Sarah Kendzior is a St. Louis, Mo.-based commentator who writes about politics, the economy and media.
In 2011, at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, President Barack Obama attempted to put to rest Donald Trump’s claims that he was not born in the United States.
“I’m prepared to go a step further tonight,” said Mr. Obama, after noting he had released his long-form birth certificate. “For the first time, I am releasing my official birth video.”
Mr. Obama went on to play a clip from The Lion King as the crowd laughed and applauded – with the exception of Mr.Trump, who remained motionless, eyes locked on Mr. Obama in a stone-cold glare.
President Obama wasn’t finished.
“No one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than The Donald,” Mr. Obama continued. “And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter. Like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? Where are Biggie and Tupac? All kidding aside, we all know about your credentials and your breadth of experience. For example, on Celebrity Apprentice, the men’s cooking team did not impress the men from Omaha Steaks. And there was a lot of blame to go around, but you, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership. Ultimately, you didn’t blame Lil Jon or Meatloaf – you fired Gary Busey. These are the kinds of decisions that keep me up at night. Well handled, sir!”
The crowd roared with laughter, while the cameras zoomed in on Donald Trump, his face red and unsmiling. The next day, headlines mocked the reality TV host’s humiliation. Mr. Obama’s citizenship was not the only subject allegedly put to rest that night: Mr. Trump’s threat to Mr. Obama was supposed to be as well.
What Americans did not know is that this was arguably the moment Mr. Trump’s serious presidential ambitions began. When Mr. Trump announced his 2016 candidacy, he had not yet shaken the mockery of President Obama’s riposte, nor had he gained, in the interim, the “credentials” or “breadth of experience” Barack Obama said he lacked.
What he had managed to do was turn birtherism into a national narrative. Birtherism is a vision of the U.S. that excludes Mr. Obama and any American whose name or heritage marks a break in white Christian dominance. Mr. Trump’s vow to “make America great again” always rested on rendering non-white, non-Christian citizens inherently suspect. Proclaiming Mexicans “rapists” and Muslims “terrorists,” Mr. Trump propelled white nationalism out of the shadows and into the spotlight.
Birtherism was never truly about where Barack Obama came from. It was about where he was allowed to go. Power, for Mr. Trump, a wealthy real estate scion, was rooted in birthright. Birthright became a theme of his campaign, as he insisted to supporters that illegitimate outsiders like Mr. Obama had taken what was rightly theirs. In ways both subtle and overt, Mr. Trump promoted whiteness as assurance, for white Americans, of immunity from hard times.
Now Donald Trump is trying to flip the script. Last week he stated that “Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it … Barack Obama was born in the United States, period.”
For Mr. Trump to claim that Ms. Clinton, who was working for President Obama as secretary of state in 2011, was the instigator of birtherism is a lie, as demonstrated in Mr. Trump’s own statements. That Mr. Trump “finished it” is also untrue. While Mr. Obama joked that the matter was put to rest in 2011, Mr. Trump’s crusade and the accompanying deluge of conspiratorial anti-Obama media continued for years.
Birtherism was the result of a demographically changing country – one long beset with crises not only over who counts as a citizen but who counts as a human being – struggling with the first black President. The half-white son of a Kenyan, bearing the middle name Hussein, President Obama shattered the image of what an American president could be. To many Americans, this change was exhilarating. To wealthy white men of limited merit, who had long benefited from racial and ethnic exclusion, it was a threat.
“Mr. Trump, why did it take so long?” reporters cried at the end of Donald Trump’s statement. Mr. Trump did not answer, but shot reporters the same hardened glare he shot at Mr. Obama in 2011. It took so long because Mr. Trump needed birtherism as a path to the presidency. Unlike Mr. Obama, he could not get there on merit alone.Report Typo/Error
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