Communication Currents

Conspiracy Theory in the Age of Obama

December 1, 2012
Political Communication

The rise of the birther movement and its persistence over time demonstrates that the birther worldview has sustained reverberations in American political culture. It also calls for an explanation for the successful dissemination of their narrative, especially after President Obama released the very information the birthers sought. The resonance of the birther narrative can be chalked up to a narrative form that enacts a scapegoating process for its subscribers. When this narrative form is carried out in full, the birther narrative continues to have resonance for a substantial pocket of Americans, even though the evidence proves otherwise.  

Ever since the 2008 presidential election, the birthers have made their political presence known by protesting the legitimacy of President Obama’s office. The birthers argue that President Obama was born in Kenya, and therefore, is not a “natural-born” citizen as required by the United States Constitution to serve as the nation’s top executive. Yet, the evidence against the birther position is devastating. The head of Hawaii’s Department of State, Hawaii’s current and past governors, and the non-partisan websites factcheck.org and PolitiFact all verified the authenticity of Obama’s birthplace in Honolulu, Hawaii. Two birth announcements in Hawaii newspapers from 1961 also confirmed his place of birth. Despite the fact that relevant experts, fact-checking websites, and even the courts universally reject their story, the birther narrative has persisted, even after President Obama released the “long-form” version of his birth certificate the birthers had demanded all along.

A Brief History of the Birthers

The birthers materialized before the Democratic National Convention in August 2008 by protesting the legitimacy of Obama as a possible presidential contender because, they argued, he was born in Kenya, not the United States. After two years of asking, “Where’s the birth certificate,” many birthers were dissatisfied with President Obama’s answer when he released the long-form version at a White House press conference on April 27, 2011. Birthers pointed to spelling mistakes, “mysterious” marks, and the fact that the physician who delivered Obama was “conveniently” deceased as evidence of its inauthenticity. Thus, even though President Obama responded to the birthers by releasing his long-form birth certificate, a birth certificate verified by Republican officials in Hawaii, many continued to protest its authenticity and his occupation of the Oval Office.

Most Americans who subscribe to the birther narrative tend to be committed conservatives with ties to the Republican Party. Many birthers get information and validation for their narrative on the Internet, with their own website and other far right-wing websites like WorldNetDaily.com. The founder of WorldNetDaily, Joseph Farah, a staunch conservative and Evangelical Christian, has been particularly influential in spreading the birther message. Farah’s 2009 documentary, A Question of Eligibility: Is the President Constitutionally Legitimate?, helped the diffusion of the birther message into mainstream circles, on the Internet and elsewhere. This documentary, other birther produced materials, and responses to their narrative can help to explain how their narrative works and why it resonates with a portion of the American populace.

How the Birther Narrative Works

The birther narrative proceeds through several stages, which when taken together, activate the conspiratorial story for its subscribers. The fulfillment of these stages helps to explain the resonance of their narrative. In the first stage of the narrative, birthers establish what they would call the “good old days.” The “good old days” came before the “imposition” of liberalism, progressivism, and multiculturalism and they also reflect fidelity to the United States Constitution. In the documentary, the birthers argue that President Obama is a “grave threat” to “their America,” – the one consistent with the “good old days.” Birthers believe he threatens a society defined by the Founding Fathers and their values. They yearn for a time when conservative moral and political values were dominant, strict adherence to the Constitution was the norm, and the president was not a black man.

In the second stage of the narrative, birthers argue that their way of life is under attack from President Obama and broader cultural forces. As a result, they find themselves alienated. Birthers typically express their alienation with the popular phrase, “I want my country back!” The profound disorder the birthers confront, and the reason they feel their country has been taken away, is because “others” like President Obama have usurped what they believe is rightfully “theirs.” President Obama’s take over of “their country” is evident, according to the birthers, in his handling of the economic recession, other domestic matters, and foreign policy. For example, birthers argue in the documentary that President Obama possesses “a purposeful intention to destroy the constitutional sovereignty of the American people.” They communicate the same sentiment with their common labeling of the Obama administration as embracing “Marxism” and “socialism.”

In the third stage of the narrative, birthers displace their anger and alienation for the “loss” of “their country” by scapegoating President Obama or making him into their enemy. In their view, President Obama lied about his past and his birthplace. In the documentary, one birther commented, “Barack Obama has been tellin’ lies about who he is and about his real background.” In the face of threatening economic times, a changing social landscape, and their own anger, birthers place their alienation about “their country” onto President Obama. In this way, their narrative has as much to do with Obama’s birthplace as it does with broader cultural factors they confront.

In the final stage of the narrative, birthers complete their story by subscribing to a myth of return about the founding of the country, a story in which America was a lilywhite land and the Founding Fathers roamed the earth as demigods. By doing this, birthers essentially purify the political landscape, metaphorically rid themselves of President Obama, and live out the creed of the United States Constitution. The myth of return gives the birthers’ narrative lasting resonance because it is not subject to rational refutation. No matter what evidence birthers confront, it will never undercut the endurance of their narrative because of its mythic underpinning.

While a majority of Americans are not birthers, the influence of the birthers is pervasive. Birther messaging is detectable in recent legislative pushes to make presidential candidates authenticate their birth in the United States. Their messaging was also evident in the 2012 presidential campaign. When an Ohio woman at a Romney rally said President Obama should be “tried for treason” for “operating outside the structure of our Constitution,” birtherism once more was evident. The birther narrative also points to crucial issues about the role of race in American political culture. In fact, the dominant role of race in the birthers’ narrative suggests the hope that the election of President Obama would inaugurate a postracial age is far from being realized. In one way or another, some Americans will always consider President Obama an “other.”

About the author (s)

Jaclyn Howell

University of Kansas

Doctoral Candidate