At some point before this past Friday, it dawned on Donald Trump and his aides that they couldn’t avoid a rendezvous with his birther destiny before voters go to the polls in November, and that his first debate with Hillary Clinton—what promises to be one of the most watched events in television history—was likely to be the place for it.
Their response to this realization has been one of the purest expressions of Trump’s extraordinary and alarming approach to politics since he launched his campaign last summer.
Despite the best efforts of his closest campaign surrogates to put the controversy to bed for him, Trump dismissed their birther-disavowals in a Wednesday interview with the Washington Post last week. He promised instead to take the issue head-on at a time of his choosing, to keep “the suspense going.” That time turned out to be Friday when he convened the media at his new hotel in Washington, D.C., in anticipation of a major announcement. Instead he forced a captive press corps to endure a nearly hourlong celebration of his hotel and campaign, before falsely blaming the entire birther movement on Hillary Clinton and grudgingly admitting that President Barack Obama had been born in the United States.
Trump used birtherism and other forms of racist agitation to build a political base for himself, and now that these defining crusades are impeding his pursuit of political power, he is trying to discard them in the most contemptuous and brazen possible way. Rather than disavow and apologize for his birtherism, he fabricated a new history in which Clinton had given life to the birther movement and he had merely settled the issue by forcing Obama to produce his birth certificate.
This is top-to-bottom fiction. Whatever ugliness Hillary Clinton lapsed into during the 2008 Democratic primary, she was never a birther, nor were here aides. Trump never once claimed until Friday that Clinton was the inspiration behind his birther campaign. To the contrary, he boasted in 2011 about having given fresh, mainstream life to the birther movement, and continued to suggest Obama might have been born outside the United States until this year.
The Trump campaign is making a bet that it can barrel through the debates without offering an honest accounting of birtherism. That he and his surrogates can gaslight media elites and passive news consumers about Trump’s role in coopting the birther movement, and turning it into an intimidating source of right-wing grassroots politics.
As grotesque as their effort is, and as nakedly as it reveals the Trump campaign’s disdain for media and the news-consuming public, it is not an entirely new strategic innovation. Don’t-believe-your-lying-eyes revisionism has a lengthy pedigree, and a mixed record, in conservative propaganda. And though it is unlikely to prevail in this instance, we’ve never seen it put to use at such a high level of Republican Party politics. The emergence of birther-truthers within the GOP leadership is the most fitting testament to the way Trump and the Republican Party are now one and the same.
There may be no better test of loyalty to Trump, or capacity for independent thought, than whether you’ve done a complete about face from pro-birther or birther tolerant to birther-truther in the past 72 hours.
Pro-Trump Pravda sites like Breitbart, which have fomented birther conspiracies for years, weren’t upset that Trump disclaimed birtherism; they celebrated Trump’s successful attempt to troll the media and his incipient effort to muddy the waters about where this racist conspiracy theory took root.
On Sunday, Trump’s most high-profile supporters fanned out across the Sunday TV news shows to claim, as his campaign manager Kellyanne Conway did, that the Clinton campaign incubated birtherism, and, as his adviser Chris Christie did that Trump “wasn’t … talking about [birtherism] on a regular basis.”
These are both lies, and easily disproven lies. But the purpose of the lies isn’t to win an argument, by convincing the masses that the lies are true. It’s to sow enough doubt about the real history of birtherism that voters who might be swayed by the truth—Democrats who aren’t fully aware of Trump’s racism, Republicans who worry that he’s too racist for their comfort, independents who hold Trump and Clinton equally suspect—throw up their hands and decide the issue is a wash.
This isn’t routine politics, but it isn’t new either. Most acutely, we saw a large number of conservative operatives in 2014 and 2015 try to hoodwink journalists into believing that Democrats had designed the Affordable Care Act to fail on purpose. The goal then wasn’t to win the hearts and minds of these journalists per se, but to blur the question enough that conservative Supreme Court justices would feel they were operating within a zone of acceptable debate in striking a fatal blow to the health care law. This effort failed. In his opinion for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts scolded the law’s challengers with a basic factual reminder, “Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them.” But three other justices were prepared to go along with the ruse.
More pertinently, a faction of conservative revisionists has attempted for years and years now to confuse the public over which party is the historical heir of the civil rights movement, and which is descended from the politics of the Jim Crow South. Now, whenever Trump’s popularity among white supremacists begets a new campaign controversy, his supporters will surface to remind whoever they can that Democrats were the party of Jim Crow and—did you even know?—former Democratic Senator Robert Byrd was once in the Ku Klux Klan. This, of course, glosses over the 50 years between when a Democratic president signed the civil rights act, and when the ensuing public realignment, in which southern white supremacists left the Democratic Party for the GOP and northern liberals left the GOP for the Democratic Party, was complete.
Professional historians find this all appropriately silly and most political journalists aren’t tripped up by it. The same holds for birther revisionism, for which Trump and his surrogates have been repeatedly chastised by a press corps that may finally be growing tired of Trump’s efforts to game and lie to them. But that isn’t a great measure of the tactic’s success.
The success or failure of this kind of gaslighting isn’t whether the elites themselves get played for fools, but whether the downstream target audience takes comfort in the existence and durability of the alternate school of thought. It didn’t work on enough Supreme Court justices to destroy the Affordable Care Act, and it hasn’t worked thus far on voters who take racism seriously. But even if the effort fails as it should, it has shown us just how widespread this abusive and contemptuous form of misinformation and racism apologetics has become in Republican politics.