In 2011 Mr. Trump vigorously pushed the idea that President Obama was not an American citizen, that he was foreign born and therefore should never have been allowed to run for the Presidency, and that because he was not an American, his Presidency was a fraud perpetrated upon the American people.
Birtherism is an ugly word, grotesque both in sound and meaning. It suggests that the President is not who he says he is, and that, therefore, he is a liar. It suggests that a conspiracy surrounds his ascension to high office, a cabal of those who wish to see him succeed and will protect his secrets. Since the President is a black man with an unusual name, it inevitably plays to a certain national audience — those who cannot stand him because he is black, those who believe that American history is one finely tuned and secret procession of plot and counterplot in which they inevitably are somehow victimized. In their view Mr. Trump emerges as the one well-known man willing to speak truth to power, to strip away the curtains of the elites and show how they have been manipulating and degrading the lives of the people. In the world of Birtherism the President is ‘the Other’, the stranger, the one who lacks some often nebulous virtue, the threat, the savage in the forest, the savage in full view if only he can be seen revealed for his true identity, the alien who plots from within to destroy all that is righteous. In the world of Birtherism, Mr. Trump is the hero who plucked a vague theory from the political netherworld and turned it into national search for the truth.
None of his charges were true. The President published his birth certificates. Mr. Trump never apologized for his attacks. He had achieved his goals. He rose to a status above and beyond that of a real estate developer and TV personality. He joined the national stage. He discovered his audience, and they discovered themselves in the voice of a man who dared to discard the idea of ‘political correctness’ and say what they actually thought, even before they could have imagined the particulars of his accusations. In retrospect, his run for the Presidency seems to have begun with this controversy wholly of his own making. To understand Mr. Trump’s views on race, begin with his embrace of Birtherism. All of his other statements on Mexicans, women, Native Americans, Black people, Muslims, etc. are founded on the idea of “the Other’, the ones who wear the mask, the ones who can never be trusted.
Mr. Trump can play the campaign game of photo-ops in African American Churches from today to November, but until he apologizes for the travesty of his “Birther” crusade, until he reverses course on decades of Republican ‘dog-whistles’ to racial prejudice, until he publically rejects the bigotry of his alt-right supporters, until he promises to push Congress to pass a voting rights bill, then he remains merely the same reality show performer trying to fool just enough voters to win this election.