THE IDEA that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States and is therefore an illegitimate president — an idea thoroughly discredited after Obama released his long-form birth certificate last year — was mainlined into the femoral artery of the presidential campaign on Tuesday, as Mitt Romney prepared for his high-profile fund-raiser in Las Vegas with Donald Trump. Trump is the loudest, brashest, most insistent exponent of “birtherism,” and Romney’s public embrace of him has brought it roaring back.
“Is it the most important thing?” Trump wondered on CNBC Tuesday. “In a way it is, because you’re not allowed to be president if you’re not born in the country.”
People of every persuasion tend to be baffled about why birtherism stubbornly persists. Many dismiss it as a loopy, far-right conspiracy theory, the province of a few wild-eyed zealots and racists whom the media cannot resist. But on every level it’s a much broader phenomenon.
At its root, birtherism is the extreme manifestation of the belief that Obama is, by virtue of his race, name, and background, something other than fully American. The power of this idea , odious though it is, can be glimpsed in the wide swath of people who say they believe that Obama was not born in the United States — 51 percent of likely Republican voters, according to a Public Policy Polling survey last year.
The idea of going after Obama’s otherness dates back to the last presidential election, and to Democrats. Long before Trump started in, Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist, Mark Penn, recognized this potential vulnerability in Obama and sought to exploit it. In a March 2007 memo to Clinton (that later found its way to me), Penn wrote: “All of these articles about his boyhood in Indonesia and his life in Hawaii are geared toward showing his background is diverse, multicultural and putting it in a new light,” he wrote. “Save it for 2050. It also exposes a very strong weakness for him — his roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited. I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and his values.”
Penn also suggested how the campaign might take advantage of this.
“Every speech should contain the line that you were born in the middle of America to the middle class in the middle of the last century,” he advised Clinton. “And talk about the basic bargain as about [sic] the deeply American values you grew up with, learned as a child, and that drive you today.” He went on: “Let’s explicitly own ‘American’ in our programs, the speeches and the values. He doesn’t ... Let’s add flag symbols to the backgrounds [of campaign events].”
Penn was not a birther. His memo didn’t raise the issue of Obama’s citizenship. Furthermore, he was acutely aware of the political danger that a Democrat would court by going after Obama in this way, even subliminally: “We are never going to say anything about his background,” he wrote.
Still, his memo is the earliest example of a strategy that metastasized. The Republican tactic has been to make explicit what Penn intended to be merely implicit — and then carry it to its furthest extreme. Soon, the belief spread among many voters that Obama had been educated in a radical madrassa, that he was secretly a Muslim, and, finally, that he had not even been born in the United States.
Owing to his Mormonism, Romney has had to deal with something vaguely similar, although his own ordeal is much less pronounced and being pushed by extremists in his own party. So it’s especially shameful that he’d extend the platform of his presidential campaign to an extremist like Trump.
Romney seems to believe he can use Trump to raise money without being tarnished by the broader association. But he may find himself yoked to an ally he doesn’t want or need. Feeding on attention as he always does, Trump told CNBC that he may soon step up his involvement in the race. “I think we’ll do our own super PAC,” he said. “If I’m going to put up millions of dollars, I think I’ll just do it myself.” Trump suggested he would spend as much as $10 million — and, at this point, there isn’t much doubt about what message he’ll try to convey.
Joshua Green is national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.