Opinion: 'Obamagate' is the new birtherism

It is eerily reminiscent of the conspiracy theory Trump rode to political prominence a decade ago: birtherism. Birtherism was proof of concept that a more vulgar politics of white backlash could find a real audience in the GOP, evidence that the party was waiting to be captured by Trump’s longstanding brand of racial demagoguery. Throughout his presidency, Trump has positioned his predecessor as a nefarious plotter working to undermine the quest to Make America Great Again. These arguments, while not explicitly framed in terms of Obama’s skin color, reflect the way America’s racial caste system operates in polite society. Everyone knows using the n-word is unacceptable, but describing black people through stereotypes in media and everyday life remains commonplace. Because foreign-born individuals are not legally eligible for the presidency, it claimed, Obama’s victory was unlawful: The people were duped by a fake American. He masterminded a conspiracy to undermine Trump, who is the people’s “authentic” representative, and illegally coordinated the “deep state” in its counterattack on the duly elected president. In labeling Obama “foreign,” Trump positioned a black president as alien to the rightful and correct order of things in the United States. In labeling Obama “criminal,” he’s drawing on centuries of stereotyping of black people as criminals who need to be reined in by white authority figures. It signals to them that Trump could not stand the fact of this man’s presence in the office: the political equivalent of describing Obama as a “thug.” Conspiracy theories are by their nature impossible to disprove. The absence of evidence for the claim that Obama persecuted Flynn — a man who, to be clear, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI — is no obstacle to Trump pursuing it. In a recent essay on birtherism, the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer describes it as not a sideshow to the Trump phenomenon but the center of it: Birtherism was a statement of values, a way to express allegiance to a particular notion of American identity, one that became the central theme of the Trump campaign itself: To Make America Great Again, to turn back the clock to an era where white political and cultural hegemony was unthreatened by black people, by immigrants, by people of a different faith. But in 2020, looking at the Trump administration’s efforts to diminish the power of minority voters, imprison child migrants, ban Muslim travelers from entering the country, and criminalize his political opposition, it could be more accurately described as the governing ideology of the United States.