Saturday, September 17, 2016

Trump's Big Lie––The Birther Myth

Trump began to work the Big Lie about the first black President of the United States in 2011 as the Republican field was assembling to run against the Democratic incumbent. Trump began the libel casually but cagily with “I wonder” and “maybe.” “I’m starting to think he wasn’t born here."

Which is the way FoxNews newsreaders and talking heads slide into their various falsehoods, with “People are saying.” It’s the way cons work. This vagueness smudges authorship but sounds authentic, like you’re not the only one saying this. It’s better than an anonymous source because it’s real people. Or so we’re meant to think. The liars aren’t owning the lie but fabricating some kind of magic consensus on the street where real people live and discuss what is true and right. For five years Trump has ridden the cred he gained with the alt right and the racists and the right wingers, cred based on this lie which he told over and over in various ways from various cagey angles.

Then yesterday he invited the networks to a Major Announcement on this topic.

Trump said he would renounce his birtherism on national TV. The networks, obedient as they’ve been to Trump whenever he whistles, were there, cameras rolling.

First they carried a rambling half hour ad lib Trump promo for his new Washington DC hotel. They stayed with him live because Trump had promised them this Big Something. Trump had never admitted error before and now he was promising to do it on national TV. The long Trump Hotel promo seemed weird though. Was this politics? Was this news?

At some point during a carnival like the Trump campaign when things get boring people get restless and distracted. They begin to notice the bad smell. Maybe it’s the circus animals’ manure or maybe it’s the sweat of the con man. I believe everyone began to smell it during Trump’s Big Broadcast. Even the journalists serving in attendance. (Trump has outfitted them with special brooms and dustpans for cleaning up the manure he spreads, and they are very helpful.)

People seemed puzzled and suspicious finally at the part where he couldn’t really drop the birther lie after all. He couldn’t apologize or admit he’d been wrong all along. Instead he smeared it on somebody new. He said somebody else had told it to him, meaning he’d been tricked too. (Trump the Victim!) He’d smeared our first black president for five years. His sniping attacks helped undermine and delegitimize Obamas presidency among his (Trump’s) white fan base, which is not small, and all across the FoxNews and talk radio universe, a crowd which was always hungry for ways to smear and undermine President Obama. Now Trump wanted to transfer that smear onto Hillary Clinton, his opponent.

So Trump said that it was Hillary who’d been the first one to question Obama’s birth in this country. He said the birther issue was invented by Hillary. (Which sounds sort of like how he said President Obama had invented ISIS.)

And, suddenly, after long months of playing along, the American news media rediscovered their integrity.

News correspondents covering Trump’s Big Tell began calling Trump's new smearing of Hillary Clinton a lie. They stated it carefully, but clearly, much the way I heard in on NPR’s All Things Considered in their news summary: “Trump falsely stated that Hillary Clinton was the first to question Obama’s birth in this country."
And there seemed to be a consensus, not magical like FoxNews’s “some people are saying” but clear and distinct reporting of fact. Someone posted this reprise of the coverage and the push back. American broadcast journalists had gotten tired of playing along with so much dishonesty.

CNN -- John Berman: "Hillary Clinton and her campaign never, ever pushed the birther issue.”

... Kate Bolduan: "Donald Trump, from 2011, he made this his signature issue. No one has gone as far as Donald Trump on the birther issue.”

... John King: "[Trump] did the country a great disservice by becoming the chief cheerleader for a fraud, a birther movement trying to delegitimize the sitting United States President.”

... Jake Tapper: "Those are two factually false statements.... [Hillary Clinton] and her campaign never started the birther issue. ... Donald Trump did not end the birther issue."

FOX -- Jenna Lee (to Trump surrogate Boris Epshteyn, who claimed the birther issue "was born out of the Hillary Clinton 2008 campaign"): "Ok, but it wasn't. It wasn't. No, it wasn't. It wasn't. It wasn't. This is not true. It's not true. It's not true. It's not true. It's not true."

