Friday, June 14, 2013

Five-Year Birtherversary

This month marks five years since the 'tipping' of Birtherism as a measurable belief. As I've documented, the rumors that would eventually give rise to Birther denialism originated in March 2008, but it was in June 2008, with a National Review post on June 9 and the publication of Obama's short-form birth certificate on June 12, that kicked off the online conspiracism.

One of the things that has long fascinated me about Birtherism is how outsized its reach is as a casual conspiracy theory, in comparison to the rather small size of its active proponents. The 9/11 'Truth' Movement, for instance, has long managed to attract enough diehard believers to fill seats at seminars and conferences; by contrast, the Birther movement has never successfully pulled off even a decent-sized rally.

In reflecting on this history, I realized that the Birther movement's leadership has remained so small and concentrated that it's actually possible to draw a through-line across the past five years, connecting the people who have, at different times, been the primary torchbearers of Birtherism.

The original central figure of Birtherism, the first person to do anything more than write some angry posts online, was attorney Phil Berg. He filed the first Birther lawsuit in August 2008, as well as several subsequent suits, and he created the website, which quickly became the central forum for Birthers online.

In September 2008, Berg came to be in contact with a street preacher named Ron McRae, who in October 2008 recorded a phone conversation between himself and Obama's Kenyan grandmother, Sarah Obama. A deliberately edited clip from that conversation was then used to promote the claim that Sarah had vouched for a Kenyan birth; when the full audio was eventually released, it was immediately evident why it had been edited down.

Nonetheless, the interview claim had one massive legacy: it attracted the attention of WorldNetDaily and Jerome Corsi. Since June 2008, WND had largely ignored the fledgling Birther claims. It reported that they existed, but did not appear to place much credence in them. WND ran only a handful of articles about Obama's birthplace between June and September of 2008, including an infamous article in August 2008 where WND reported that its own experts had vouched for the authenticity of Obama's short-form birth certificate. And when Jerome Corsi visited Kenya in early October 2008, the contemporaneous coverage of his trip was concerned only with Obama's relationship with Raila Odinga; none of the articles published or interviews given during his trip made any reference to a controversy over Obama's birthplace, or that Corsi was interested in investigating such claims.

But then Phil Berg made his announcement about the Sarah Obama interview in mid-October, and WND's interest was piqued. Whereas WND had run only six Birther-related articles in the previous four months (and the only two after August 8 dealt with Berg's lawsuit), it suddenly ran another six such articles in just the next three weeks before the election. Then, between November 4 (Election Day) and November 30, WND chief Joseph Farah wrote his first pro-Birther editorial column, WND started an online Birther petition, and the WND Forums got a new discussion board dedicated exclusively to Obama's eligibility. Although WND had all but ignored Birther claims prior to mid-October, by the end of November they were active and vocal proponents of Birtherism.

As Phil Berg's prominence as a Birther leader began to dwindle (with his role as central Birther litigator usurped by Orly Taitz), WND took his place as Birtherism's most prominent cheerleader. Between October 20, 2008 and December 30, 2008, WND ended up running some 55 Birther-themed articles, and they more or less maintained that frequency for the next couple of years. In May 2009, WND started soliciting donations to fund its "Where's the Birth Certificate?" billboard campaign. Later in the year, WND released two Birther-themed DVDs: the Farah-hosted "A Question of Eligibility", and the Molotov Mitchell-created "For the Record: I'm Not Crazy." 2010 saw the publication of Aaron Klein's book "The Manchurian President". Throughout the next few years, WND also sold Birther-themed t-shirts, bumper stickers, and yard signs through its online store, and started multiple campaigns that encouraged its readers to donate money to fund pro-Birther efforts.

WND's cultural penetration reached its apex in the first few months of 2011. WND contributor Jack Cashill's book "Deconstructing Obama" was published in February 2011, promoting Cashill's Bill-Ayers-as-Obama-ghostwriter claim that he had developed in his columns at WND. Donald Trump became Birtherism's most prominent spokesman, repeating various rumors about Obama's birth and youth. Comments of his suggested that he had been influenced by WND coverage, and WND itself would subsequently report about communications between Trump and WND reporter Jerome Corsi. And finally, Corsi's own book, "Where's the Birth Certificate?", was set for release in May 2011.

Then came the morning of April 27, 2011, and the surprise press conference where Birthers were given exactly what they had demanded for three years: Obama's long-form birth certificate. And in response, they promptly pivoted and claimed it was fake. Within a week, Joseph Farah and Jerome Corsi were both on record as saying the long-form was fraudulent. This attitude led to Corsi's follow-up "Where's the REAL Birth Certificate?" and, more importantly, a particular speaking engagement in Arizona.

The Surprise Tea Party in Maricopa County, Arizona invited Corsi to speak in August 2011, in order to present his argument that Obama's long-form was an elaborate fake. At this meeting, a petition was circulated asking Maricopa Sheriff Joe Arpaio to investigate Obama's birth certificate, and the next day the petition was delivered by Corsi and the tea party leaders to the Sheriff. About two weeks later, Arpaio announced that he was assigning his Cold Case Posse to conduct such an investigation, and that the Posse would be headed by one Mike Zullo.

What followed was several months when the Posse worked closely with Corsi in researching Birther claims, and in March 2012 they held a press conference where Zullo announced that (perhaps unsurprisingly) they had come to believe in the Birther claims that Corsi had been promoting for months and years prior. In fact, the day after the press conference, an e-book co-authored by Zullo and Corsi, titled "A Question of Credibility" was released online with a pricetag of $9.99. (Large portions of the e-book were subsequently found to be cut-and-pasted from old Corsi articles at WND.) The Posse's Birther beliefs were repeated in subsequent interviews and press conferences, with Mike Zullo remaining the only public voice of the Cold Case Posse, apart from Corsi.

This partnership continued throughout 2011 and well into 2012, but in the final weeks before the 2012 election, Corsi and WND seemed to lose interest in Birtherism. In October 2012 Corsi resorted to promoting several wild claims about Obama, ranging from allegations about his parentage to his wedding ring to claims that he'd had a nose job, all of which originated with the director of an anti-Obama DVD. But Corsi and Farah stopped writing about Obama's birth and his Constitutional eligibility, and after the election they acknowledged in interviews that they considered the issue a non-starter, even as they insisted that they believed in its merits.

While Corsi and Farah burned out, Mike Zullo kept the faith and pressed on. Insisting that he continues to devote considerable man-hours to the Posse investigation, Zullo now gives regular interviews where he promises new developments and discoveries, and claims that he has the ears of various powerful individuals. Without question, Mike Zullo is currently the central proponent and advancer of the Birther cause.

And for Mike Zullo's dedication to Birtherism, we owe Jerome Corsi and Joseph Farah. And for Corsi's and Farah's dedication, we owed Phil Berg (and to an extent, Ron McRae). Without this handful of men, the history of Birtherism would likely have been far more fringe and obscure, a conspiracy theory relegated to websites like Infowars and frivolous litigants like Orly Taitz.

I also can't help but wonder how the last five years of my life would be different without that chain of influence. Maybe I would've found more productive uses for my time than following and responding to this bit of political periphery; or maybe I would've wasted time in some other fashion. I have to imagine, though, that without Birtherism I wouldn't have written a book, and as a major highlight of my last five years, that works for me.