Has Birtherism Evolved?

By Chris Mooney | April 2, 2011 11:14 am

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.

MORE ABOUT: birther, donald trump

Comments (28)

Links to this Post

  1. Birtherism and the Yearning for Reboot | April 4, 2011
  1. I doubt that Trump is actually a birther.

    I think he’s an shameless opportunistic hack who was given a list of talking points and hot button issues designed to make him look like a serious candidate.

    I doubt that most of the Republicans who play the “Well, I don’t know, but a lot of people have doubts” card really think Obama wasn’t born in the USA and fully qualified to be president.

    You pretty much have to be a birther, or mutter the right shibboleths with plausible deniability, to qualify. Like Trump, they’re playing to their base . . . their increasingly crazy, desperate, and unfortunately motivated base.

    They can get away with it, and benefit from it, without the slightest repercussions.

    I think this is far, far worse than actually believing that BS.

  2. 2011

    The fact that some people are still denying that Obama was born in Hawaii is a strong indication that they are mere racists, clear and simple.

  3. I doubt that Trump isn’t just playing the birther/tea partyists for fools. That’s pretty much his schtick. That and self-promotion. Heard he has a TV show?

  4. whoschad

    Who would have thought this whole thing would have gotten to the point it is at today? You know the sad thing is that the further this drags out, the more people are going to join the birthers, instead of leave them. Lots of people are going to start asking themselves “Why can’t we just see what these people are asking for?” and grow suspicious. I’m not saying this is a good thing – far from it. But you know it’s what’s going to start happening.

    I personally don’t want to kick out Obama even if he wasn’t born in America, but to be honest, I can also understand why the average Joe would be a little curious of what the original (or whatever they call it) looks like. I’m not so sure it’s just an ideological thing.

  5. It’s ironic that Birthers and climate-change deniers refuse to accept well-established facts, claiming insufficient evidence, and yet their membership overlaps considerably with those who believe in the literal words of the Bible.

  6. Meryt

    Why is anyone even entertaining that crap? Why are you not laughing them out of the room? Next time it comes up – laugh and point at the fool till he slinks out.

  7. Mark

    So Donald Trump tells us that he went to the finest schools, where he learned how to forge documents, and then released his birth certificate. So what exactly is this is supposed to prove? Is he claiming to be better at forgery than Obama?

  8. Robert

    It is now documented directly by the US Social Security Administration that the SS number 042-68-4425 Obama registered with Selective Service was never issued to him.

    Do you think that his using this stolen number was motivated by a need to conceal his lack of US citizenship? I do.

    (Obama’s Selective Service System number is 61 1125539 1, registered on 09/04/80, using the stolen number.)

  9. Sam Sewell

    Obama Eligibility Q&A

    1. What is a “birther”?
    2. What are the eligibility requirements for President?
    3. Why do birthers think Barack Obama is not eligible to be President?
    4. How is “natural born citizen” defined?
    5. In a nutshell, what is the Obama eligibility controversy?
    6. Does the birthers’ viewpoint have any historical or legal merit?
    7. What was the original purpose of the presidential “natural born citizen” requirement?
    8. What is the difference between a “Constitutional” and a “statutory” natural born citizen?
    9. Wouldn’t the most recent modern-day statutory meaning of “natural born citizen” take precedence over the original Constitutional meaning?
    10. If Obama is not a “Constitutional natural born citizen”, so what? Why should anyone care?
    11. Why has every birther lawsuit been dismissed?
    12. What is a 14th Amendment natural born citizen?
    13. In the 14th Amendment, what does “jurisdiction” mean?
    14. Doesn’t the Wong Kim Ark decision make Obama a “natural born citizen”?
    15. Doesn’t the Julia Lynch case show that Obama is a “natural born citizen”?
    16. Could “natural born citizen” be based on the British Common Law principle of jus soli?
    17. What’s the “beef” with President Obama’s birth certificate?
    18. Didn’t the State of Hawaii recently verify that President Obama was born in Hawaii?
    19. Doesn’t the mere existence of Barack Obama’s original Hawaiian birth certificate prove that he was born in Hawaii?
    20. If President Obama’s birth certificate shows conclusively that he was born in Hawaii, would it end the eligibility controversy?
    21. Where do we go from here?

