Donald Trump, the 'birthers,' and the GOP's moment of truth

Serious Republicans would never let a 9/11 conspiracy theorist near the White House. So why are they not denouncing Donald Trump's 'birther' theories as utterly false?

The Internet can be a scary place. Troll some of its darker corners, and you’ll find plenty of people who think that George W. Bush knew about the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks before they happened. The Israelis were supposedly tipped off, too: That’s why Jews went to work late that day. And so on.

Now imagine that one of these conspiracy theorists announced that he was running for president. And suppose further that many other candidates and leading party figures said they didn’t believe the 9/11 plot, but that others were free to make up their own minds.

We would be outraged, of course. In the face of a fantastic lie, simply stating a personal preference – and leaving it at that – gives indirect confirmation to the lie itself. It becomes a matter of taste, like one’s favorite color or flavor of ice cream.

A dirty game

That’s the dirty little game that many Republicans have been playing with the so-called “birther” screed, which holds that President Obama was born in a foreign country or otherwise is not a “natural born citizen,” making him ineligible to be president. And they could get away with it, because no GOP presidential hopeful had personally endorsed the birther idea.

Until Donald Trump, that is. A few weeks ago, the real-estate and reality-TV mogul revealed that he was thinking about a run for the White House. But he also said he had sent “investigators” to Hawaii, to find out if the current president was really born there.

News flash: He was. That’s why the Honolulu Advertiser carried an announcement on Aug. 13, 1961, reporting the birth of a son to “Mr. and Mrs. Barack H. Obama.” A similar announcement appeared the following day in Honolulu’s competing newspaper, the Star-Bulletin.

Thus far, though, leading Republicans have shown little to no guts in calling out Mr. Trump or the birther movement at large. They merely reiterate their own opposition to the idea, which actually reinforces its legitimacy.

For example, Speaker of the House John Boehner recently told a television interviewer that he believed Mr. Obama was born in the United States. In the same breath, however, Mr. Boehner also acknowledged that many voters disagreed with him – and that he would not try to change their minds. “The American people have a right to think what they think,” he explained.

Of course they do. But they also need leaders who have enough courage to tell them when they’re wrong.

Goldwater's courage

Here the GOP might take a page from conservative stalwart Barry Goldwater, who stood up to birthers of his own time: the John Birch Society. The Birchers were true connoisseurs of conspiracy, warning that Dwight Eisenhower was a secret Communist and that the flouridation of drinking water was a Red plot.

A zealous anti-Communist, Goldwater initially welcomed the Birchers into the Republican fold. But he denounced them shortly thereafter, refusing to sully his name or his cause with the paranoid gibberish of the John Birch Society.

“We cannot allow the emblem of irresponsibility to attach to the conservative banner,” Goldwater wrote in 1962. The Birchers, he added, were “far removed from reality and common sense.”

So are the birthers, of course. Whereas Goldwater’s Repubican Party rejected the Birchers, however, today’s GOP leaders – with a few exceptions – haven’t drawn a similar line against the birthers. True, presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, and Tim Pawlenty have called on Republicans to put aside the issue. But even these remarks provide subtle credence to a hateful set of lies, implying that Obama’s nativity is an issue.

And make no mistake about it: The birther nonsense is hateful. It renders Obama an imposter as well as an interloper, who somehow shielded his foreign birth from everyone (except the birthers!).

It also underscores his African heritage, which plays nicely into America’s most hateful tradition of all: anti-black racism. Consider the e-mail circulated earlier this month by a tea party activist, showing Obama with his “family”: a group of chimps. “Now you know why -- No birth certificate!” the caption declared, its grammar as loathsome as its content.

Scary poll numbers

But the screed keeps spreading, especially inside the GOP. According to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, 45 percent of Republicans say President Obama was born in another country; just 33 percent say he was born in America, and the rest aren’t sure. Meanwhile, GOP lawmakers have proposed so-called “birther bills” – requiring candidates to submit proof of their citizenship – in nearly a dozen states. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) recently vetoed her state’s own birther bill, but governors in several other states have promised to sign such measures.

And that brings us back to Donald Trump, who is running first or second in mock polls for the Republican presidential nomination. Somebody from Trump’s party needs to stand up, right now, and state the simple truth: The birther idea is a delusion. The longer the GOP puts off that day of reckoning, the more responsible it becomes for the delusion. Republicans would never let a 9/11 conspiracy theorist near the White House. They shouldn’t let a birther there, either.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author, most recently, of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.”

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