Donald Trump has a super power. Do you want to know what it is? It’s the ability to remain completely shameless in the face of even his largest flaws or misdeeds. The most maddening example of this was his anti-Obama birther crusade. There have been so many times in the last two years that Trump has disgusted and/or infuriated me that I wouldn’t even been able to list them all. But I don’t think anything made my blood boil like one particular moment from the first general election debate in September of 2016.
Just a couple weeks prior to the debate, Trump had finally – under immense pressure – held a press conference where he acknowledged in a one sentence statement that President Obama was born in the United States. So at the debate which followed soon after, moderator Lester Holt attempted to get Trump to explain what had finally changed his mind after so many years of questioning Obama’s legitimacy. Trump instead took that as an opportunity to congratulate himself on being the one who harassed Obama into showing his long form birth certificate.
So Holt took a different tack – since this portion of the debate was supposed to be about “racial healing,” he asked Trump what he had to say to “Americans, people of color who . . . “ And here’s the part where I thought my head was going to explode, where I thought to myself, “I know this guy has a real shot because there are people out there who love his refusal to ever back down, but how, HOW, can this petulant child ever be our President?!” Here’s how Trump responded:
I say nothing. I say nothing, because I was able to get him to produce it. He should have produced it a long time before. I say nothing . . .
And I think I did a great job and a great service not only for the country, but even for the president, in getting him to produce his birth certificate.
Not only did he have nothing to say to Americans, particularly people of color, who he’d hurt & offended with his attacks on Obama – no apology, not even the explanation Holt was asking for – he thought he did them a service. He was standing up there looking for kudos for the great job he did for them and for the President. He was actually standing on that stage acting like he did the President a friggin’ favor. You can’t possibly get more shameless than that (or so I thought at the time).
So why am I bringing this up now? Well, I was I wasn’t planning on writing anything more about Charlottesville or its aftermath, because there’s been saturation coverage all over the media, and I’d said my share. But then Mitt Romney came out with his statement this past Friday which strongly rebuked Trump over his response to last’s weekend’s events. The statement was great. Romney did not hold back or tiptoe around anything, and he touched on every aspect of the issue that one might have hoped for. Here’s just a portion, for those who haven’t seen it:
I will dispense for now from discussion of the moral character of the president’s Charlottesville statements. Whether he intended to or not, what he communicated caused racists to rejoice, minorities to weep, and the vast heart of America to mourn. His apologists strain to explain that he didn’t mean what we heard. But what we heard is now the reality, and unless it is addressed by the president as such, with unprecedented candor and strength, there may commence an unraveling of our national fabric.
But, as much as I respect the fact that he’s speaking out so directly now, I can’t help the fact that the image that immediately popped into my head was of Romney on stage at Trump’s Las Vegas Hotel in 2012 as he accepted Trump’s endorsement in the GOP presidential primaries. Here was Romney speaking, as he accepted the endorsement, in February of that year:
I’m so honored and pleased to have his endorsement, and of course I’m looking for the endorsement of the people of Nevada . . . I spent my life in the private sector. Not quite as successful as this guy, but successful none the less.
At the time that Romney accepted Trump’s endorsement, he couldn’t have been under any illusions about who Trump was. Trump was already waist-deep in his birther crusade by that point, as you can see from this this April 2011 fact check of Trump’s birther claims. Notice the end of the fact check, where it talks about a letter from Trump to the New York Times. Yes, Trump actually wrote in to the NY Times to make his case about Obama’s birth certificate (or lack thereof).
Trump’s infamous interview with Meredith Viera on the Today Show, in which he claimed to have sent people to Hawaii to investigate the issue also took place in April of 2011. Remember, Trump claimed that these investigators “cannot believe what they’re finding.” These instances were all in 2011, but Trump’s birther mission didn’t stop that year. It was still highly active throughout Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign (and long after).
