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Jeff Flake’s ‘Birtherism’ Complaint Against Republicans Doesn’t Hold Up

When pressed to offer examples of how Republicans had brought Trump on themselves, Sen. Jeff Flake argued the GOP had done too little to curb birtherism. This is a myth.


Sen. Jeff Flake has become Donald Trump’s most vociferous critic among elected Republicans. While many of his points are salient and important, others seem to have little purpose beyond padding the word count in his new book — an argument against the president and for “a return to conservative principles.” I’ll let those who’ve read his book make the case for and against it.

Recently, when pressed to back up his contention that Republicans had lost their way, Flake claimed that the GOP had done too little to curb conspiracy theories regarding Barack Obama’s birth. “I wish we as a party had stood up, for example, when the birtherism thing was going on,” Flake explained on NBC’s “Meet the Press” this weekend. “People did stand up, but not enough.”

There are a few problems with this statement.

For starters, historically speaking, there is nothing particularly unique about the birther conspiracy — outside of the histrionic reaction to it. Conspiracy movements are rampant among factions of Americans no matter who is president and no matter how often establishment types wag their fingers. Most often these notions aren’t ideologically motivated, but rather emotional responses to justify the kind of anger and frustration people feel about elections. People are willing to believe implausible things about their opponents. They always have been.

In one 2006 University of Ohio/Scripps Howard poll, pollsters asked Democrats, “How likely is it that people in the federal government either assisted in the 9/11 attacks or took no action to stop the attacks because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East?” Just over 22 percent of Democrats claimed it was “very likely” and over 28 percent called it “somewhat likely” — which means more than 50 percent of Democrats were ready to believe that a Republican administration had in some way instigated or allowed the worst terror attack in its history to start a war. Another poll showed 35 percent of Democrats believe President Bush knew about 9/11 beforehand.

Plenty of people believed Vince Foster was murdered by the Clintons or that Ronald Reagan had tasked the CIA with selling crack in inner cities and that AIDS had been cooked up in a lab somewhere to punish gay Americans. Even now, we see Americans taking some legitimate concerns and running to fantastical places with them. Earlier this year, a poll found that 58 percent of Democrats believe that Russians “definitely” or “probably” “tampered with actual vote tallies in order to get Trump elected president.” Major liberal columnists claimed that Putin “carried out a successful plan to pick the government of the United States,” so it’s not exactly surprising.

When it happens to them, of course, liberals are injured and horrified by these conspiracies. They demand the opposition mobilize to quash these dumb thoughts. In truth, birtherism had an outsized importance only because Obama was president and everything that swirled around him was instinctively deemed racist. As far as I remember, reporters didn’t go from one congressman to the next asking if they also thought “Bush knew” like their constituents.

Aside from all of that, though, I don’t remember a single Republican of any consequence pushing birtherism. No one in leadership. It was always treated and considered a fringe movement. Sen. Lindsey Graham called it “crazy.” Sen. Marco Rubio, then a fresh-faced populist Tea Party-backed politician, said: “I’m more concerned with issues that are happening back here on planet Earth.”

When John McCain was running for president he was booed for going out of his way to call Obama a citizen (“He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues”) as did Mitt Romney, who pushed back against the conspiracy theory. Erick Erickson banned it from Red State’s community. Radio talk show hosts like Mark Levin and Glenn Beck called it wrong and unconstructive. Even those who might be prone to conspiracies of this nature, like Michele Bachmann, begrudgingly said “we should take the president at his word.”

Flake, as congressman, didn’t have a ton to say about it on the record as far as I can tell. He once told CNN that he had “a hard time believing that poll” and “most people understand and accept the reality — the reality is that, yes, he was born in the United States.” I happen to agree with him. Most people will say anything about the politicians they hate when a pollster calls. It doesn’t mean they believe it.

No doubt, Obama was happy to see all the talk about birtherism, which was often a distraction from genuine issues.

Trump, of course, was a big proponent of birtherism, reigniting the controversy in 2011. It’s likely he believed Obama was a Kenyan more than he believed in any conservative idea. However, other than his speech at CPAC (a place that allows any celebrity or quack group to participate, as long as they aren’t gay) no one in the conservative establishment embraced him until after he dropped the issue. Other GOP primary candidates attacked him in the primary for peddling it. Instead, he took up Ted Cruz birtherism for a while.

Whatever the case, if there is evidence that his advocacy had anything to do with his victory I’d love to see it. Although, I suppose, it might have something to do with how you view history. Do you believe that Trump was a reaction to eight years of Obama abuses, a large and divided and ineffective Republican Party field, and a dreadful, corrupt Democrat presidential candidate, or do you believe this was some grand moment that changes everything about the conservative movement?

I’d say if we consider the tepid support Republicans have given the president, the former is far more likely than the latter. Then again, I imagine that position also doesn’t sell many books.