Why Won't Birtherism Die?


America's Worst Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a petty despot with a cruel streak to rival that of Roy Moore, has jumped into the Arizona Senate race. It is -- or should be -- common knowledge that Arpaio wasted five years blowing through taxpayer money on a wild goose chase for President Barack Obama's 'real' birth certificate (the one produced by the White House is fake, of course; any evidence that Obama was born in Hawaii is to be rejected a priori). Arpaio just yesterday declared once again that the former president's birth certificate is 'phony.' Why today, with Obama out of office forever, is Arpaio still fixated on the 'Birther' question? What difference, at this point, does it make?

The prevailing narrative on the right about President Obama is that he was a leftist infiltrator who doesn't love his country and is bitter and resentful toward white people. Let us recall what Marco Rubio was repeating as Chris Christie murdered his campaign during that New Hampshire debate two years ago: the problem with Obama wasn't, as John McCain alleged in 2008, that he was inexperienced and unready for the job on Day One, he said. No: the problem was that Obama knew exactly what he was doing, and he did it because, in a word, he doesn't love America. For Sen. Rubio, as for Fox News, Breitbart, talk radio charlatans like Sean Hannity and Mark Levin, President Trump, etc., Obama wanted to 'fundamentally transform' this nation the image of leftist ideology because he's not a 'real' American, whether literally or ideologically.

Of course, not all right-wingers believe Obama was born in Kenya; I would venture to say no more than a third really buy into it hook, line, and sinker. But most of the rest are largely sympathetic to the idea that there is something fundamentally 'un-American' about him, and are happy to excuse Birtherism because they understand the origin of the impulse to believe. The particulars vary from right-winger to right-winger: some think Obama is driven primarily by anti-white racism, some think he rejects America for purely abstract, ideological reasons, some think he is driven by a desire for revenge for colonialism, given his father's African roots, and so on. But all, including the president, agree that Obama is in some decisive sense not a 'real' American, and think it is incredibly important that this is understood by the public. Some simply take this a step further than others and figure that someone who hates America as much as Obama does could not possibly be an American citizen at all. If they can demonstrate he was born in Kenya and is not an American citizen, then his legacy can be thoroughly repudiated as illegitimate. 

It is questionable whether Arpaio will win the Senate nomination -- and if he does, his defeat is virtually guaranteed. But his continued insistence on the fundamental illegitimacy of the Obama presidency should be a stark reminder of what put President Trump, who rose to prominence politically on the back of the very same topic, in the White House.

Alex Knepper