Refusing to concede error is a core element of Donald Trump’s primordial appeal. The birther issue has forced him into an untenable situation where he has had no choice. Trump used unhinged claims about President Obama’s citizenship to win the favor of Republican voters, but the taint has contributed to his justified image as a racist. The Washington Post asked Trump about it again Thursday night. In a hasty effort to put the issue behind him, Trump held what was billed as a press conference but turned out to be a series of canned testimonials by supporters, followed by a perfunctory statement disavowing birtherism and shifting the blame to his opponent.
Trump’s event had an array of distinctly Trumpian touches. He held it at a Trump hotel and boasted about its luxuriousness and efficient construction. He surrounded himself with Medal of Honor winners, using their courage as a cover for his own retreat. (Trump pulled the same trick when he skipped the Republican debate in Iowa, holding a veterans’ event so that the theme of bravery would mask the cowardly act of backing out of a public contest with his rivals.) He told brazen lies. And the particular character of the lies flipped the racial onus. “Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy,” he said. “I finished it.”
Neither of these claims is remotely defensible. Fact-checkers have examined the rumor that Clinton, or her campaign, began spreading questions about Obama’s citizenship, and they debunked it. The second claim, that Trump put the birther issue to rest by forcing Obama to produce his birth certificate, is likewise false, as Trump continued to question Obama’s citizenship for years afterward.
But the absurd line fits with Trump’s overarching defense on questions of racism. His tactic is to charge that his opponents are the racists and he is the innocent victim. Democrats are “the party of slavery,” he has said. It is a popular line among conservatives. It is, of course, correct that the Democrats used to contain, and before that were dominated by, a conservative white southern wing with reactionary views on race. Over time, that wing migrated out of the party as Democrats embraced civil rights, but the history allows modern racial reactionaries to disavow any historical connection to their antecedents.
Trump is compressing this historical cycle into a much shorter span. First, he uses birtherism to gain a massive fanbase that he leverages into the Republican nomination. Next, he foists the blame for this issue onto his opponent. By this point, most of his fans are prepared to believe literally anything he says. Why not call Hillary Clinton the real birther?