The Sciences

Has Birtherism Evolved?

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyApr 2, 2011 3:14 PM

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Donald Trump isn't stupid. And Donald Trump is a birther--at least of the "I have doubts" variety. Writes David Wiegel at Slate:

Trump—whose campaign may qualify as a massive, "I'm Still Here" publicity stunt—is responsible for the sudden acceptability of the question. On The View, he reminded viewers that he went to "the best schools," so he knew that documents are forged all the time, and he didn't trust what he'd heard about Obama. Even after Tuesday, when he finally released a scan of his 1946 birth certificate to ABC News, that claim hung in the air. It echoed what some birthers still say; it gave them wider uncritical media exposure than they'd gotten since Lou Dobbs left CNN. One reason Trump has been able to do this is that two schools of birtherism have developed since 2008, and one of them has become a surprisingly comfortable place for conservatives to lounge. There have always been Orthodox Birthers. They start with the belief that Obama cannot be eligible for the presidency. They trust evidence they find online—an erroneous report about "Obama's grandmother" saying he was born in Kenya, for example—which stays online forever, just like amateur diagnostic reports of how crashing planes couldn't possibly have brought down the Twin Towers. If that evidence is challenged, they look to theories about what the founders thought "natural born citizenship" meant. Phil Berg, the attorney who filed the first birther lawsuits and who held a "March on Washington" in 2010, says Obama lost his citizenship because a school form from Indonesia calls him Indonesian. Another theory says Obama can't be president because his father was Kenyan and that made his son a British citizen by default. (This theory would disqualify Trump, whose mother was Scottish.) What Trump is embracing, and Corsi is selling, is Reform Birtherism. It's deductive. "There's something on that birth certificate that he doesn't like," said Trump last week. "I don't know what is on the document," said Corsi in 2009. The truth is unknowable, because Obama is hiding something about his birth documents.

I think it may be too rational to judge the two forms of birtherism as truly distinct. At bottom, both "start with a belief" and then come up with arguments to make the belief sound most plausible. From the outside, a new set of arguments may look like goalpost shifting--but to birthers, it will seem like nothing of the kind. Those new arguments will just further reinforce their preconceptions. If anything, what I suspect is happening here is that smarter birthers like Trump--those more conversant with the respectable boundaries of mainstream political discourse--will tend to make more sophisticated arguments, and make them more convincingly. With birtherism--as is often the case--the more sophisticated arguments tend to be doubt mongering arguments. But it's still a belief system, just one with smoother, slicker advocates--not unlike the transition from young-Earth creationism to intelligent design.

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