On April 27, 2011, the President of the United States went on national television to show the world his long-form birth certificate. He did it more than three years after taking office, and many months after releasing his slightly-less-detailed certificate of live birth. “We don’t have time for this silliness,” he proclaimed. “We’ve got better stuff to do.”
Apparently, not everyone does. Not Donald Trump, the reality star/Republican presidential candidate who helped elevate the “birther” movement from fringe distraction to news-cycle-dominating pseudo-controversy. Not FOX News and the right-wing spin machine, which walked the delicate line between embracing the crackpots and holding them at arm’s length, allowing the issue to fester while keeping their hands clean.
“I take the president at his word” became code for “I won’t say it—but you can.” And even after the release of the long-from certificate—which clearly and unequivocally states that Barack Hussein Obama II was born at 7:24pm on August 4, 1961, at Kapiolani Maternity & Gynecological Hospital in Honolulu—the other side hasn’t given up. Just this week, Orly Taitz, the wild-eyed lawyer/dentist/real estate agent who serves as the de facto birther mascot, told a Southern California judge that the document is an example of “very inventive computer art.” For his part, Trump paused briefly to take credit for putting the matter to rest and quickly moved on to questioning the validity of Obama’s college education.
On May 1, the President of the United States went on national television again, this time to announce that he had ordered the successful assassination of Osama bin Laden, the terrorist leader responsible for the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. People took to the streets, hoisting American flags and joining in chants of, “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” Obama’s sagging approval rating immediately climbed, and even former President George W. Bush weighed in with a congratulatory phone call.
Suddenly, no one was talking about birth certificates. Yet the two events—the release of a document from the musty archives of the Hawaii Department of Health and the killing of a vilified Islamic radical in suburban Pakistan—were linked more closely than many realized.
It’s better to have an enemy than to be ignored,” said professor Jerrold Post, via phone from his George Washington University office. Last month, Post—who teaches political psychology and recently co-authored a book titled Political Paranoia: The Psychopolitics of Hatred—penned an op-ed for The New York Times in which he compared the birther movement to McCarthyism. “A delusion is a fixed belief held in the presence of strong contradictory evidence,” wrote Post. “This is a hallmark of the paranoid, who suspects, without sufficient basis, that others are harming or deceiving him.”
We first reached out to Post after the release of Obama’s birth certificate but didn’t speak with him until the day after bin Laden’s death. Considering the wild accusations already whizzing around the blogosphere (Osama lives! Osama was already dead!) it was impossible not to connect the two events, though our conversation focused mostly on conspiracy theories in general.
“We’ve had conspiracy theories throughout history—there’s something appealing to those who feel powerless about having a powerful person identified as the enemy conspiring against them,” said Post. Conspiracies often arise, he said, during difficult socio-economic times, and gain traction among the disaffected and disenfranchised—people who are angry and looking for an outlet.
“It can become almost a psychological epidemic,” said Post, “and it becomes very difficult to stand up to it, because it’s comforting to have an outside explanation for your troubles. Much better to believe it’s them or him that is the problem—so that it becomes, in a sense, a moral imperative to strike back. Part of what a hate-mongering leader can do with a paranoid belief is use that to justify this righteous hatred of a particular group.”
Post never went this far—and in fact shied away from discussing any specific political figures except in the broadest terms—but it was impossible to listen to his words and not think about America’s bloody, open-ended war on terrorism. It isn’t a conspiracy theory per se, but it’s certainly a manifestation of The Other as faceless enemy, born out of turmoil and fed by lingering fear.
Osama bin Laden and 9/11 were real; the notion that Barack Obama was born on foreign soil is not. But the reason both things retained such cultural importance is because we harbor a deep, collective need for enemies—and because we’re tired of being ignored.