It is ironic that Donald Trump owes his success in Republican politics, and thus ultimately his presidency, to birtherism given the extent to which he failed to bring birtherism mainstream.
He assumed leadership of the birther movement in March 2011 when he first expressed public doubts about whether President Barack Obama was born in the U.S. The next month, Obama put an end to the farce by producing his Hawaiian birth certificate at a White House press conference, and days later humiliated Trump during the White House Correspondents Dinner. But Trump kept expressing doubts about Obama’s country of origin until late in the 2016 presidential campaign, when he shamelessly attempted to blame the entire crusade on Hillary Clinton. Eventually he had the last laugh.
Birtherism was a huge plot line of his presidency, one generally pushed by elements of the conservative fringe. Though these conspiracy theorists were egged on by Republicans, birtherism never became a mainstream Republican rallying cry because it is racist and fabricated. But the propulsive force behind birtherism, if not the theory itself, was a widely shared right-wing desire to void Obama’s presidency. Racism led elements of the far right to adopt birtherism specifically, but their quest was for any revelation that could prevent Obama from running the country. Only a few criteria govern who can become president; one of them is that the president must be a natural-born citizen; birtherism thus emerges from circular reasoning and wishful thinking. It is a tool that allows political nemeses to trump all politics, which is why white candidates like John McCain and Ted Cruz have also found themselves at the center of less obviously racist birther inquests.
But if it’s ironic that Trump rose to the pinnacle of global power on the strength of a failed campaign to delegitimize Obama, it’s also fitting that his own presidency will begin under a mix of suspicions and legitimacy questions that are very real and that Trump brought upon himself.
Nobody who’s reasonable questions Trump’s eligibility for the presidency, but questions surrounding his entitlement to keep the job are widespread, and not just on the left-wing fringe. Birtherism may have been Trump’s accidental springboard to the presidency, but the next four years are set to express themselves as a continuous fight over the legitimacy of his presidency in ways that will make birtherism seem like a footnote.
The fact that Trump’s weak lock on the presidency isn’t more widely discussed is attributable almost entirely to Republicans in Congress who, for now and for the foreseeable future, have resolved to foreclose inquiries into Trump’s conduct that may yield impeachable offenses.
Democrats can’t force investigations, and they can’t issue subpoenas, so they can’t isolate the source of all the smoke. But it’s everywhere.
Consider the following:
- It is very likely that the FBI is investigating links between Trump’s campaign aides and Russian actors who allegedly conducted a sabotage campaign against the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton, and into whether Russian officials have the capacity to blackmail Trump.
- His designated CIA director, Mike Pompeo, not only vouchsafed the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia embarked on its disruption campaign with the goal of helping Trump, but promised the senators considering his nomination “to pursue foreign intelligence with vigor no matter where the facts lead.”
- Trump has forced the director of the Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub, Jr., to take the unprecedented step of upbraiding the president-elect for freezing out ethics officers, and for making financial decisions that leave him highly conflicted between his business and the public interest. Shaub called Trump’s decision to hand executive control over his business to his sons “wholly inadequate” and urged him to fully divest from the Trump organization.
- Ethics experts, and others on the left and right, have observed that Trump is very likely to become in violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution almost immediately after taking the oath of office. Trump will set off a silent constitutional crisis in hour zero, leaving everyone wondering when it will become impossible to ignore.
All of these issues will dog Trump endlessly, if only because Trump rejects even the slightest affronts to his ego and bottom line. He could liquidate his assets and he could support a full inquiry into the Russian government’s actions and contacts over the course of the election. But he never will.
These decisions, and the pall they cast over his administration-in-waiting, likely explain why he will enter the White House with the lowest favorability rating of any incoming president in modern history, and why he’ll likely have a harder time capitalizing on good political and economic fortunes than presidents normally do. His antic campaign to bully manufacturers into keeping jobs in the U.S. was widely heralded as a public-relations coup, and yet, “voters disapprove 51 - 37 percent of the way Donald Trump is handling his job as president-elect.”
There are glimmers of hope in this state of affairs for Trump foes—dim flashes of accountability in the few institutions (the media, the intelligence community) that haven’t completely submitted to Trumpism, and a source of enduring opposition to Trump’s gross behavior and the GOP’s unpopular policy agenda.
But there are dangers, too. Being unpopular and under a cloud of suspicion makes Trump more prone to lash out. He baselessly dismissed the record size of his popular vote deficit as an artifact of millions of people voting illegally. When he’s in power, that scapegoating tendency could easily turn into a crackdown on voting that will dwarf Obama-era voter suppression. Before becoming their first customer, Trump compared the intelligence community to Nazi Germany. He likewise refers to news outlets who write stories about intelligence findings as “fake news.”
As of this writing, Trump has not responded to the fact that the Justice Department’s Inspector General will be investigating whether the FBI took illegal or unethical steps to help Trump win the presidency at Clinton’s expense. But if he is true to form, he will politicize that inquiry, too. His popularity may never rise above water, but he can still leave plenty of institutional damage in his wake. And, of course, he could start a war.