Lest We Forget
In this web exclusive, Bill Moyers and four historians dissect the big lie Trump rode to power: the Birther lie. Nell Painter, historian and Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita, at Princeton University; Khalil Gibran Muhammad, professor of history, race and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School; Christopher Lebron, assistant professor of African-American studies and philosophy at Yale University; and Philip Klinkner, James S. Sherman Professor of Government, Hamilton College discuss the fertile ground on which the birther lie was sown: our nation’s history of white supremacy.
Credits: Gail Ablow, Producer; Sikay Tang, Editor
BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers. The most important thing to remember about Donald Trump is that he was the same man at 12:01 p.m. Friday after he took the oath of office as he was at 11:59 a.m. before his swearing in. His character: the same. His temperament and his values: the same.
What’s different is that in those two minutes Donald Trump was handed the most awesome power imaginable. He now controls the world’s most powerful nuclear arsenal. The Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard are at his command. The FBI, the CIA, the NSA, the IRS, Homeland Security, the State Department, Justice Department, Treasury Department, the Department of Education, the Interior Department — all of the agencies of the executive branch — report, ultimately, to this one man. The world awaits his pronouncements, the markets and the media live by and for his tweets. So here’s the second most important thing to remember about Donald Trump: He rode to power on the wings of a dark lie — one of the most malignant and ugly lies in American history. We must never forget it.
LOU DOBBS (CNN 7/21/09): Up next, the issue that won’t go away: the matter of President Obama and that birth certificate.
DONALD TRUMP (The View, ABC 3/23/11): There’s something on that birth certificate that he doesn’t like.
TRUMP (The O’Reilly Factor, FOX News 3/30/11): He doesn’t have a birth certificate. Now, he may have one, but there’s something on that, with maybe religion, maybe it says he is a Muslim. I don’t know.
CHRISTOPHER LEBRON: I found that as cynical as I am, I couldn’t actually believe people would actually run with this story. But then the story had legs. And then people like Donald Trump didn’t let it go. And I remember when he was going to prove that President Obama was not American, that he was not able to offer that proof. And even more amazingly, Trump has been able to not only convince himself for the longest time but has been able to convince a not-insignificant portion of the American people that no matter what documentation President Obama provides, he’s not American, which is an amazing thing to have done.
NELL PAINTER: The ground was very fertile for the birther lie, and in fact, if it hadn’t been, somebody could have said oh no, no, no, the president was not born in this country, he cannot be president — and it would have fallen to Earth. It never would have gone anywhere.
KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: If it were true, we would have elected someone who had no right to run for president, let alone to become the first African-American president of this country, but more particularly it expresses the illegitimacy of a person of African descent as a true American, as someone truly endowed with the capacity to govern this great nation. And that lie is just the tip of the iceberg, though foundational for everything else that flows from Donald Trump’s lips.
TRUMP (SPEECH, 2/10/11): Our current president came out of nowhere. Came out of nowhere. In fact, I’ll go a step further: The people that went to school with him — they don’t even know, they never saw him; they don’t know who he is. It’s crazy.
PHILIP KLINKNER: There were a lot of rumors swirling around him that he was a Muslim, that he was raised in a madrassa, but the most common was that he was in fact not born in the United States and that his birth certificate from Hawaii was in fact a lie, that he was born someplace else, probably Kenya, but nobody was really pretty sure about that. The Obama campaign sort of pushed back at this pretty hard. They released a short-form birth certificate. They showed the birth notice in The Honolulu Advertiser at the time, but there was never any real question about this. But nonetheless, this lie began to gain real traction among his opponents.
And then once he got elected, then again it really sort of took off because it began to sort of seep into a lot of conservative and right-wing media circles, a lot of attention was paid to people who are going into federal court suing, attempting to either have Obama declared ineligible as president or arguing that he should release his long-form birth certificate.
And it really sort of festered there on the right for a number of years until the spring of 2011, when President Obama finally released the long-form birth certificate.
TRUMP (SPEECH 4/27/11): I was just informed while on the helicopter that our president has finally released a birth certificate.
I am really honored, frankly, to have played such a big role in hopefully, hopefully, getting rid of this issue. Now we have to look at it. We have to see, is it real? Is it proper? What’s on it? But I hope it checks out beautifully. I am really proud. I am really honored.
KLINKNER: But that really didn’t put it away. The number of Republicans who believe that Obama was born outside the United States dropped for a little while but then it popped back up again.
Trump at the time was a very big reality media star.
THE APPRENTICE open with SOT: “You’re fired.” 2/9/15
KLINKNER: NBC in particular, I think, wanted to sort of cross-promote one of its biggest prime-time franchises, The Apprentice. So he was on NBC quite a lot. He was on the Todayshow quite a bit. He’d appear on other NBC shows. But he also appeared on other networks — ABC’s The View, things like that.
And the effect was to give Trump really sort of this unparalleled platform to sort of spread this. Whereas people who were doing it before were really just sort of fringe characters, who might get a little bit of time on some TV shows, but really not much at all. So he really took it mainstream.
PAINTER: I have said, more than once, that we would not have Trump without Obama. And that is, on the one hand, we have this current, this running current, of white supremacy — the assumption that nonwhite people are sort of over there and they’re inferior, they don’t work hard.
Black people are not supposed to be powerful. What is the ultimate defiance of that assumption? The ultimate defiance is the president.
LEBRON: There is a strong subset of Americans who are fearful of black empowerment. And I don’t mean this in the radical sense; I mean just basic everyday citizenship empowerment. Be able to pick up on that.
Then also decades of Republicans and dog whistle politics, Willie Horton ads ….
WILLIE HORTON AD, 1988 PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN: One was Willie Horton, who murdered a boy in a….
LEBRON: …“super predator” talk, you know, with respect to criminality and law and order, which is basically code for policing black neighborhoods.
Somebody like Trump comes in and there’s a perfect storm of fear, loathing and a deep history of using policies to suppress blacks’ freedom and liberties. And Trump comes on the end of a black presidency and says, listen, this man is giving health care away for free; doesn’t that scare you? This man wants to let gay men and women marry. That’s not how you should live your life. This black man is doing that.
And that’s why it’s no accident he has stepped into the perfect storm, of basically, white paranoia, white fear, of an era of possible black…true black liberation and justice.
KLINKNER: I think it’s very much tied in to the discomfort and fear that a lot of white Americans had about the first African-American president. And we’ve seen this throughout American history, that white Americans have often sort of disregarded African-Americans as not just full citizens, but sometimes full human beings.
And so I thought it was interesting that here we have the first African-American president, and here was an attempt to sort of delegitimize him in a very overt way as not actually being American. Not just sort of saying you know he says un-American things, but in fact he is, in fact, not an American. ...