  10. Robert

    For interested readers, the answers to each of Sam Sewell’s 21 questions may be found in detail at http://puzo1.blogspot.com/ .

    Regarding question 17, I would suggest the better question is “Where’s the beef” with his birth certificate. The “beef” may be found in the birth certificate Lucas Smith obtained in Kenya. That document, if verified, will help explain Obama’s use of a stolen Social Security number in his Selective Service registration and other activities.

    Moving on to question 20, let’s also ask “If President Obama’s birth certificate shows conclusively that he was born in Kenya, would it end the eligibility controversy?”

  11. I imagine this sad conspiracy will continue for decades, long after its political usefulness has passed, because it will provide a steady income for authors and lecturers willing to provide new “proof” for true believers.

  12. megan

    FAQ US Americans are US Citizens WHEREVER they are born as long as one of their parents, esp the mother, is a CITIZEN. None Of This Other SHIT MATTERS. McCain was born in another country but his parents were citizens, Repugs accepted his candidacy whole heartedly.

  13. d brown

    Boy howdy. It was in the newspapers birth notices, people say they were at the hospital, his mom was a American, How many hundreds of people have been working on this scam for how may years anyway. Never mind why? This is a sanity check.

  14. d brown

    OK, I’VE HAD IT. took me less than 15 minute on the Internet to find this out. Am I the only one who goes back and checks? The Hawaii Star-Bulletin newspaper on Sept.16 2009 said the Health Department went paperless in 2001. Only very old ones werre kept. All birth certificates have been moved to electronic data bases. All birth certificates now come off computer printers, only! On September 16 a editor of the Hawaii Star wrote ” conspiracy idiots continue to maintain that Obama was not born in the United States…” “they will cling to such nonsense despite conclusive evidence …” “If any doubt is left both the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and the Honolulu Advertiser included Obama’s birth in their vital statistics columns on Aug. 1961.” That’s available on microfilm in the main state library. “Were the (Hawaii) State Department and Obama’s parents really in cahoots to give false information to the newspapers?”

  15. Draa

    I think the entire Birther crowd is digging their political graves. Such stupidity is telling. Not only about American political discourse but the education system in America and the crowd like Robert who refuse to listen to common sense. Nothing anyone says will change the fact that they are stupid in the worst sense. And. it doesn’t bode well for that bunch of crazy hypocrites in the future. We’re hearing the Republican/Teabagger/Birther Deathrattle daily.

  16. The Donald

    There once was a man, name of Trump,
    Whose comb-over often did slump.
    He ached to be POTUS;
    When no one took notice,
    He in with the Birthers did jump.

    The hopes of The Donald ascended.
    As POTUS he thought he’d be splendid.
    But voters can’t handle
    The hint of a scandal,
    Or those who to bankruptcy tended.

    He’s got a new job on TV.
    He’s fair and he’s balanced, you’ll see.
    He knows he’s the shrewdest,
    The loudest and rudest
    And everyone else must agree.

    The famous should all be aware,
    Aside from the Franken affair,
    The voters won’t favor
    A lunatic-raver,
    In spite of his perfect blond hair.

  17. Robert

    The short story is that Obama was born in Kenya.

    Obama’s father is listed on his Kenyan birth certificate and was a British subject. Obama may (or may not) be a US citizen via his mother, but he is not a ‘natural born citizen’ since that requires *both* parents be US citizens – not just one. There is the possibility that he is not a US citizen at all, that he attended university as a foreign student, and that is why he can’t disclose his history. It would destroy him. Sorry folks, I know you love Obama, but he is a scammer. His story is falling apart day by day.

    Do you remember that in his book ‘Dreams from my Father” he says he found his birth certificate? Quote: “… folded away among my birth certificate and old vaccination forms.” Have you noticed that he won’t show that paper to anyone?

    Now the Social Security Administration says, on paper, that the SS number Obama has been using ain’t his. Fact. Anyone care to explain why he used it to register for the Selective Service?

