In two years of ceaseless presidential campaigning, the candidates have insulted the intelligence of the voters many times. But no insult has quite equalled Donald Trump's recent claim that Hillary Clinton is responsible for birtherism, and that he, Trump, is responsible for ending it.
The assertion is so colossally false that facts are useless against it. It’s like arguing against the existence of unicorns — since no one has ever seen one, it's difficult to disprove them, because the very thing you are trying to disprove has no definable characteristics. There isn't enough substance in the assertion "unicorns ate my homework" to disprove it. What does a unicorn look like? Is it invisible? Does it eat homework? If so, does it eat only math, or other subjects as well? So it is with Trump: If Donald Trump was not a birther since 2011, who was? Was anyone? Did birtherism even exist?
If Trump did not, as he now says, ever promote birtherism, it is hard to see why he would need to renounce it. He now says that the thing he didn't promote for 5 years never existed anyway, and that it was never supported by the people who voted for him, even though they voted for him for because he supported it.
At this point, it doesn’t matter if Clinton ever considered or even listened to anyone who considered birtherism. Or if she had a friend who did, or passed someone in a department store and who did and rubbed elbows with her. Since Trump is arguing that he never was a birther, perhaps birtherism never existed at all. (Except that Trump now says it did, but only long before he never supported it.)
Facts? Who needs facts. Since facts never had anything to do with birtherism, any claim is as good as any other. Birtherism could have been invented by Houdini. Maybe Pope Urban IV wrote about it in Klingon in the year 1024. It could be that Neil Armstrong found Obama’s birth certificate while he walked on the moon. Any of these are just as plausible as the idea that Trump was never a birther.
Birtherism isn’t even what it claims to be. It isn’t constitutionalism. It isn’t reasonable doubt. It isn’t even unreasonable doubt. It is fiction. No, worse, it is an impostor.
Birtherism is racism in disguise. Since no one, not even racists, will admit to racism anymore, when you try to attack birtherism as racist all you hear in response is a roar of denial from a mob that then feels free to turn around and vote exclusively on issues that imply ethnicity — immigration, fictitious voter fraud, taking America back.
The assertion that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S., and specifically was born in Kenya, even though he can produce a certified birth certificate, is founded on the principle that he is too alien-appearing to be American — that is, he fails the eye test. What eye test is there to fail skin color? Therefore, racism.
When Donald Trump says Clinton started it, he is making an indefensible position even more indefensible. Racism isn’t something you blame on someone else. You can’t say, I was only racist because George Wallace was racist in 1961.
In the same way, it is preposterous to argue that a racist point of view that you held until about a week ago was something you believed only because someone else first thought it years ago. It makes about as much sense as an arsonist, caught fleeing a house fire with a gasoline can, arguing that he only did it because the woman across the street had a match in 2007.
Who cares? No one should care. If it was a dumb idea in 2007, how much dumber is it 8 years later, with 8 more years of proof that it is wrong?
How stupid does Trump think we are? Three weeks ago, when pressed on the birther issue, he refused to deny it. He is on record suggesting it might be true in January. Are we're supposed to believe the guy we see now and think the guy who looks like Trump on tape is a liar and impostor, or should we believe the guy we see now is a liar and imposter and believe the real Trump on tape? If it goes one way, it could just as easily go the other.
It is hard to imagine anyone swallowing such nonsense. Hard to imagine how stupid he must take the voters to be. “I love the poorly educated,” indeed.
But while what Trump is doing certainly is outrageous and belittling to voters, it is an old script that Southern politicians have been following for decades.
Down in the South, we know how racism works. We never acknowledge it, but everybody knows how to play the game. You pursue business as usual, and substitute some other word for racism, like law and order, justice, freedom, or (my favorite) small government. For instance, in Mississippi, our current governor campaigned on illegal immigration in a state that has no foreign border and where very few immigrants come, because Mississippi is just as poor as the Mexican towns they left in the first place. There is not and never has been a problem with illegal labor in Mississippi. The only problem is the color of the vanishingly few Mexicans who call Mississippi home.
Or another example: Despite being the poorest state in the nation, Mississippi sets Medicaid eligibility for adults at 22% of the federal poverty level, leaving over 330,000 citizens without healthcare and incidentally excluding twice as many blacks as whites. Or another: voter ID laws in a state where you have to drive long distances to get to a place that can make a valid ID, which means people who don’t have a car have a greater difficulty voting -- a group once again overrepresented by black people. That kind of thing.
And you skirt the past. When people ask to have the Confederate symbol taken off the state flag, you point to a referendum in 2001 that chose to keep it, and state that the Confederate flag is “history.” Whose history, we don’t know. That’s a blank that doesn’t get filled.
You can do all these things without reference to race, and that means it has nothing to do with race. Right? Just because blacks represent 37% of the population and 62% of prisoners doesn’t mean the justice system is rigged. If you take a microscope to the justice system, you won’t find any specific prejudice. No obvious reference to blacks, no segregation. Just a little injustice here, a little there, and somehow it all adds up to 3.5 times the incarceration rates for blacks over whites.
Nobody knows how it happens. Somebody else started it. The Washington Democrats must be responsible somehow; as for us, we are just interested in law and order.
But here is how it happens. You close the book on a racial policy, attitude, law, and you turn away and pretend it didn’t happen. You name your airport after Medgar Evers and forget why he is famous, and that his murderer didn’t face justice for 31 years. Or name a road after Emmett Till, no explanation required. History with an unfilled blank.
These changes are not all bad; some things are better than they used to be. But everyone knows what happens when an idea goes into “history.” In the public consciousness, it petrifies, it fades, it becomes part of the landscape. And we don’t forget about it, but we forget most of the facts, which is almost the same thing.
Of course we have to move on, but we don’t get to move on until the right discussion, and even settlement, has taken place. The guilty don’t get to turn the page. Only victims get to do that. And that’s where the South, and Donald Trump, have gone horribly wrong. They think once they swear off drinking, all the drunken days are over. Never mind who was hurt while they were drunk.
In Mississippi, this plays out every day. Because people think of the Confederate flag, or the Freedom Riders, or Medgar Evers, or the murders of two civil rights activists in Philadelphia, MS as history, no one has to deal with it. And so the state government can continue to discriminate against the poor on the supposition that they are lazy, without applying a moment of thought to why they were born into poverty in the first place. Deny one history, create another. Perfect way to guarantee that things stay the same.
Move to a more expensive neighborhood. Get gates for your community. It’s all about crime, the causes of which are known only to “history.”
So when Donald Trump says he is “ending” birtherism, “period,” he is plagiarizing a very old script that has harmed many millions of people. He gives himself the power to end a racist idea and turn the page, even though he is not the one that was hurt by it, and therefore not the person allowed to call it “history.”
He wants to put it in the past, talk about it no more, and move on. Is it his right to move on? No. Moving on is what the racists do.