Like the death of bin Laden, the death of birtherism was a long time coming, but when it finally came, it was swift and dramatic: President Obama rappelled down to the birther level to release his long-form birth certificate; at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner three days later, Obama and wingman Seth Myers broke down Donald Trump’s extraordinarily well-guarded ego, with jokes; and within hours, simply by announcing that bin Laden was dead, Obama sent Trump’s verkakte ideas to go sleep with the fishes.
If the narcissistic real estate mogul had become a 3-D avatar for the Obama-hating Republican base, you have to wonder where all their resentment and anger—augmented now by humiliation—will go now?
Some on the birther-inflected right are actually acting out the parody headlines, like “Trump: Where’s the Death Certificate?” The words have changed to “Where’s the death photo?” but the idea’s the same. “Show photo as warning to others seeking America's destruction. No pussy-footing around…” Sarah Palin tweeted shortly before Obama decided not to release the photo. (Never mind that it could be more inflammatory than, say, a Koran burning, or that Obama’s critics won’t be satisfied until they see the long-form bin Laden, all the waterlogged, 6-feet 6-inches of him.) Fox’s Andrew Napolitano was sowing some very familiar-sounding doubts, complaining that there are “No photos, no testimony from eyewitnesses, just the president's word that he's dead,” and wondering “whether the government is telling us the truth, or pulling a fast one to save Obama's lousy presidency.” Glenn Beck sure wasn’t taking the president’s word. “Is it possible,” he asked, “that Osama bin Laden has been ghosted out of his compound, and we’re seeing a show now at this point?” Yes, OBL was spirited out alive to join Obama in establishing a CaliphateNow! franchise in Kenya.
But going full-tilt death-photo has the unfortunate effect for the right of aligning them with conspiracy theorists in the Muslim world, many of whom also believe Osama’s death was faked.
No, the more “patriotic” and viable vessel for hatred of Obama is “torturism”—the dogged belief that waterboarding and other “enhanced” interrogation techniques provided the key intelligence that led to bin Laden’s death, and that, ergo, Bush/Cheney should get as much if not all the credit for the remarkable raid: It’s the best new way of denying Obama his legitimacy. OK, maybe Obama was born in Hawaii, this thinking goes, but the idea that Obama nailed Osama is based on a lie that could endanger America. As Sean Hannity told a concurring Donald Rumsfeld, “if he [Obama] had had his way [in opposing torture] and Democrats had their way, we wouldn’t have had this intelligence.” And Osama would still be knocking around the compound.
In the best-case torturist scenario, Obama did little more than follow the Bush/Cheney mastermind plan. Ridiculous? A Washington Post/Pew Research poll found that 81 percent of Republicans believe that Bush deserves "some credit" for nabbing bin Laden, while only 61 percent say that Obama does. As St. Louis Tea Party radio host Dana Loesch roared, “God bless President George W. Bush for implementing enhanced interrogation…!”
Despite Loesch’s enthusiasm, torturism originates not so much from Tea Partiers like her, but from Neocons—Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Rumsfeld—who are desperate not only to grab credit but to save their butts from ever being tried as war criminals. Torturism has the added benefit of providing the Neos—many of whom, like Rove, detest birthers as a distraction—a bridge back to that spurned base and the powder-keg of red hot anger it can supposedly dispense at will. After all, torture and/or fantasies of torturing are themselves a pretty direct expression of intense anger.
Now, torturism differs from birtherism in one significant way: the former may not be made up entirely from whole cloth. It is feasible that some torture produced some information that indirectly led to bin Laden’s death. Let’s not be in denial ourselves by insisting that’s not possible. By most early accounts, this doesn’t appear to be the case. "To the best of our knowledge, based on a look, none of it came as a result of harsh interrogation practices," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Andrew Sullivan has a great breakdown on why the one piece of intel that torture defenders claim was instrumental to finding bin Laden is a bunch of “truthiness.” But less truthy info may yet come out in this story that will take years to unravel. We just don’t know.
The point, however, is that whether or not torture procured vital clues, the rightwing base can obsess over it, magnifying every rumor out of all proportion. Conspiracy theories that Obama is hiding the evidence that torture worked are only just around the corner.
We don’t yet know Donald Trump’s view on whether torture saved the day. But don’t be surprised if he makes torture his battle cry. Look at what the man does to his hair.