  18. I am not sure what the relationship between going to the best schools and knowing about forged documents is.

  19. S. Parker

    What riles me about this whole issue is to get a drivers license that is Homeland Security compliant you have to show a birth certificate. If the POTUS does not have to have a birth certificate to be the president why do I just to drive?

  20. TTT

    Birtherism itself is an evolution, of racism.

    The proof of Obama’s citizenship is as solid as that of any prior U.S. president. If you’re going to make believe you live in The Matrix and all evidence ever released by any source about something that basic is now a complete lie, then you picked an awfully black-centric time to start saying so.

    John McCain was incontrovertibly born in Panama, and Barry Goldwater in a pre-incorporated territorial holding, but none of that mattered, because they were white.

  21. Bob Clark

    The entire crux of the matter can be summed up in one sentence”

    “In the state of the Hawaii, it is possible for someone not actually born in the state to possess a ‘Certification of Live Birth'”.

    That’s the entire point. So people claiming Obama already released his “birth certificate” are not aware of this fact. But you can be assured the White House lawyers are aware of it, and they are relying on most reporters not doing the further research to become aware of this fact, or willingly keeping it from their readers.
    Readers here however can confirm for themselves this fact:

    ” [§338-17.8] Certificates for children born out of State. (a) Upon application of an adult or the legal parents of a minor child, the director of health shall issue a birth certificate for such adult or minor, provided that proof has been submitted to the director of health that the legal parents of such individual while living without the Territory or State of Hawaii had declared the Territory or State of Hawaii as their legal residence for at least one year immediately preceding the birth or adoption of such child.
    (b) Proof of legal residency shall be submitted to the director of health in any manner that the director shall deem appropriate. The director of health may also adopt any rules pursuant to chapter 91 that he or she may deem necessary or proper to prevent fraudulent applications for birth certificates and to require any further information or proof of events necessary for completion of a birth certificate.
    (c) The fee for each application for registration shall be established by rule adopted pursuant to chapter 91. [L 1982, c 182, §1]”

    Bob Clark

  22. Bob Clark

    To Mr. Mooney and others, it is amusing that those who have doubts are belittled, yet they never ask or attempt to answer a starting simple question: “Why won’t he just release the long form birth certificate?”
    The long form would not contain any startling revelatory information. In addition to the information already seen on the “Certification of Live Birth” that has been released, it will also have his mother’s signature, the hospital where he was born, the attending physician’s signature, and the signature of a witness.
    What’s the big secret in that information that can not be released?

    Bob Clark

  23. Has Birtherism Evolved?

    Yes, birtherism was originally a political attack leveled against Senator John McCain during the 2008 primary campaign (he was born to American parents in Panama).

    This line of attack was quickly dropped when it was obvious that he would be the Republican nominee. Happily for those involved, Clinton supporters had started using the same line against Barack Obama.

    Which is why I disagree with Stefan Jones above. This sad conspiracy will cease to exist the day Barack Obama leaves the Oval Office.

    As for 20. If President Obama’s birth certificate shows conclusively that he was born in Hawaii, would it end the eligibility controversy?: No. It’s already been shown conclusively that Obama was born in Hawaii. These people have already decided that Barack Obama is ineligible to be president and the only evidence they will accept is evidence that supports their worldview.

  24. Bob Clark

    To Jinchi, the problem is he has not and it is demonstrably proven that he has not.

    Bob Clark

  25. bad Jim

    The final authority on these matters is the Supreme Court, and it has already rendered its opinion.

  26. Bob Clark

    The Supreme Court and other courts are not likely to force a sitting President to show his birth certificate, the long form, unless there is evidence of fraud in the evidence provided so far by Obama such as the “Certification of Live Birth”. So far, all we know is that it is *possible* for him not to have been born in Hawaii yet have this “Certification of Live Birth”, and we have his puzzling refusal to release the long form birth certificate.
    On this last I must say I am disappointed with the news media that this question has not even been addressed to Obama. Knowing that the additional information contained in the long form is so minor compared to that in the “Certification of Live Birth” you would think at least one of these investigative reporters would ask the obvious question why he is unwilling to release this one as well.

