U.S. Election Notebook #4: Birther Origins

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June 19, 2009 – Bumper stickers on the tailgate of a Maryland pickup truck. Donald Trump. Birth Certificate. Hillary Clinton. ( Wikimedia Commons).

June 19, 2009 – Bumper stickers on the tailgate of a Maryland pickup truck (brownpau, Wikimedia Commons).

In the fourth of a series entitled U.S. Election Notebook, Athabasca University professor Paul Kellogg looks at the ‘birther’ roots of Donald Trump’s political career. Read the third in the series, which suggests that Donald Trump’s extremist rhetoric cannot be dismissed as just ‘misspeaking’.

Playing with racially-charged, factually baseless issues has defined Trump’s entire political career. In April 2011 he “successfully elbowed his way into the top tier of Republican presidential hopefuls largely by questioning whether [President] Obama was born in the United States,” the defining theme of the so-called “birther” movement. In making this his issue, Trump was swimming in what Columbia University professor Marcs Lamont Hill described as “the most racist smear campaign in American political history”.

From the xenophobic investigations into his religious background to the moonbatish birther controversy, the right-wing political machine has gone to extravagant lengths to paint Obama as an uppity, untrustworthy and unprincipled outsider whose very existence represents a threat to the American way of life. I have witnessed this firsthand at several of the health-care town halls, where angry white citizens gathered not to talk about policy details, but to vent their anger that “this guy” was changing “their country” by trying to give health care to “those people.”

In April 2011 leading Republican Marilyn Davenport “sent an email to acquaintances with an altered photo of a family of three chimpanzees, President Obama’s face is Photoshopped over the baby chimp’s head. The caption reads, quote, ‘Now you know why no birth certificate’.” That playing in these birther waters was Trump’s chosen method by which to “test the waters” for a presidential bid, speaks volumes as to the political contours of his candidacy.

Doubling down

In the months after his official campaign launch, he doubled down on this approach.

* November 11, 2015 – “You’re going to have a deportation force” targeting the estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the United States. “They’re going back where they came. If they came from a certain country, they’re going to be brought back to that country.”

* December 7, 2015 – “Until our country’s representatives can figure out what’s going on” there should be a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”

Into this toxic mix, Trump has added open support for violence from his supporters. An earlier post documented his cryptic appeal to Second Amendment supporters to deal with Hillary Clinton, a statement condemned by many as inciting violence against the Democratic Party candidate. This rhetorical appeal to violence was a theme of his run to the top of the Republican Party.

* January 2016 – “Get them out, get them out … Get them out faster – and don’t let them get their coats” he yelled as protesters were escorted from a Trump rally in Burlington Vermont.

* February 22, 2016 – “We’re not allowed to punch back anymore” he said, as an anti-Trump protester was escorted from one of his rallies in Las Vegas. “I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.”

* March 9, 2016 – John McGraw, a white supporter of Trump, “sucker-punched a black protester at a Donald Trump rally in North Carolina”. McGraw was unapologetic. “Next time we see him, we might have to kill him.” Trump’s response? He said he would consider paying McGraw’s legal bills .

* March 10, 2016 – Trump defended his violent supporters. “You know what? The audience swung back. And I thought it was very, very appropriate. He was swinging. He was hitting people. And the audience hit back. And that’s what we need a little bit more of.”

Trump’s candidacy in 2015 was almost universally seen as a joke. But none of this is funny. To rhetorically play with violence in front of an audience of millions, legitimizes the resort to violence by the extremist fringe of his supporters.

In the next post, entitled Memories of George Wallace, Paul Kellogg sees the shadow of the anti-civil rights figure George Wallace in the current U.S. presidential election.

U.S. Election Notebook #1: Grief of the Parents
U.S. Election Notebook #2: Memories of Goldwater
U.S. Election Notebook #3: Calculus of ‘misspeaking’
U.S. Election Notebook #4: Birther origins
U.S. Election Notebook #5: Memories of George Wallace
U.S. Election Notebook #6: The Colour Line
U.S. Election Notebook #7: Glass ceilings & backlash
U.S. Election Notebook #8: Slaves in the White House
U.S. Election Notebook #9: Locking up the vote
U.S. Election Notebook #10: The New Jim Crow
U.S. Election Notebook #11: Not a dime’s worth of difference?
U.S. Election Notebook #12: ‘A sort of public and psychological wage’
U.S. Election Notebook #13: Political futures

Paul Kellogg (Ph.D. Queen’s, M.A. York) is an Associate Professor, Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies, Master of Arts – Integrated Studies Program, Athabasca University. Among his courses at Athabasca is POLI 345, “American Government and Politics”. He is the author of Escape from the Staple Trap: Canadian Political Economy After Left-Nationalism (University of Toronto Press, 2015). His teaching and research interests are political economy, social movements and global governance.

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