Over the weekend, after GOP nominee Donald Trump attempted to gaslight America by saying Hillary Clinton was responsible for the birther movement and he did President Obama a favor by finishing it, Talking Points Memo unearthed an old video interview they did with Trump.
In April 2011, during the height of Trump’s push of the birther conspiracy as he contemplated running for POTUS, former TPM reporter Evan McMorris-Santoro (now with VICE) spoke with Trump about his embrace of birtherism and comments made by Republican leaders distancing themselves from the conspiracy. Going after former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor over his criticism of the birther movement, Trump revealed the real reason why he was a birther — it sold.
It was a very bad thing for Cantor to have done because people love this issue, especially in the Republican Party,” Trump told McMorris-Santoro. He also noted at that time the bad rap birthers were getting in both the press and within the GOP leadership. This is why Trump would continually point out how smart he was and the good schools he went to, so as to class up birtherism.
As TPM’s Josh Marshall remarked on Sunday, this video “contains perhaps the most revealing statement Trump ever made about birtherism.” As he puts it, Trump realized back then that the GOP was basically like a struggling business ripe for takeover. It was burdened with the debt of bad ideas and hatred, and all it would take was a ruthless liquidator to come on and seize it for himself.
No establishment Republican ever openly embraced birtherism. The elected officials who did were generally backbenchers or people on the fringe of the party. But the leaders aggressively cultivated the belief that Obama was fundamentally an outsider in America, possibly a foreigner, possibly a Muslim. At the most fundamental level, the root drive of the birther conspiracy theory, Obama was black and thus by definition an outsider to the America many base Republicans, the people we now know as Trumpers, see slipping away. Some Republicans cultivated this fabric of beliefs, others simply passively benefited from it while keeping their own hands more or less clean. But the appetite for it was there; and it grew. Just as Republicans stoked hatred of Obamacare without any realistic way of getting rid of it or any plan to replace it, birtherism and the larger penumbra of Obama delegitimization became more entrenched with the disaffected base of the Republican party. They built up hunger they had no intention or ability to satisfy.
As Trump said, “people love this issue.”
Trump’s angle was simply to give them what they wanted. No holds barred. The full birther assault. Folks like Cantor could criticize Trump as not serious. But they were living in a house increasingly built on equally unserious ideas. What Trump did with birtherism was no different from what he later did with anti-immigrant animus in the GOP. He offered to satiate the appetite Republicans had been stoking. When he arrived they had nothing to fight him with. Their supporters – not all, but a large plurality – more or less instantly abandoned them and joined Trump. That’s the story of the 2016 GOP primary cycle.
Throughout the day Sunday, Trump’s lackeys — Chris Christie, Kellyanne Conway, Mike Pence — took to the morning shows to try to push their new talking points that Trump was never really a birther, Hillary Clinton was the real smear artist (though she’s never publicly made a birther comment) and that Trump long put this issue to rest. But the fact remains that Trump made his political career with birtherism. There is no denying it, and back in 2011, he was very proud to be known as a birther.
The embrace of that racially-charged conspiracy theory helped feed into this campaign. A large portion of GOP voters came into this election still holding onto the belief that Obama is a Muslim usurper born in Kenya. Trump was the only one of the GOP candidates that had openly espoused those beliefs. He continued to do it right up until he announced he was running, and even after, played coy, knowing that he’d have that electorate hooked as long as he kept mum.
Without the birtherism, he wouldn’t have been able to attract the large number of white nationalists and Alt-Righters who make up a significant segment of his support. That conspiracy helped to burnish his cred with them on immigration and national security. For them, all that matters is making America whiter. And Trump’s positions would help make that happen.
Below is the video of the interview, courtesy of TPM: