Trump owes his political career to birtherism. As The New York Times wrote in July, “The more Mr. Trump questioned the legitimacy of Mr. Obama’s presidency, the better he performed in the early polls of the 2012 Republican field, springing from fifth place to a virtual tie for first.” Though not a particularly competent birther, Trump was the conspiracy theory’s highest-profile adherent, which helped legitimize it, in much the same way that Trump’s 2016 campaign has normalized a host of previously taboo positions.
But despite being both the foundation of his political career and offensive to large swaths of the country, birtherism has barely figured into the 2016 election. That’s partly because Trump has adopted a program of birther-ish positions and partly because the press isn’t particularly well-suited to re-litigating controversies from four years ago.
But after Trump visited an African American church on Sunday, prompting some very bad dancing and one very funny Breitbart post, birtherism is threatening to emerge as an election issue again. Arguing that the country’s first black president was not born in America is a substantial roadblock to African American voter outreach. But when asked by the AP about his birtherism, Trump said he wouldn’t talk about it because reporters would write about, theoretically obscuring more important campaign issues, like the other offensive things Trump has said. And, in an interview with Bill O’Reilly on Tuesday, Trump said he “doesn’t talk about” that anymore, but still insisted that being a birther hadn’t hurt him with African Americans.
Trump wants this issue to go away, but it won’t because every shred of evidence suggests he’s still a birther. The only way to prove otherwise is to come out and proclaim that Obama is a natural born citizen, but given Trump’s antipathy toward upsetting his white base, that doesn’t seem likely.