How Birtherism Shaped Trump and American Fascism

And how, just like everything else in Trump’s political career, this conspiracy takes us all the way back to Moscow

Donald Trump’s political career truly started in 2011, when he became the figurehead of the infamous birtherism movement. Like everything else in Trump’s life, however, birtherism was somebody else’s brainchild. Trump merely hopped on an already moving train and appropriated the lie through his media clout and bombastic rhetoric.

Birtherism marked a steep departure from Trump’s previous public political positions, and his embrace of the racist conspiracy theory came at a time of financial turmoil for the business mogul. It also strangely coincides with his growing proclivity for Eastern European deal-making and his strengthening ties with Russia and Vladimir Putin in particular.

Through his attacks on President Obama, Donald Trump brought conspiracy theories and open, unabashed racism at the forefront of American political life. Following the KGB’s playbook, he sowed dissent and confusion, hatred and division. When Trump was elected with Russia’s assistance in 2016, he built his presidency on Big Lies and Stabbed-in-the-Back rhetoric that have done nothing but increase the nation's division. His work culminated in the Capitol building's storming on January 6, the day American democracy nearly died.

When he got elected, I believed Trump was a con-artist without a plan, a stupid but savvy man who had evaded justice and creditors his entire life and who had stumbled on an office he really didn’t want. I was fearful, nonetheless. Words have the power to create reality, and Trump’s language of hatred and ignorance appeared to me as a ticking time bomb. January 6 proved he is a dangerous authoritarian that isn’t afraid to kill to remain in power. And it all started with birtherism.

Before becoming a Twitter addict, Trump used to share his thoughts and rambling on a 60-second daily radio feature called “Trumped!” that aired between 2004 and 2008. During his 2016 campaign, the Wall Street Journal dug up some of the more interesting episodes of the show, in which Trump was extolling Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. As reported by CNN, Trump stated in 2008 that:

Hillary Clinton said she’d consider naming Barack Obama as her vice president when she gets the nomination, but she’s nowhere near a shoo-in. For his part, Obama said he’s just focused on winning the nomination although at least one member on his team said Clinton would make a good vice president. Well, I know her and she’d make a good president or good vice president.

Trump further shared that:

A lot of people think a Clinton-Obama or Obama-Clinton pairing would be a dream ticket in November, but for that to happen one of them has to be willing to serve as number two. Until that time, it’s going to be very interesting.

When this episode aired, Trump’s last political affiliation was with the Democratic party, that he had joined in 2001. He would later become a Republican in 2009, before becoming an independent in 2011, and born-again a Republican in 2012.

This praiseful and positive rhetoric (and a better ability to formulate coherent sentences) from Donald Trump towards Clinton and Obama look strikingly odd when read in 2021. They stand in sharp contrast to the birther claims he made in 2011 when he revived an old conspiracy theory.

Birtherism was first coined by perennial loser Andy Martin after the 2004 Democratic National Convention and later supported by right-wing media and conservative outlets. Philip J. Berg, a former county Democratic party chairman, former lawyer, and 9/11 truther, helped propagate the birther rumours. Interestingly, before he was disbarred, Berg sought injunctive relief from the Supreme Court, trying to suspend the 2008 election on the premise that Mr Obama was born in Kenya and, therefore, ineligible. His case was dismissed summarily.

After the Obama campaign shared his birth certificate and the Hawaii Department of Health confirmed its authenticity, the rumours died down. Until 2011, when they were revived by none other than Donald Trump. The conspiracy theory rose from its ashes. It is easy to imagine how the millions of racists in the country found solace in the idea that the first black president could be a fraud and, possibly, impeached and removed. When President Obama was eventually forced to release his long-form birth certificate in 2011, Trump said he was proud he had forced the president’s hand. The rumour once again faded away.

What didn’t disappear, however, was the stain that birtherism had been on American politics. It had been a victory for racism, abetted and supported by the GOP. A sitting president was forced to prove his lawful citizenship by a TV star with a lifelong grudge against African-Americans. It was a win for white supremacy and conspiracy theories, and Trump didn’t fail to notice it.

When Barack Obama publicly roasted him at the 2011 Correspondents’ dinner, the reasonable people felt a sense of closure. These ridiculous claims had finally been quashed. Trump was humiliated by President Obama in a witty and hilarious speech. All seemed well. Except it wasn’t. Obama himself realised it at the time, as he writes it in his recently published book A Promised Land: Trump “had never been bigger.”

Trump ended up not running in 2012, and true to his style, he dropped out of the race boasting: “I maintain the strong conviction that if I were to run, I would be able to win the primary and, ultimately, the general election.” His decision seemed to have been motivated, like many in his life, by money. As a matter of fact, Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice was NBC’s top-performing show, and its renewal was promising the failing businessman a gigantic windfall. Trump remained a force to be reckoned with for the GOP. As proof of this, Mitt Romney sought his endorsement and, as the Republican nominee for the presidential election, flew out to Las Vegas to receive it in traditional Trumpian pomp.

Trump returned to conspiracy theories shortly thereafter. Following President Obama’s reelection and ignoring Romney rather disgracious concession call, Trump immediately took to Twitter to cast doubts on the electoral process.

He lost the popular vote by a lot and won the election. We should have a revolution in this country!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 7, 2012

We can’t let this happen. We should march on Washington and stop this travesty. Our nation is totally divided!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 7, 2012

Lets fight like hell and stop this great and disgusting injustice! The world is laughing at us.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 7, 2012

House of Representatives shouldn’t give anything to Obama unless he terminates Obamacare.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 7, 2012

If these tweets remind you of recent speeches and events, this is no coincidence. Donald Trump has publicly doubted the results of every election since 2012, including the one he won. His rhetoric then mirrors nearly word for word the speech he gave on January 6th, 2021:

I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol.