    Bob Clark

  27. Bob Clark

    Since this blog post is about “birthers” who judge the issue analytically I should give my opinion on the matter. Here is the list of possibilities as I see them ranked from most likely to least likely based on the information I have so far. Note the second of the possibilities I just discovered today after looking up references.

    1.)The President was indeed born in Hawaii, but he was not born in a hospital, so he does not have a traditional long form birth certificate. If you look at online information of Jimmy Carter you see he was the first President to be born in a hospital. So all Presidents before Carter were born at home. In such cases there would not be a traditional long form birth certificate. At home births still do occur today so it would not be so out of ordinary for this to have been the case for Obama.
    This would of course mean he is eligible to be President. But it would raise a problem for him for the doubters because they would continue to maintain there is no proof he is a natural born citizen.
    The reason I take this as the most likely explanation is because of the evidence released so far that he was born in Hawaii. But still we have his puzzling refusal to release the long form certificate. As I said there is nothing particularly Earth-shattering in the long form and his puzzzling refusal to release it just makes no sense at all. Note this is not a minor issue at this point. I saw on MSNBC with Chris Matthews that as many as 40% (!!) of the country aren’t sure whether or not that Obama was actually born in this country.

    2.)This one I just found out today: on the original long form birth certificate perhaps it did not list Barack Sr. as the father. I had known about amendations of birth certificates but in Hawaii there should be a notation that the birth certificate was amended:

    “§338-16 Procedure concerning late and altered birth certificates. (a) Birth certificates registered one year or more after the date of birth, and certificates which have been altered after being filed with the department of health, shall contain the date of the late filing and the date of the alteration and be marked distinctly “late” or “altered”.
    (b) A summary statement of the evidence submitted in support of the acceptance for late filing or the alteration shall be endorsed on the certificates.
    (c) Such evidence shall be kept in a special permanent file.
    (d) When an applicant does not submit the minimum documentation required by the rules for late registration or when the state registrar finds reasons to question the validity or adequacy of the certificate or the documentary evidence, the state registrar shall not register the late certificate and shall advise the applicant of the reason for this action.
    The department of health may by rule provide for the dismissal of an application which is not actively prosecuted.
    (e) As used in this section, “late” means one year or more after the date of birth. [L 1949, c 327, §20; RL 1955, §57-19; am L Sp 1959 2d, c 1, §19; HRS §338-16; am L 1972, c 66, §1(2); am L 1997, c 305, §3]”

    Obama’s “Certification of Live Birth” showed no such notations so I thought that was the end of that. But I just found out that in Hawaii there is a key case where there would be no notations of a change to the birth certificate and the new one with the changes would be completely taken to replace the old one. This would be the case where evidence would be presented of a change in the actual paternity of the child. See here:

    §338-17.7 Establishment of new certificates of birth, when. (a) The department of health shall establish, in the following circumstances, a new certificate of birth for a person born in this State who already has a birth certificate filed with the department and who is referred to below as the “birth registrant”:
    (1) Upon receipt of an affidavit of paternity, a court order establishing paternity, or a certificate of marriage establishing the marriage of the natural parents to each other, together with a request from the birth registrant, or the birth registrant’s parent or other person having legal custody of the birth registrant, that a new birth certificate be prepared because previously recorded information has been altered pursuant to law;
    (2) Upon receipt of a certified copy of a final order, judgment, or decree of a court of competent jurisdiction that determined the nonexistence of a parent and child relationship between a person identified as a parent on the birth certificate on file and the birth registrant;
    (3) Upon receipt of a certified copy of a final adoption decree, or of an abstract of the decree, pursuant to sections 338-20 and 578-14;
    (4) Upon receipt of an affidavit of a physician that the physician has examined the birth registrant and has determined the following:
    (A) The birth registrant’s sex designation was entered incorrectly on the birth registrant’s birth certificate; or
    (B) The birth registrant has had a sex change operation and the sex designation on the birth registrant’s birth certificate is no longer correct; provided that the director of health may further investigate and require additional information that the director deems necessary; or
    (5) Upon request of a law enforcement agency certifying that a new birth certificate showing different information would provide for the safety of the birth registrant; provided that the new birth certificate shall contain information requested by the law enforcement agency, shall be assigned a new number and filed accordingly, and shall not substitute for the birth registrant’s original birth certificate, which shall remain in place.
    (b) When a new certificate of birth is established under this section, it shall be substituted for the original certificate of birth. Thereafter, the original certificate and the evidence supporting the preparation of the new certificate shall be sealed and filed. Such sealed document shall be opened only by an order of a court of record. [L 1973, c 39, §1; am L 1975, c 66, §2(3); am L 1979, c 130, §1 and c 203, §1; am L 1982, c 4, §1; am L 1983, c 65, §1; am L 1984, c 167, §1; am L 1993, c 131, §2]
    Rules of Court
    Adoption, new birth certificate, see HFCR rule 112.

