Birtherism Is Dead. Long Live Birtherism.
The history of a national embarrassment, and why it's not over yet.
"Yes," said Kinsolving.
"It's on the Internet, Lester."
Throughout 2009, Kinsolving could be counted on as a sort of escape hatch—call on him, and he'd ask another oddball question. In the summer, Taitz, with her neon hairdo, incomprehensible accent, and ability to convince members of the military to sign up with her, became a sort of celebrity. She even appeared on the Colbert Report to talk up her cases. Absolutely zero new information was introduced—discredited reports about Obama just kept on circulating. But Democrats saw it all as a way to discredit the right. In January 2010, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee encouraged the party's candidates to get their Republican opponents on the record on some fringe issues. Among them: "Do you believe that Barack Obama is a U.S. citizen?"
"We have a finite window when [Republican] candidates will feel susceptible to the extremists in their party," wrote DSCC chairman Bob Menendez.
There was plenty of video of Republican candidates going birther-curious all through 2010. Occasionally, stumbling over the birther question would cost a Republican a newspaper endorsement. It was always good for a segment on cable news. But 2010 was a bad year for Democrats. Very few of the Republicans nailed by this actually lost.
Birtherism, the Republican tactic: January 2011 to April 27, 2011
Republicans won big in 2010, and they won especially large landslides in some red and blue states. * In 2010, "birther bills" were distractions, doomed from the outset. In 2011, there were legislatures with big Republican majorities ready to pass them. Birtherism stopped being a joke. All of a sudden, the Republicans who believed in it were on cable TV, talking about the need to find out where Obama was born.
But there were also Republicans who wanted this to go away, and they won out. Arizona passed a birther bill and sent it to Gov. Jan Brewer's desk. She vetoed it and said the obsession over the issue was leading America down a "path of destruction." At the same time, Donald Trump had hitched his presidential campaign to the birther "issue." It was not hurting him; he had gone from nowhere to the front of the tentative Republican field.
This was the first Era of Birtherism in which Obama's staff had to field regular questions about an issue they knew was baseless. And this was why it came to an end today. The next era of Obama conspiracies starts with the president in a much more exposed position. Now, conspiracy theorists know that all kinds of people will listen to them if they toss an idea out there—even if the idea is proved to be baseless. Now, Democrats are on the lookout for the next big fantasy, and Republicans think they've found an Obama weakness. Why, after all, would he climb down to the gutter and duel with Donald Trump if the issue wasn't hurting him? What else is bubbling up on the Internet? What else can get under his skin?
Correction, April 28, 2011: This article originally referred to Republicans winning big in 2011. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
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David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photograph of Phil Wolf by John Moore/Getty Images.