Small Beer, Big Hangover
It’s against this backdrop that 11 Republican congressmen have now signed on to a bill requiring that presidential candidates produce their birth certificates. This bizarre “birther” movement, out to prove that Obama is not a naturally born citizen, first gained notice in the summer of 2008 when it was being advanced by the author Jerome Corsi, a leader of the Swift boat assault on Kerry. That it revved up again as Gatesgate boiled over and Sotomayor sped toward Senate confirmation is not a coincidence.
Obama’s election, far from alleviating paranoia in the white fringe, has only compounded it. There is no purer expression of this animus than to claim that Obama is literally not an American—or, as Sarah Palin would have it, not a “real American.” The birth-certificate canard is just the latest version of those campaign-year attempts to strip Obama of his American identity with faux controversies over flag pins, the Pledge of Allegiance and his middle name. Last summer, Cokie Roberts of ABC News even faulted him for taking a vacation in his home state of Hawaii, which she described as a “foreign, exotic place,” in contrast to her proposed choice of Myrtle Beach, S.C., in the real America of Dixie.
Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter have condemned the birther brigades and likened them to “the truthers” who accused the Bush administration of engineering the 9/11 attacks. But those conspiracy theorists couldn’t find 11 congressmen willing to sponsor a bill supporting their claims. Even Liz Cheney has publicly refused to dispute the libels on Obama’s citizenship.
One of the loudest birther enablers is not at Fox but CNN: Lou Dobbs, who was heretofore best known for trying to link immigrants, especially Hispanics, to civic havoc. Dobbs is one-stop shopping for the excesses of this seismic period of racial transition. And he is following a traditional, if toxic, American playbook. The escalating white fear of newly empowered ethnic groups and blacks is a naked replay of more than a century ago, when large waves of immigration and the northern migration of emancipated blacks, coupled with a tumultuous modernization of the American work force, unleashed a similar storm of racial and nativist panic.
As Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post and Helene Cooper of The Times have pointed out, a lot of today’s variation on the theme is class-oriented. Some whites habituated to a monopoly on the upper reaches of American power just can’t adjust to the reality that Obama, Sotomayor, Oprah Winfrey and countless others are now at the very pinnacle, and that they might sometimes side with each other just as their white counterparts do.