Birtherism and Donald Trump's penchant for conspiracies

Last Updated Sep 20, 2016 10:55 AM EDT

Donald Trump’s promotion of birtherism isn’t just a story about the last five years, it’s a story about last Saturday night. When responding to criticism from Defense Secretary Robert Gates Trump said, “He’s a nasty guy. Probably has a problem that we don’t know about.”

Trump also called Gates a “clown” and a “mess,” but the diagnosis of a mysterious problem is the interesting part. It’s an explanation, a diversion and a weapon. The “problem” explains why Gates would be critical, diverts from the substance of Gates’ claims and asserts a dominance over the former secretary, who served eight presidents and whom Trump can’t compete with on experience and knowledge and temperament.

Donald Trump does this a lot. When Ted Cruz became a primary threat, Trump suggested his father was involved in John Kennedy’s assassination. He suggested Mitt Romney was not really a Mormon. He has suggested that Hillary Clinton was involved in Vince Foster’s death. These are all fictions. The list of them is long. Trump has also claimed his taxes were audited because he’s a Christian, that he was attacked by the Islamic State and suggested that Antonin Scalia may have not died of natural causes. 

In campaigns, we investigate candidate instincts because they tell us how they’ll behave in office when the pressure is on. Situations may change, but the circuitry can’t. That’s why examining Hillary Clinton’s choice to set up a private email server and her misleading and incorrect answers about her server once it was discovered are important. They allow us to investigate a larger instinct about openness and the instincts of those around her. 

Trump’s ease with the outlandish and unprovable has been seen as a topic for late-night comedians, but it’s more than a quirk. It is a habit of mind. Positions cooked-up in haste during a campaign can come and go, but habits of mind remain. White House decisions will flow through these same circuits. Advisers will have to shape and anticipate the way Trump’s mind works.

During the five years that Trump promoted the idea that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, he claimed reporters were only skeptical because “Obama’s minions” had gotten to them. Much like the Trump’s undisclosed plan for quickly  defeating ISIS, he promised that all the doubters would be proved wrong once the final reveal took place.

This is the allure of the conspiracy. The lack of verifiable facts is proof that the conspiracy is real. Anyone who is skeptical can be lumped in with the conspirators. Because the theory is cloaked in mystery, official refutations are obvious proof that everyone is in on the hoax. This is why Trump was resolutely skeptical about Obama’s birth certificate years after the president provided the short form and then years after he’d provided the long form. 

That Hillary Clinton started birtherism, as Trump claims, is itself a conspiracy. It contains two key elements, a little bit of non-related evidence and lack of perspective. At present all that is known is that Clinton confidante Sidney Blumenthal has been accused of whispering the idea to a single reporter. There’s no knowledge that Clinton knew about this instance. She did know that a 2008 campaign volunteer tried to spread a similar but different rumor about Obama’s faith, because Clinton’s campaign manager fired that person immediately and then called the Obama campaign to apologize. So, on the one hand you have a report about one person connected to Clinton  maybe promoting a rumor and on the other you have Trump’s five-year direct promotion of the idea. Comparing Clinton to Trump on which pushed the birther story is like comparing the person whose child talks about playing football to pro quarterback Tom Brady. Only in a conspiracy would you think those two are equivalent, but in the conspiracy world all evidence is equal when it needs to be. 

It’s hard for an entire organization to take on its leaders’ conspiracies because everyone has to be equally committed. That’s why Trump’s campaign manager couldn’t explain why the candidate had changed his mind about president Obama’s birth. It’s also why the official statement announcing the candidate’s reversal was forced to rely on a cluster of assertions easily disproved by facts. It wasn’t simply spin; it was an alternate reality. In the White House, those clashes between conspiracy and reality are going to be even more acute.

There’s also a chance Trump doesn’t believe any of the conspiracies he promotes, but instead uses conspiracy to keep voters hopped up, confuse reporters, vanquish his enemies and deflect criticism. That’s a habit of mind, too.