It is clear that Barack Obama’s strategic cunning in response to birther lunacy ranks among his most impressive political achievements. In facilitating this tour de force, Donald Trump handed Obama a much-needed first gift for the latter’s 2012 campaign.
Imagine it’s early 2009 and you’re the newly elected President Obama. A gaggle of sorry loudmouths are spreading intricate fictions about your parents and your country of origin. The loudmouths are fringy and creepy, as are the conspiracy theorists spawned by every presidency, and you’d be a fool to get into the mud with them. You determine rightly that entertaining that kind of thing is beneath your personal dignity and the dignity of the office.
Only, as time goes on, you notice something remarkable. The media is eager to take those loudmouths and present them as the representatives of all opposition to you and your policies. Without lifting a finger to respond to the lunacy, you enjoy a readymade security shield that takes the sting out of every legitimate charge against you and renders it the sad, baseless delusion of a massive unhinged right wing. (Recently, Leslie Gelb wrote that conservatives critical of Obama’s Libya policy are mere “foreign policy birthers.”) Your predecessor wasn’t provided this kind of service and his conspiracy theorists made millions on hit movies, best-selling books, and top-rated television shows.
Where once it was beneath your dignity to respond, it would now also compromise this stellar defense. More time goes on and birtherism takes over the news. There are provocative polls and late-night comedy monologues. There evolves a superstructure of conspiracy, including “reasonable” birthers who believe you were born in the U.S. but are hiding some detail of the document that proves it. There’s a conflation of birthers with Tea Partiers, your most formidable foes. It all seems too good to be true. Yet it’s happening. During your campaign you tried to get something like this going. You said Americans would fear your funny name and non-Founder appearance, but you were swiftly criticized—because, actually, it wasn’t true. But now, a few conspiracy theorists and a handful of media megaphones are doing it all for you. This leaves you free up to do big things. You’re remaking domestic and foreign policy at a rate this country has never seen while the birther narrative swallows up objections. You’re on a policy tear: an auto-industry takeover, a stimulus, health-care reform, financial reform, a shuffling of the international deck. Meanwhile, day and night, in print and on television, your supporters parade maniacs before America and call them the true face of your opposition.
What’s the one thing that could bring the free ride to an end? The birth certificate. Show that, kill the hysteria, and the opposition is seen as principled, sober, thoughtful. Better to sit back and play with the phenomenon. Let it grow and see where it heads. Use it as long as it serves you. Right now it’s a steady crutch, but in time it could be a secret weapon, your ace in the hole. If the question of your birth ever becomes as big as the media has been claiming, pull out the certificate, prove the whole crazy right wrong, and win all over again. You can use the force of birtherism against itself at every turn. It will eat its own until you decide you’ll come off best by exposing the whole thing.
Halfway into your first term, your approval ratings find a new cellar. You’re blindsided by a new foreign war you’re losing without actually fighting. You outline your budget vision and the next day Standard and Poor’s puts the U.S. on notice.
Enter Donald Trump. He thrives in a pop-culture paradigm where idiocy and genius are not opposite values but the twin assets of an electrifying brand. He may be running for leader of the free world, he may be promoting the most vulgar entertainment franchise in history. Who knows? But it’s all addictive national amusement. Trump is a billionaire success story who’s backing the fringy paranoids. He embraces birtherism and runs with it. In PT Barnum’s day, the showman fleeced the sucker; in the age of Donald Trump, Barnum and his sucker are fused into one and the showman still turns a profit. The denser Trump gets the bigger he gets. It’s a smash-hit spinoff. New polls show birtherism gaining serious ground. The news media exaggerated it but the reality TV star popularized it.
It’s time to release the birth certificate. It takes a single phone call and you look simultaneously like victor and victim; because, in fact, you are both. You hold your best press conference in years and exit to leave everyone rethinking their criticism of you.
Would that Barack Obama were this successful in all his challenges, and all his adversaries as hapless as Donald Trump.