Trump wins

Trump played on one of the oldest vulnerabilities of media: the "some say" rule

The big winner of the Obama birth certificate follies (and I do mean follies) is, of course, Donald Trump. Whether or not he even runs for President, let alone gets the nomination, he managed to make this “issue” so huge that the President of the United States felt he had to respond to it.

Trump played on one of the oldest vulnerabilities of media, the “some say” rule. If a prominent public figure is saying something, it is treated with respect. So if one Serious Person is saying something true, and the other is saying something false, many outlets – particularly cable news – will treat both statements as equally valid. (No, I don’t know who decides who and who isn’t a Serious Person, let alone why Trump counts. But he does, apparently, given the tone of much of the coverage on TV.) As ABC’s Jake Tapper just put it, “too many in the media have treated this crap as if it’s subject for debate and not just a a falsehood.” CNN provided the ultimate reducto ad absurdum of this principle recently with the announcement: “Trump says Obama wasn’t born here. We’ll show you the evidence and let you decide.”

Obviously, this announcement won’t change much. Those who are committed to believing that Obama was not born in the U.S. will continue to believe it, and point to today’s event as further evidence of the theory: Obama must be hiding something if he was worried enough to produce an elaborately faked birth certificate. The first rule of a conspiracy theory is that once you believe in it, everything is evidence for the theory – the fact that it can never be disproven is one of the things that separates conspiracy theories from regular theories anyway.

The real question is whether this is a tactical mistake by Obama when it comes to dealing with what we might call the birther-curious. These are people who don’t accept the theory that Obama was part of some 40-odd year conspiracy to install him in the White House, but just think that he’s “hiding something.” No real reason for it, just the old idea that where there’s smoke there’s fire, or that it wouldn’t be in the news all the time if there weren’t something to it. Another frequent tack is to argue that birtherism may or may not be true, but Obama was the one making it an issue for his own nefarious purposes.

My own cynical instincts are to think that today’s events make the issue worse in that sense, even if most birther-curious people believe that the certificate exists. Because the point of birtherism doesn’t have much to do with certificates; it has to do with defining Obama as a cultural alien and un-American – something that is believed and seriously argued by people who reject the literal theory of birtherism. So today just gives extra fuel to the idea that Obama is hiding his past, that he’s not One Of Us, and so on. Andrew Sullivan showed us how it’s done today by blaming Obama for “waiting so long,” and blaming the media for “piling on the Birthers.” You see? It wasn’t the Birthers who were really at fault here. Obama and the “MSM” were the ones keeping this issue alive. And when it continues to be alive, presumably it’ll still be their fault.

In other words, those email forwards you’ve been getting? Expect to get more of them. Not only that, expect them to be more elaborate than ever. Or as the headline on Fox News’s website put it today:

So yeah. Expect more of that.

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