[…]

We fight like Hell and if you don’t fight like Hell, you’re not going to have a country any more.

The claims Donald Trump made in 2012 about the election being stolen should not be understood outside of the birther movement. The belief, while it had ebbed out of the public debate, permeated Republican circles. It never died; it simply hid in the darkest corners of American racism. A 2016 study found that 41% of Republicans disagreed that Obama was born in the United States and 31% had no opinion, which means that only 28% of the GOP voter base thought Obama had been legitimately elected.

Other studies conducted in 2015 and 2019 found a strong correlation between beliefs in the birther movement and racism and anti-black attitudes. The Cambridge study found that “among white Americans, birther beliefs are uniquely associated with racial animus.”

While domestically motivated by racism and white supremacist ideals, Birtherism is a phenomenon that cannot be analysed without taking into account Russian influence over Donald Trump. Russia has been waging war against Western democracies for the past decades, albeit a subtle and mostly invisible war. The strategic underpinning of this global assault can be traced to a now-infamous book titled Foundations of Geopolitics. In it, author Alexsandr Dugin outlines how Russia can undermine other world powers to regain its preeminence. Talking about the United States, Dugin write that:

there is a need for the Russian special services and their allies “to provoke all forms of instability and separatism within the borders of the United States (it is possible to make use of the political forces of Afro-American racists).” “It is especially important,” Dugin adds, “to introduce geopolitical disorder into internal American activity, encouraging all kinds of separatism and ethnic, social and racial conflicts, actively supporting all dissident movements — extremist, racist, and sectarian groups, thus destabilizing internal political processes in the U.S.

We know now that Russia interfered in the 2016 election in favour of Donald Trump. The meddling, the DNC hacking, the online disinformation campaigns and the abuse of social media have all been thoroughly documented. During the four years of his presidency, Trump always sided with Russia against his own country.

Thanks to the team's amazing work at the Moscow Project, we have access to a detailed timeline of Trump’s involvement with Russian government officials, oligarchs, and other business interests. The time frame between 2008 and 2012 is of particular interest in light of all we have discussed above.

From his radio show in 2008, in which he lauded Clinton and Obama as a “dream ticket” to his birther claims in 2011 and his rejection of the election results in 2012, these four years mark a dramatic change in the business makeup of the Trump Organisation.

In 2008, Trump suspiciously sold his Palm Beach villa to Dmitry Rybolovlev for a whopping 95 million dollars, twice the price he had paid four years earlier. Looking at the price of US real estate at the time, one can easily see that Trump bought his house in 2004, at the peak of the market, and sold it in the midst of the financial crisis, when house prices were at their lowest. This deal that reeks of money laundering provided Trump with a cash infusion at just the right moment: in the months that followed, Trump would be sued by Deutsche Bank for 3 billion dollars, Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc. would file for bankruptcy, lenders would foreclose on Trump Hollywood, other Russian funds would prop up his Toronto project, and the Trump Organisation would be sued in NYC.

From 2011 onwards, all of his business dealings occur in Georgia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Russia. Michael Flynn would meet with the GRU in 2013, a mere month before Trump would boast for the first time that Putin was “his best friend.”

The connexion between Trump’s public political shift — from supporting Obama and Clinton in 2008 to hating and peddling destructive conspiracy theories about them both in 2011 and 2016, Trump’s business dealing with Russian oligarchs at first and government officials at last — from his mansion’s sale to the 2013 Moscow beauty pageant, and Trump’s unabashed questioning of the legitimacy of the electoral process — claims that he pushed in 2012, 2016, and 2020, seem all too obvious.

Birtherism was the foundational lie of Trumpism and of a form of American neo-fascism whose violence culminated in the attempted coup of January 6. As Indi Samarajiva wrote it in this excellent essay:

Until Barack Obama was elected, you didn’t have to say white President. Presidents were white. […]

After Obama, however, race became a salient issue. That’s the gap that Trump filled. Donald Trump is America’s first white President. The minute white voters got uncomfortable, white power became a winning electoral strategy.

Casting doubts on the legitimacy of the first black president was more than political manoeuvring. It was the vilest racist move that Trump could choose. It would empower white supremacist around the country to develop their own version of this stabbed-in-the-back myth wherein a foreign-born, Muslim black man had stolen the presidency. It cemented Trump’s position as a quasi-Messianic figure that would restore justice and legitimacy to the presidency.

It also chipped at Obama’s humanity, forcing him into the humiliation of having to prove where and how he was born. One shouldn’t forget that the American conservative movement’s origins are grounded in racism and white nationalism. In their minds, people must conform to a given set of socially accepted behaviours. They must follow the rules.

President Obama couldn’t do good in the GOP’s eyes or those of the white nationalist voters, because his very nature wasn’t good. He is a black man who rose above his station and towered far above all the white people he was surrounded by. As such, he was insulting their white pride.

Trump capitalised on this hatred to get elected, and he is now capitalising on it to remain in power. His discourse has interchangeably referenced BLM protesters, Antifa, and the radical left in a conflation of political beliefs and inherent traits reminiscent of Nazi propaganda's darkest hours.

Trump has achieved what Dugin recommended, and Putin always wanted: he has destroyed a part of America’s soul from within. The question from now on, assuming nothing else happens before January 20, is how does America go about reconstructing its soul and healing its wounds.

I write about politics, business, society and culture on Medium. For startup/business content, check my newsletter: fundraisedd.substack.com

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