So Romney knew exactly who he was accepting an endorsement from, and he didn’t let that stop him from welcome Trump – and any voters his racist agitations brought with him – into the Republican fold if it would help him win the nomination.* And it didn’t just stop with the nomination. Romney was willing to use Trump’s appeal to this sector of the country to try to win the general election as well. Most people probably don’t remember this, but Trump was supposed to appear at the Republican National Convention (RNC), which is the big event, meant to rally and excite voters, as we head into the heart of election season. Aside from the debates, it’s pretty much the only event on the schedule that has the potential to shift the polls. So Trump was scheduled to make some sort of “surprise” appearance the first night of the 2012 RNC.
But the convention, which was in Tampa, FL, was postponed due to an impending hurricane. The first day of the convention causing Trump to be bumped from the schedule. His “surprise” event was later revealed to be a video of him sitting behind his desk Apprentice-style and telling an Obama look-alike, “You’re fired!”
So there we had the Republican Party’s 2012 standard bearer, willingly inviting a race baiting con-man into the upper echelons of the party, because he thought it would help his electoral fortunes. But that’s not the worst of it, because Trump didn’t invent the birther phenomenon. It was already well under way when he picked it up and ran with it. He saw that “people love this issue, especially in the Republican party,” and used that to his advantage. But well before Trump came along, the entire Republican Party had already opened its arms to the birther conspiracists and allowed their sick fiction to fester and grow.
In March 2009, less than two months after Obama was sworn into office, GOP Rep. Bill Posey introduced a bill to require all presidential candidates to submit a birth certificate, citing questions that were being raised about President Obama’s eligibility. He of course claimed his bill was just meant to clear things up, and to get the issue out of the way. But this was a nonsense claim that so many birthers made – nonsense, because there was no issue that needed clarifying, other than the one that they themselves kept emphasizing by pulling these sort of stunts and going on national t.v. to talk about the topic. If they were genuinely concerned, they could have clarified by simply telling their constituents – firmly – that the President was born in the United States, period (we’d all already seen his standard, non long-form birth certificate already). By July of that year, the New York Times reported that the bill had 10 co-sponsors in Congress.
Over the next couple years, as conservative talk radio percolated with birther talk and right wing opponents of Obama out among the electorate became increasingly convinced of the conspiracy (an April 2011 NY Times/CBS poll found that 33% of Republicans thought Obama was born in this country while 45% thought he was not), its proponents among elected officials grew as well. Outward, affirmative “birtherism” never became the majority position among Republicans in Congress (nor close to it), but it did find quite a few prominent proponents who brought significant attention to the idea, such as one-time right wing star, Michele Bachman (a short lived presidential contender), then-Rep. Nathan Deal who is now Governor of Georgia, and several GOP Senators (Vitter, Shelby, Inhofe and Blunt).
And among elected officials outside Washington, birtherism was even more prominent, with “birther bills” being introduced and (sometimes) even voted on in more than a dozen states throughout the country by 2011 (though none of these bills passed). And these weren’t just obscure, no name, back bench politicians pushing this idea. Bobby Jindal, who was then Governor of Louisiana and viewed by just about everyone in the Party as a top contender in future presidential contests at the time (he was considered top tier, “look at our deep bench” material), said he would sign a birther bill if it came to his desk.
But even more important than the number of elected Republicans who affirmatively espoused birtherism was the fact that none of them did anything to try to dispel this lie or tamp down the surrounding hysteria. I generally like to give you examples – evidence – when I make an assertion on this blog, but in this case that’s difficult because it’s hard to prove a negative. But I can say that you’ll be hard pressed to go back and find an example of any GOP official trying to stop the birther train, of any of them going on tv or radio and saying, unequivocally “no, that is nonsense, President Obama was born in Hawaii.”
The one example I do have for you was when then-Speaker of the House John Boehner was asked by NBC’s Brian Williams to address a particularly egregious incident that took place in January 2011. Members were on the House floor reading the Constitution out loud, and when they read the part that requires the President to be a “natural-born citizen,” a visitor yelled out from the gallery, “Except Obama, except Obama.” Williams asked Boehner if he’d be willing to tell the members of Congress who are sponsoring the birther bill that there’s no issue there and it’s time to move on. Here’s how Boehner responded:
Brian, when you come to the Congress of the United States, there are 435 of us. We’re nothing more than a slice of America. People come, regardless of party labels, they come with all kinds of beliefs and ideas. It’s the melting pot of America. It’s not up to me to tell them what to think.
