Birtherism Reborn

Birtherism Reborn

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By Jeff Cahlon

“I don’t care.” This was Donald Trump’s response when, during a radio interview, conservative radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt, a Trump supporter, pointed out that, contrary to Trump’s claim that President Obama is the “founder of ISIS”, Obama actually hates, and kills members of, ISIS.

I don’t care. Even for a surreal presidential campaign that has lost its ability to shock, it was an astonishing statement. Trump didn’t attempt to dispute Hewitt’s statement or defend the veracity of his own. Instead, the Republican nominee for president brazenly acknowledged, quite literally and unabashedly, that he just doesn’t care that what he says is the polar opposite of the truth. And he can’t be bothered to pretend otherwise.

In fact, Trump’s admission to Hewitt that he doesn’t care about the truth of what of he says was not the first time he has used this exact phrase to express his contemptuous indifference to reality. In an interview with 60 minutes, when Lesley Stahl pointed out that Trump’s running mate cast the same vote in favour of the Iraq war for which Trump has attacked Hillary Clinton, Trump’s response was the same: “I don’t care”.

Of course, Trump’s willingness to acknowledge his indifference to truth also reflects his contempt for his own supporters. In fact, Trump has been remarkably candid about this contempt. “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose voters,” Trump boasted during the Republican primary. “I love the poorly educated”, he said on another occasion.

And well he should, as “poorly educated” voters are his most loyal supporters. That he offers them nothing but a vessel for their raw, venomous hatred of “Crooked Hillary” and what she represents is beside the point. (A “lock her up”-chanting mob isn’t overly concerned with the finer points of, say, healthcare policy). They don’t care, either.

Because Trump just doesn’t care about the truth, and because lying often serves his purposes, Trump lies. A lot. Fact-checking website Politifact has rated 19% of Trump’s statements as “pants on fire”, 35% as “false”, and 17% as “mostly false”. (By comparison, the corresponding numbers for Hillary Clinton, are 2%, 11%, and 15%, respectively).

On occasion, it occurs to Trump that what appeals to his most rabid foaming-at-the-mouth supporters may sound just a little, well, insane, to everyone else. So, for example, after insisting to Hewitt that he was deadly serious about Obama being the founder of ISIS, and an uproar ensued, Trump later claimed he was merely being “sarcastic” (though, he added, “not that sarcastic”).

As for any other considerations, like, say, truth, facts, logic, reality, and reason, Trump’s response is a shrug of the shoulders: I don’t care.

Fittingly, then, Trump was the chief promoter of birtherism, the lie that President Obama was not born in the United States, and thus his presidency may be “the greatest scam in the history of our country”, as Trump put it. Trump’s espousal of birtherism began in 2011 and continued as he flirted with a 2012 presidential run. Trump ultimately declined to pursue a 2012 presidential run, but this flirtation served as a dry run of sorts for his 2016 campaign, demonstrating his ability and willingness to use any means—including a complete indifference to truthfulness–to appeal to the ugly heart of the Republican base.
By the time Trump entered the 2016 campaign, birtherism had lost much of its potency as an appeal to the Republican base—as much as the Republican base still reviles Obama, he will soon be leaving the Oval Office regardless, and the primary target of Republican loathing has become Hillary Clinton. Recognising this new reality, Trump, during his current presidential run, has responded to questions about his espousal of birtherism by saying only: “I don’t talk about that anymore”.

That changed last Friday when Trump said: “Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it … President Barack Obama was born in the United States. Period.”

Trump’s attempt to distance himself from birtherism is part of the “new Trump”, designed to appeal to the swing voters who will decide the general election. To be sure, Trump continues to spew nonsense, ignorance, stupidity and lies on a daily basis—it’s all he knows how to do, really, and it works for him. But with Trump’s campaign under new management, he’s pulled at least even in most national and swing-state polls by keeping a lid on his most inflammatory statements (like claiming Obama is the founder of ISIS).

Viewed in this context, birtherism—or more accurately, Trump’s history of promoting it—is an inconvenient reminder of the odious, despicable nature of the man who spent years promoting it, until it no longer served his purposes. Even as Trump has surged in the polls, most Americans still have a negative opinion of him and believe he’s unfit to be president. The revival of birtherism can only hurt Trump’s chances, because the more the election becomes a referendum on the character of Donald Trump — the man who freely admits he doesn’t care about truth, who lies as naturally as he breathes, whose political rise can be traced to an ugly, malicious lie–the greater the likelihood that he will lose.

Though he hoped to put birtherism behind him with his short statement last Friday, Trump won’t be able to escape his past espousal of birtherism so easily. The media, sensing its complicity in the impending catastrophe of a President Trump, continues to press him for an explanation of why he promoted birtherism for so long, while Hillary and others demand an apology. Of course, Trump can no more apologise for his espousal of birtherism than he can apologise for the very existence itself of his campaign.

Instead, and fittingly, Trump has attempted to distance himself from the lie of birtherism by adopting new lies — that Hillary started the birther controversy, and that he put an end to it. Lying is what Trump does, and who he is. When one lie no longer serves his purposes, he simply swaps another one for it. That’s why, as vile as it was, birtherism isn’t even Trump’s biggest lie. That distinction belongs to his recent description of himself as a “truth-teller”.

Then again, he was probably just being sarcastic.

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