NYT -- Headline 1: "Unwinding a Lie: Trump's Long Embrace of Birtherism" ... Headline 2: "Trump Drops Claim but Falsely Accuses Clinton of Starting It" ... Headline 3: "Donald Trump Clung to ‘Birther’ Lie for Years, and Still Isn’t Apologetic"

WaPo -- Breaking News Alert: "Trump admits Obama was born in U.S. but falsely blames Hillary Clinton for starting rumors"

CNN and MSNBC more than matched Trump's 20 minutes with hours of airtime for his critics, including CNN's live interview with Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid; a live broadcast of the Congressional Black Caucus press conference; and a live broadcast of First Lady Michelle Obama's speech. All of them hammered Trump.

CNN and MSNBC spent the majority of the day revisiting Trump's history of fueling the birther conspiracy theory and drawing attention to his false claims.


At the New York Times the news analysis called out the birther story one more time for the lie it was. They explained in a more detailed way how carefully Trump had played it out and exploited the attention it gained him, and leveraged the harm it did to the president. But the Times analyst did not address Trump’s deliberate transfer of his libel directing at his opponent. That came in the broadcast coverage.

Here’s hoping the label of LIAR is pinned to Trump’s tail more thoroughly in the next few days, and the careful long form reporting makes it harder for him to dispute it. And maybe enough of the American public will stop laughing, will stop enjoying, the Trump carnival.

This wasn’t the first time Trump had blamed Hillary for starting the birther hoax. He did that almost exactly a year ago on Sep. 22, 2015.

Politifact quickly debunked this. Hillary never had anything to do with the birther myth. Politifact also fleshed out the life history of the rumor itself. Some accounts said that the first birther rumor may have been started by a Clinton supporter (not anyone associated with the campaign) who was angry that Obama was likely to be the nominee. This is the sort of thing no responsible campaign likes. And Hillary had quickly repudiated the notion. John McCain did his best to dissuade one of his own supporters who said Obama was a Muslim during a town meeting in 2008. Hillary didn’t begin the birther myth and immediately squashed it when she heard about it. But Trump liked it. It glittered. He didn’t think it up, even though he does concoct most of his free-form, subconscious ranting. (Who could script that stuff?) Trump does overhear stuff and repurpose it. If he found a handgun on the sidewalk he’d begin looking for someone to shoot.

Even if Trump didn’t invent the birther lie, he filed the trademark on it and made it his own property. Did he know it was a lie? Did he really believe it? Does Trump really believe anything? For more than a few minutes, probably not. His mind wanders, the way his talk wanders. An hour or a day after he says things he denies he’s said them. I suspect the dishonesty of it pleased him. The truth of what he says doesn’t matter to him; it’s the harm he can do by saying these things that matters.

And the attention it gains him. He seems unable to care when a false statement has harmed him or discredited him, all he cares about is the attention and the satisfaction that attention gives him. It’s like the immediate pleasure sought by people who commit mass shootings; they do it for the attention more than any hatred of the people they’ve killed. It’s the pleasure of doing harm, the pleasure of destroying someone else. Trump is a fast firing machine, fully automatic, with an endless supply of bullets fed to him from his subconscious. The bullets are real enough. They’re not phonies. The damage is real too. True or false doesn’t matter, it’s the destruction he likes.

It will be interesting to see whether a firmer consensus forms around Trump’s tendency to lie. And his tendency to lie Big. To promote the Big Lie, which is something we’ve not seen much of in American politics. The Big Lie being a lie that is so outrageous that it gains its own momentum. The thing about the Big Lie is the irresistible urge people feel to spread it and become part of it. A large part of Trump’s mob (I think we can call it a mob) is made up of people who have joined the Big Lie. It’s like a religion. Once you are part of it you belong to it. Hitler knew this. He coined the term The Big Lie in his book Mein Kampf.

Trump is a more prolific liar. A gymnast among liars. A mass producer of falsehoods. A shape shifter who lies one way on Tuesday and the opposite way on Wednesday, then on Thursday denies he said either lie at all. Is this the “telling it like it is” his fans admire?

TruthOut places Trump's lying in the context of other authoritarian Big Lie strategies.

New York Magazine details the lineage of the birther myth and Trump's ownership of it.

That didn’t end Trump’s tomfoolery today.

After a few days of pretending to be within the spectrum of sane people, Trump darted back to a microphone and suggested disarming Hillary Clinton’s Secret Service detail and let her be gunned down.

Reported at VOX.

This isn’t the first time he’s fantasized about the death of Hillary Clinton.

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