Just when it appeared that public interest was fading, celebrity developer Donald Trump has revived the theory that President Barack Obama was born overseas and helped expose the depth to which the notion has taken root—a New York Times poll Thursday found that a plurality of Republicans believe it.
If you haven’t been trolling the fever swamps of online conspiracy sites or opening those emails from Uncle Larry, you may well wonder: Where did this idea come from? Who started it? And is there a grain of truth there?
The answer lies in Democratic, not Republican politics, and in the bitter, exhausting spring of 2008. At the time, the Democratic presidential primary was slipping away from Hillary Clinton and some of her most passionate supporters grasped for something, anything that would deal a final reversal to Barack Obama.
The theory’s proponents are a mix of hucksters and earnest conspiracy theorists, including prominently a lawyer who previously devoted himself to ‘proving’ that the Sept. 11 attacks were an inside job. Its believers are primarily people predisposed to dislike Obama. That willingness to believe the worst about officials of the opposite party is a common feature of presidential rumor-mongering: In 2006, an Ohio University/Scripps Howard poll found that slightly more than half of Democrats said they suspected the Bush Administration of complicity in the Sept. 11 attacks.
While there is no grain of truth to either fantasy, there’s something else when it comes to Obama: A visceral reaction against him, a deep sense that the first black president, with liberal views and a Muslim name, must be—in some concrete, provable way—foreign.
A brief history of birtherism
Birtherism is the latest and most enduring version of a theory in search of facts.
The original smear against Obama was that he was a crypto-Muslim, floated in 2004 by perennial Illinois political candidate and serial litigant Andy Martin. Other related versions of this theory alleged that Obama was educated in an Indonesian “madrassa” or steeped in Islamist ideology from a young age, and the theories began to spread virally after Obama appeared on the national stage – to the casual observer, from nowhere – with his early 2007 presidential campaign announcement.
All through that year, the Obama campaign – with the affirmation of most leaders of both parties – aggressively battled that smear by emphasizing his Christian faith. Obama’s controversial but emphatically Christian pastor emerged as a campaign issue and the belief that he was a Muslim seemed to lose traction.
Then, as Obama marched toward the presidency, a new suggestion emerged: That he was not eligible to serve.
That theory first emerged in the spring of 2008, as Clinton supporters circulated an anonymous email questioning Obama’s citizenship.
“Barack Obama’s mother was living in Kenya with his Arab-African father late in her pregnancy. She was not allowed to travel by plane then, so Barack Obama was born there and his mother then took him to Hawaii to register his birth,” asserted one chain email that surfaced on the urban legend site Snopes.com in April 2008.
Another early version of the theory, reported by the Chicago Tribune in June 2008, depended on a specious legal theory that was, for a time, the heart of the argument: that Obama was born in Hawaii but had a Kenyan father, and his mother was only 18 years old. Therefore, under existing immigration law, he was not eligible for automatic citizenship upon birth — a claim that depended on an understandable, but incorrect, reading of immigration law. Other theories suggested that Obama lost his U.S. citizenship when he moved to Indonesia or visited Pakistan in violation of a supposed State Department ban as a young man. (There was no such ban.)
But it dawned on even the most stubborn anti-Obama lawyers that federal courts were not going to recognize their exotic theories of citizenship, and they narrowed their focus on a claim that, if true, might have disqualified Obama, and resonated with the impulse to view him as foreign.
No single author claims parentage for this theory, now advanced by Trump. Even Martin disavows what became the heart of contemporary birther theory – that the president was born in Kenya and smuggled back into the country.
“I’m absolutely convinced he was born in Hawaii,” he told POLITICO.
Jerome Corsi, who would later become a prominent proponent of birther theories, neglected to mention the Obama birth cover-up conspiracy in his 2008 book, “Obama Nation,” instead claiming, without evidence, that Obama maintained both American and Kenyan citizenship. He didn’t respond to POLITICO’s request for comment.
But while the identity of the First Birther is lost to the mists of chain email, one of the first to put his name to the theory was Phil Berg, a former Pennsylvania deputy attorney general who had spent the previous years accusing President George W. Bush of complicity in the Sept. 11 attack.
Berg filed a complaint in federal District court on Aug. 21, 2008, that alleged, “Obama carries multiple citizenships and is ineligible to run for President of the United States. United States Constitution, Article II, Section 1.”
“All the efforts of supporters of legitimate citizens were for nothing because the Obama cheated his way into a fraudulent candidacy and cheated legitimately eligible natural born citizens from competing in a fair process and the supporters of their citizen choice for the nomination,” the suit claims.