"They threw in the obvious, ultimate fear bomb. ‘When all else fails, be afraid of his name, and what that could stand for, because it's different.’"
—Michelle Obama, February 28, 2008
It's time to once and for all set the record straight on the origins of the "Birther" business and Donald Trump's lie that Hillary Clinton started this mess in 2008. She didn't. In fact, I wrote a book at the time that included an epic chapter titled, "The Ultimate Fear Bomb," about the GOP's strategy to attack President Obama's name and family background in order to target him as a terrorist sympathizer and, worse, a jihadist sleeper cell. In the process, I documented the rise of Birtherism in real time, and while Hillary commented on the issue once, she absolutely didn't legitimize it or inject it into the presidential race.
Mark Halperin did.
Late last week, Trump finally anointed, as if by official decree, the president of the United States as an American citizen, nearly eight years into the president's two terms. Trump followed it up by lying about Hillary's involvement during her 2008 presidential run. The truth is that Hillary, when she was asked whether Obama was a Muslim, replied, “I take him on the basis of what he says. And, you know, there isn’t any reason to doubt that.” She continued, "No! There's nothing to base that on, as far as I know."
While she didn't fully close the door on the idea, she also didn't start anything, as Trump falsely asserted. In fact, if my research is correct, this was the only time she commented on the topic. The date was March 2, 2008.
For many years prior to Hillary's repudiation of the rumor about Obama's religion, there was an effort to smear Obama's origins through a chain email titled "Who Is Barack Obama?" Concurrently, and going back to 2006, two years prior to the presidential campaign, television and radio commentators were routinely blurting "Osama" instead of "Obama." This name confusion, whether deliberate or accidental, helped to later fuel the efficacy of the email whisper campaign.
That brings us to Bloomberg and MSNBC political analyst Mark Halperin.
On February 25, 2008, nearly a week before Hillary's "as far as I know" statement, Halperin published a series of tips for how John McCain could defeat Obama in the general election, titled: “HALPERIN’S TAKE (updated): Things McCain Can Do to Try to Beat Obama That Clinton Cannot (some already on display).” The tips included an entire menu of heinous things such as a recommendation that McCain “allow some supporters to risk being accused of using the race card when criticizing Obama.” Or, simply put, tell your supporters to be bigots. Again, I hasten to underscore that this isn’t some radical far-right splinter group. This is mainstream commentator Mark Halperin publishing for TIME magazine. And it gets so much crazier.
Here’s Halperin’s contribution to the fear bomb:
11. Emphasize Barack Hussein Obama’s unusual name and exotic background through a Manchurian Candidate prism.
Again, Halperin was perhaps the first legitimate reporter to have proactively and positively suggested that Obama's birth and his name be used to paint him as a sleeper cell. Several months later, the McCain campaign and, specifically, Sarah Palin would take him up on his advice. (That Obama "pals around with terrorists" became a stump speech winner for Palin during the general election.)
The same guy who'd go on to be suspended by NBC News for calling Obama a "dick" on live television mainlined this Birther horseshit into the carotid artery of the debate. Not Hillary. And once it was mainstreamed in TIME magazine, the topic was legitimized and the flood-gates were opened. Everyone, save for Obama supporters and some liberal hosts on cable news, perpetuated the rumor. Even on the "liberal" network, MSNBC, endless roundtables of political contributors on Hardball and elsewhere wondered out loud whether Obama's name and paternal African heritage were "too exotic" to win.
This is precisely how Birtherism was elevated to the point of being a national issue. The very same cable news people who are laughing it off today as racist and ridiculous were, at the time, concerned about the fact that Obama has an unusual name and is half Kenyan, despite the fact that he was born in Hawaii, an American state, and was raised in part by a white mother and grandparents from Kansas. (Incidentally, Obama's name isn't any more unusual than American political names like Reince Priebus, Steny Hoyer and, yes, Rush Limbaugh, to name a few.)
Halperin or TIME itself has since removed the original article, but the record of it surely lives on even though Donald Trump and, sadly, most of the political press forgot who, exactly, elevated an underground rumor to the status of a mainstream debate topic. It was perhaps the most grotesque attack on a presidential candidate to date: accusing him of being a terrorist agent who was nefariously plotting to infiltrate the White House just seven years after 9/11. Only now that Trump has accused Obama and Hillary of literally co-founding ISIS has the Birther nonsense been one-upped. And the reason the ISIS lie is sticking with Trump's people is because Trump spent five years laying the groundwork by telling his fanboys that Obama wasn't born in America.
As of today, 41 percent of Republicans and 69 percent of Trump supporters believe Obama was born elsewhere.
One last thing about Trump. Lost in the reporting about the GOP nominee's statement last week is the reality that Birtherism isn't just about Obama's place of birth, it's largely about whether Obama is a Muslim (he's not). Notice in Trump's remarks that he only confirmed that Obama was born in America. Trump failed to reject the false rumors about Obama's religion and terrorist affiliations. In other words, until he clarifies his position, Trump is still very much in the business of Birtherism, even though he's renounced the birth certificate part. There are two more dimensions to this, and we shouldn't expect the political press, of which Halperin is an influential player like-it-or-not, to probe Trump any further.