BOSTON — The degrading spectacle of an America awash with conspiracy theories about whether or not the American president was a natural born American or not has both the enemies and friends of this country either scratching their heads in wonderment, or turning away in embarrassment.
Either way, the shenanigans of the “birther” movement, so inflamed by Donald Trump, is hurting America’s image in the world.
The Independent, a respected British newspaper, last week ran a front page special report under the headline: “The Day America Took Leave of its Senses. Has there ever been a more absurdly surreal moment, even in U.S. politics, that unchallengeable theater of the absurd and the surreal? ” the newspaper asked.
That there could ever have been a challenge to a fact “that no sane person has ever doubted,” namely that U.S. President Barack Obama was born on the “American soil of Hawaii one August evening in 1961” was bad enough. But that a president of the United States should have to produce his birth certificate (long form), or that the issue should ever edge towards the mainstream of American political discourse, made The Independent believe “that everyone’s gone nutty.”
It is true that Americans had previously chosen their presidents from a very small gene pool. Just taking their last names, all our presidential families have come from the British Isles, with only five exceptions. They were two Roosevelts and Martin van Buren with Dutch names, and two with German names, Eisenhower (Eisenhauer), and Hoover (Huber).
Most presidential families came to America in the 17th and 18th centuries. None of the descendants of the great waves of immigration from southern and eastern Europe that washed over this country in the 19th and 20th century has ever made it. Michael Dukakis, of Greek descent, got close, as did Walter Mondale of Norwegian descent. But neither reached the Oval Office.
Only one president, John Kennedy, has ever been a Catholic. All the rest have been Protestant white men. Therefore Obama’s African ancestry came as an abrupt departure, even though his mother’s family fitted the Northern Europe profile for presidents.
It is hard to escape the conclusion made by David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, that the “birther” movement was “designed to arouse a fear of the Other, of an African-American man with a white American mother and a black Kenyan father.” It is no longer acceptable to simply declare one’s racial prejudices so people look for other things to de-legitimize a president of African descent.
But de-legitimizing the “Other” is not limited to race. Obama’s middle name, Hussein, in an age of fear and Islamic terrorism, has fueled conspiracy theories. A Pew pole shoed that 31 percent of Republicans think that Obama is a Muslim, while 42 percent think he was born in another country.
The very fact that he was born in the Hawaiian Islands is, for some, too exotic. And spending his early life in Indonesia doesn’t conform to the log cabin image either.
And let’s be clear. This did not start with the extreme right in America. During the Democratic primaries, a campaign worker for Hillary Clinton was quoted as saying he couldn’t believe that a candidate with “such shallow roots in the American experience” was being considered for president.
The most curious attempt to paint Obama as something different and somehow un-American involved Winston Churchill. George W. Bush had a bust of Churchill in the Oval Office. Obama redecorated the office, as most new presidents do, and returned the bust to the British, from whom it was on loan.
There were elements of the British press that took exception to this, saying that returning the bust showed Obama was anti-British. Some speculated that his Kenyan ancestry made him bitter because of British atrocities during the Mao-Mao rebellion in the 1950s.
This was taken up in the American press. The Wall Street Journal ran opeds on the subject before their respected, and hitherto imminently sensible heavy hitter, Dorothy Rabinowitz took up the cudgel with an article entitled “The Alien in the White House.”
Rabinowitz wrote that “a great part of America now understands that this president’s sense of identification lies elsewhere, and is in profound ways unlike theirs … He is the alien in the White House, a matter having nothing to do with the delusions about his birthplace cherished by the demented fringe.”
First on Rabinowitz’s bill of particulars was that he had returned the Churchill bust. She bemoaned that the president had “no place in our national house of many rooms for the British leader who lives on so vividly in the American mind.”
For Rabinowitz’s generation, as indeed for mine, Churchill is a revered hero. But we remember World War II when Britain stood alone against tyranny. For younger generations Churchill and World War II have faded into the past, just as the center of political and economic gravity is swinging eastward away from Europe towards Asia.
Obama has called himself a Pacific president.
As the demographics of this country rapidly change towards darker-skinned citizens than those whose ancestors came from Europe, so will there inevitably be more future “aliens” in the White House — aliens in the view of those who ideas of America are rooted in the rapidly receding past.
But it is disturbing to the rest of the world, which still counts to varying degrees on American leadership, to see an issue of such patent falsehood rise to gain such traction in the land of the free.