    And in a related scenario where the parents were not originally married but got married later see here:

    §338-21 Children born to parents not married to each other. (a) All children born to parents not married to each other, irrespective of the marriage of either natural parent to another, (1) on the marriage of the natural parents with each other, (2) on the voluntary, written acknowledgments of paternity under oath signed by the natural father and the natural mother, or (3) on establishment of the parent and child relationship under chapter 584, are entitled to the same rights as those born to parents married to each other and shall take the name so stipulated by their parents or, if the parents do not agree on the name, shall take the name specified by a court of competent jurisdiction to be the name that is in the best interests of the child. The original certificate of birth shall contain the name so stipulated. The child or children or the parents thereof may petition the department of health to issue a new original certificate of birth, and not a duplicate of the original certificate that has been amended, altered, or modified, in the new name of the child, and the department shall issue the new original certificate of birth. As used in this section “name” includes the first name, middle name, or last name.
    (b) The evidence upon which the new original certificate is made, and the superseded original certificate shall be sealed and filed and may be opened only upon order of a court of record.
    (c) If the child’s natural parents marry each other and desire to change the child’s name, the child’s name may be changed and a new original certificate of birth prepared.
    (d) Nothing in this section shall be construed to limit the power of the courts to order the department to prepare new certificates of birth under section 584-23. [L 1949, c 327, §25; RL 1955, §57-24; am L Sp 1959 2d, c 1, §19; am L 1967, c 6, §2; HRS §338-21; am L 1975, c 66, §2(4); am L 1980, c 153, §5; am L 1983, c 65, §2; am L 1986, c 287, §1; am L 1987, c 100, §2; am L 1988, c 141, §27; am L 1993, c 131, §3]
    Attorney General Opinions
    Department of health’s preparation of a new birth certificate pursuant to paternity orders. Att. Gen. Op. 87-6.
    Case Notes
    Legitimacy or illegitimacy fixed at birth and cannot be changed by subsequent legislation. 3 H. 459; 4 H. 548. Prior to amendment of Act 71, L 1907, children of adulterous intercourse not legitimated by subsequent marriage of parents. 4 H. 292; 17 H. 45, 415, aff’d 210 U.S. 149.
    Child begotten and born out of wedlock even though legitimated by statute on marriage of parents, is not “lawfully begotten child” within meaning of will. 14 H. 271.
    Legitimation by subsequent marriage. 29 H. 258, aff’d 16 F.2d 273.
    Presumption of legitimacy is not conclusive, but rebuttable. 30 H. 574. Evidence to rebut presumption. 49 H. 273, 414 P.2d 925.
    Effect of legitimation on necessity of father’s consent to adoption of child. 52 H. 395, 477 P.2d 780.

    Note that in these scenarios the original birth certificate is sealed only to be opened by court order.

    Remember that Barack Sr. already had a wife and child in Kenya. He may not have originally wanted to be listed on official documents as Obama’s father, or perhaps he even had doubts he was the father.
    In descriptions of Obama’s birth it is said that Ann Dunham and Barack Sr. married in February, 1961, 6 months before Obama was born. But so far the only documents that have been released is of their divorce. No documents showing when they were married have been released. So it is possible they were not married when Obama was born and Barack Sr. did not want to be acknowledged as the father.

    3.)Obama really was born in another country. I consider this the least likely. But as I said it can’t be ruled out by the information released so far because it is possible for a child not born in Hawaii to have a “Certification of Live Birth” from Hawaii, as Obama has.

    Bob Clark


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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