and because he's had a weakness for conspiracy theories since the '70s, if not earlier. But that's just an educated guess. Trump's hands are definitely dirty; with Clinton it's an open question.

Or at least it's an open question if it's birtherism itself that you're asking about. But is that really the underlying issue here?

Just as the birther rumor served as a stand-in for a bunch of anxieties about alien influence, the debate about that rumor is ultimately about the ways political figures cynically manipulate those anxieties. Human civilization sits atop a vast, roiling reservoir of fear. Politicians of all stripes tap into that resource, and Trump and Clinton both went drilling in the same spot.

New Yorker

Look back at that Mark Penn memo. Like I said, it doesn't mention birtherism. What it does do is lay out a plan to exploit the exact anxieties that fed the birther story. Highlighting Obama's "lack of American roots," Penn encouraged Clinton to "give some life to this contrast without turning negative." How?

Every speech should contain the line you were born in the middle of America to the middle class in the middle of the last century. And talk about the basic bargain as about the deeply American values you grew up with, learned as a child and that drive you today. Values of fairness, compassion, responsibility, giving back.

Let's explicitly own "American" in our programs, the speeches and the values. He doesn't. Make this a new American Century, the American Strategic Energy Fund. Let's use our logo to make some flags we can give out. Let's add flag symbols to the backgrounds.

As Clinton adopted Penn's middle-middle-middle line, Blumenthal decided to drop the without turning negative part of the plan. (Whether or not he relayed the birther story, he undeniably spread many other anti-Obama tales, not all of them credible.)

In a way, this Penn/Blumenthal mash-up was worse than birtherism. After all, the birther theory wasn't just a product of xenophobia; there were several other elements to its appeal. Some people were searching for a magic bullet that would end Obama's career without the pain of political persuasion; if he could be shown to be ineligible for the presidency, that would certainly do the trick. Some people wanted a way to maintain their respect for the Oval Office while hating the man who occupied it; if he wasn't "really" president, that task would be easier. Some people, of course, just happened to misjudge the weight of the evidence and figured the birthers had a better case. Birtherism had a bigoted core, but not every birther was a bigot.

Penn's memo, by contrast, actively aimed to turn the fear of the Other into a political weapon. By the end of the primaries, as the die-hard Clinton activists were in meltdown mode, the payoff was moments like this:

The people who stirred that up may not have dirtied their hands with birtherism. But that doesn't mean their hands are clean.

Somewhere out there, a pro-Clinton reader is preparing to accuse me of "false equivalence." So let me say this firmly, clearly, and probably fruitlessly: The least interesting question about this is whether it's "equivalent" to what Trump has done. There are plenty of obvious differences between Clinton's and Trump's behavior, starting with the fact that Trump, as is often the case, has been willing to say things explicitly and from his own mouth that other pols prefer to keep in subtext and in whispers. You can weigh such distinctions any way you like when deciding whether and how to cast your ballot. That is your business. This post is not about how you should vote.

But look: Donald Trump isn't some alien intruder any more than Barack Obama is. People call him a carnival barker, but he's more of a carnival mirror—a grotesque and exaggerated reflection of the forces that face him. That mirror might be shattered in November, but only a fool thinks that breaking a mirror will mean you've broken the scene the mirror was reflecting.