This from a guy – and leader a party – who’d had no problem telling the American people what to think about taxes, health care, abortion and any number of other things. Suddenly it wasn’t his role to influence their opinions. Boehner also used that same tv appearance to defend GOP Rep. Raul Labrador over a birther joke over a birther joke he’d made days earlier, saying Labrador was just trying to be funny. The entire appearance was an incredibly cowardly response from the man who was supposed to be the leader of his party at that time. And the rest of the party did no better. They allowed birtherism to flourish because they knew it kept their base angry and energized, and they thought an angry, energized base was the key to gaining power.
Fast forward to 2016, and the Party was just as craven as ever – if not more so. They lined up behind the man who took the birther phenomenon and raised it to a whole new level. Trump harassed and (tried to) humiliate Obama over this issue for years on end. And he continued to promote the birther hoax even as he was campaigning for President. Even in his “retraction” of the claim, toward the end of the presidential race, he showed no actual remorse about pushing the conspiracy for so long. Yet, not a single elected Republican spoke out against this behavior, and almost none of them declined to back him (and those that did decline didn’t cite his birtherism as the reason).
Trump and the entire Republican Party spent years employing and/or indulging the birther campaign in order to appeal to a segment of their base that salivated over this racist dog whistle. They can’t look around today and pretend to be surprised at where it’s landed them.** No, I am not equating birthers with neo-Nazis. They are not the same, not by a mile. But when you pander to one, you put the welcome mat out to the other. If you invite birthers into your home, you can’t be too surprised when a bunch of white supremacists come banging on your door.
And just as a last thought, I want to be fair to Mitt Romney, because he’s a private citizen now, and he could have chosen to stay out of the spotlight and kept living what appears to be a very happy, comfortable private life. But he chose to speak out, and to do so unreservedly. I’d like to think maybe he recognizes the mistakes he made in 2012 and this is him paying penance. I have no way of knowing that – since he’s never come out and said it, it’s possible he takes no ownership for those choices whatsoever. But I hope he does, because we really need some people with power and influence on the Republican side to believe in right now, when so many of them have let us down.
I’ve been relieved to see so many elected Republicans forthrightly condemn the white supremacists in Charlottesville, with no equivocation. And I’ve also been very pleased with those few Republicans who have specifically criticized Trump for his handling of the issue (I think the official number in Congress stands at 23 right now – thought notably this does not include Leader McConnell nor Speaker Ryan). But I think we’re all really missing something important if we just pretend this debacle occurred in a vacuum. It’s not an accident that we ended up with a President who winks & nods at neo-Nazis. And it’s also not an accident that he got here by way of the Republican Party.
*President Obama released his long-form birth certificate on April 27, 2011. Trump continued his birther harassment for years after that point. So there can be no argument made that Trump genuinely believed Obama was not born in the United States. Even when Trump began his crusade, Obama had already provided the standard birth certificate that any person would typically provide as proof of citizenship.
But Obama then went above and beyond and had Hawaii give him special permission to release his long form birth certificate (which citizens normally do not have access to) just to provide us with incontrovertible proof of his birth place. But that was still not enough for Donald Trump. And that’s because it was never about genuine confusion over where Obama was born. It was about appealing to an element of the Republican Party that was bothered by Obama’s “otherness.”
**And this is looking only at birtherism – it doesn’t even touch on the years of proposing & putting in place policies that disproportionately harm people of color – most particularly the flood of gerrymandering & voter suppression measures introduced in states all around the country over the last few years, exacerbated by the refusal of Republicans at the federal level to re-certify crucial provisions of the Voting Rights Act (which Republican groups were key in overturning in the first place). Touching on this angle would require a whole separate post, or more likely a thesis.