Birth of Birtherism

I've been following the so-called birther story from its earliest days, so naturally I took interest in yesterday's big news of Barack Obama finally producing the other birth certificate.

A lot of people, particularly on the left, took the opportunity to repeat the charge that birtherism is an inherently racist belief. I think there is some racial prejudice involved, but I would argue it's not that simple.

It seems to me that it's a fairly natural (if crazy) outcome of the great desire of a segment of the population -- not exclusively on the right -- to really, really dislike those on the opposing political team, combined with the highly competitive movement-conservative marketplace I have often described.

That marketplace requires the identification and exploitation of great reasons to despise or fear leading Democrats. If one radio host does it better, that's where the listeners in that market will go; same with FOX News hosts and guests, book authors and publishers, web site content creators, advocacy-group fundraisers, and so on.

As Obama emerged as the leading opponent, particularly by early 2008, that competition heated up. And frankly, there wasn't a whole lot for them to work with.

That was in part because Obama was very consciously presenting himself as a blank-slate candidate, upon whom people could project their own hopes and desires about good governance. And, of course, he really was a relative newcomer to the national stage, and to public office -- certainly compared with other prominent '08 candidates like McCain, Clinton, Dodd, Biden, Richardson, Romney, and Giuliani.

I think that was a distinct benefit that Obama exploited, but it was also an opening for his opponents to exploit. And they did; the charge of inexperience followed him throughout the primary and general campaigns.

Inexperience in itself is not a scary enough argument; it must be tied to consequences. Hence from Clinton her 3am-phone-call ad, her chiding for his promise to meet with Axis-of-Evil leaders, and her boast that only she could navigate health-care reform through the Capitol Hill maze.

As the conservative marketplace turned its full attention to Obama, the pressure was on to raise the stakes. The success (in conservative-market terms) of two sensationalist stories pointed the way: William Ayers and Reverend Wright.

With very little to really go crazy over in Obama's record or campaign platform, the radical anti-America tales of Ayers and the fiery anti-American sermons of Wright were relatively easy to make hay of. The obvious limitation to carrying those stories through days, weeks, months of programming was that they didn't per se say much about Obama, who displayed no evidence or history of radicalization, anti-Americanism, or black-nationalism.

That's why the justification emerged, that we must study these past associations because Obama is such a blank slate. We don't really know anything about him, people like Limbaugh and Hannity argued, so we have to go looking to whatever evidence we can find to help us infer who he really is and what he really believes.

Once that became the underlying argument, it unlocked the door to a great competitive race in the conservative marketplace. Rewards would come to those who could uncover new clues to Obama's past, and to those who coould argue most forcefully that this hidden past was the true, dangerous, Obama.

Prior to that, it was relatively hard to find scary things about Obama -- about all they had was his Illinois state senate vote in favor of 'partial-birth abortion.' But other than his obvious blood-thirst for infanticide, it was tough to gin up much evidence that he was planning to confiscate guns, impose massive new taxes, surrender the country to jihadists, and so on.

But when Obama became, in the conservative marketplace, the Manchurian candidate, all that could come back on the table. And it did.

It was in this context that the digging-for-dirt in Obama's life -- which would have happened with any candidate -- was interpreted. And, while his adulthood offers little to work with, his early childhood is a rich vein. Kenyan roots! Years living in some weird foreign country -- where they have lots of Muslims! Hey, this is the stuff that helped make his first book so fascinating; no surprise that it would also fascinate his detractors. Was it easier to question all this because it involved black people and Muslims? Sure, but also because it's just outside most people's norms -- you'll recall that even in the relatively early stages of conservative-marketplace maturity, there was fairly widespread speculation that Bill Clinton's time at Oxford, and his brief visit to Russia, meant that he was a secret Soviet commie operative. 

The proof-of-birth question became one piece of this, and although it lacks a certain plausibility in the Manchurian-candidate storyline, it had the very appealing advantage of potentially disqualifying Obama from the Presidency. Not surprising, then, that it would prove appealling to that anti-Obama audience.

After the election, the anti-Obama marketplace remained hot, as evidenced by everything from book sales to FOX News ratings in 2009. We got web sites and radio hosts and books continuing to push the Manchurian-candidate in at least three directions: A) more allegations about his secret past, as in the crazy McCarthy and DeSouza books; B) claims that he really is deliberately destroying the country, via Chicago-style corruption, use of the economic crisis to impose socialism, and/or surrending to foreign countries; and C) claims that it only seems like Obama is not Manchurian because the lying liberal media keeps it from you. (Some, like Glenn Beck with his grand theory of the secret Soros-led international conspiracy, use all three.)

Birtherism thus continued to sell well in that market, which is why we saw it burst into public view in the summer of 2009. And it's sold well enough since then to sustain itself as a niche market, even as the broader anti-Obama ratings declined the further we got from the election.

But that marketplace is obviously going to heat back up as the 2012 Presidential election heats up. This latest flare-up was primarily a result of someone looking for media attention using an issue from that niche market to do it. And well done, Donald.

The newly released birth certificate won't shut down that market; they've got theories about dual-citizenship, and adoption, and even a secret radicalizing year abroad -- it's a market, and the competitive free economic marketplace really does perform very well in meeting the demand.

Does that demand for evidence of Obama's Manchurianness stem in part from racial prejudice? I suspect so. But I think it primarily stems from the same need to know that the Clintons were murderers, that Al Gore is a big fat liar, that John Kerry's war heroism was phony, and that Barney Frank caused the economic collapse.

What is without question, however, is that black people in this country feel, understandably, that it's primarily about the refusal to accept that a black man could be the legitimate President, and that the peddlers and believers of it make no attempt to be sensitive to that. And, the perception that it's all about racism is heightened by the shenanigans of the Breitbarts and O'Keefes of the world, who absolutely tap into the conservative market's racial prejudices, and whose crap is legitimized and promoted by the wide conservative marketplace.

It would be nice if there was some referee on the right who could try to do something about all that. Because it really is terribly hurtful to a lot of people. But, that's the marketplace at work I guess.

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