So it’s come to this: The institutional position of the Republican Party in the great birther controversy roiling the 2016 campaign — a consequential chapter in our political history — is now essentially that Donald Trump did the nationa service by forcing the first African American president to finally show his papers.
This new GOP storyline has gotten obscured by the ongoing back-and-forth in the media over various subplots (did Hillary Clinton start birtherism? did Trump really keep feeding this conspiracy after 2011?) that are related to the birther battle.
Yet it’s unmistakably the larger narrative that the Trump campaign and top Republicans — including the chairman of the Republican National Committee — are telling right now. The Trump campaign’s effort to whitewash his birther history — in which he fed racist conspiracy theories for years — is being widely called out as dishonest. And that’s good. But Trump’s new narrative is actually a lot worse than the rendering of it we’ve seen in most media accounts suggests, and now the party has institutionally joined in promoting it.
On the Sunday shows, RNC chair Reince Priebus, GOP veep candidate Mike Pence, and other surrogates for Trump all made the same argument: Clinton started the birther rumors in 2008, and Trump ended them by compelling Obama to release his birth certificate, rendering this a settled issue, which Trump declared to be the case last week.
Priebus said: “after getting this issue resolved, he proclaimed on Friday that he believes that the president was born in America.” Pence said that Trump brought the birther “issue to an end.” Chris Christie said: “after the president presented his birth certificate, Donald has said he was born in the United States, and that’s the end of the issue.” Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said that he “put the issue to rest when he got President Obama to release his birth certificate years later.”
In other words, Trump’s birther crusade legitimately got results. That is their argument. Indeed, when Pence was asked directly on ABC whether it was wrong to push this “issue” for so many years, he dodged:
MARTHA RADDATZ: Do you think he should have promoted this birther issue for all these years? Was he wrong to do this?
PENCE: Our campaign just really isn’t focused on the past, Martha.
Now, the claims that Clinton started birtherism, and that Trump stopped pushing it after he forced Obama to show his papers in 2011, are both lies. And all the moderators of these shows did a good job in pinning down their interviewees on these points.
But in a way, to chase after those assertions is to get lost in a rabbit warren. It distracts from the larger point here, which is that the current official position of the Republican Party on Trump’s birther crusade is in some ways just as reprehensible as the crusade itself was.
To be clear, Republicans like Priebus and Christie have long left no doubt that they themselves know Obama was born in the U.S. But their position right now is simultaneously that Trump’s years-long effort to “settle” this “issue” was nonetheless a defensible exercise that had a positive outcome. Indeed, their position is essentially that this “issue” might not be sufficiently settled for many people if Trump had not launched his crusade. In short, it’s that Trump finally got Obama to cough up his papers, and now we can all move on — thanks to Trump’s efforts.
It is likely that many Republicans and conservatives — such as Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio — see it as a blot on the history of the modern GOP that the party nominated someone who launched a years-long racist campaign to delegitimize the first African American president in the explicit belief that it would appeal to the racist tendencies of many GOP primary voters. Those Republicans might even say so right now if asked. But Trump has compelled the RNC not merely to participate in helping him push lies designed to muddy the waters around his birther history, but also — and this is the really important part — to institutionally defend that history. Indeed, while many Republicans previously repudiated this history, the RNC is now helping Trump validate it.