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The Birthers of a Nation | The Nation

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The Birthers of a Nation

The long hunt for the new leader of the Republican Party has at last come to an end, and the winner isn't Rush Limbaugh, Mitt Romney, or even Sarah Palin, but this woman in a red T-shirt:

If you're going to lead a low-tech lynch mob, you've got to be able to get that Gilbert Gottfried screech into your voice like the Lady in Red does when she says, "I want my country back!" That's leadership for you, ever so much more forceful than poor Delaware Rep. Mike Castle, a GOP moderate (one of eight who voted for the House climate change bill), who seems to be ducking a personal Oxbow Incident by meekly asking the crowd if they'd like him to "lead" the Pledge of Allegiance. By then the crowd is already on its feet, one hand on their hearts and the other on an imaginary holster, insisting, like their dimestore-flag-waving leader, that they "don't want this flag to change!"

It's paranoid, it's deranged, and it's as American as Andrew Jackson and the rebel yell. What's different now is that the nativist right has finally had their bluff called by the landslide election of a black man as president, and their centuries-old legitimacy is in question as it never has been since Appomattox. So they are desperately projecting that self-doubt onto reality itself.

Of course, the Lady in Red couldn't scream the N-word in a townhall meeting (which, by the way, was called to discuss healthcare reform), so she screamed about his birth certificate. Karl Rove mentor Lee Atwater called this shot nearly three decades ago, when he explained how the Republican Party should parse its racism for the 20th century and beyond:

You start out in 1954 by saying, `Nigger, nigger, nigger.' By 1968 you can't say `nigger'--that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights, and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.

And now, finally, things have become so algebraic that the base goes totally into denial, refusing to see a notarized public document as it's waved right under their noses, and the whole nativist scheme falls into ridicule.

The Birthers go beyond simple conspiracy theories--they're cast members of the ongoing American denying-reality show, not unlike the folks who deny the moonlanding or the Holocaust (like James von Brunn, the octogenarian who killed a guard at the Washington, D.C., Holocaust Museum and who had earlier posted a screed entitled "WHO SENT YOU???," charging that Obama is utterly undocumented), and very much like the Creationists who insist that the Earth is but 6,000 years old, the Teabaggers who refuse to believe they must pay taxes, the 9/11 Truthers who say the government attacked the Twin Towers, and, as we might call them, the Inhofers who believe global warming is a hoax.

The word Birther itself comes trailing clouds of associative fog. It's unclear who minted the term, but for the true believers themselves, it can have a positive ring. When I first heard of Birthers I thought maybe they were subscribers to some sub-catechism about the birth of Christ or an offshoot of the anti-abortion movement--pro-life, pro-birth. Which makes sense: The Bircher, er, Birther movement is born from the same psychology that can trace social unease to a single issue--if we could only stop abortion, we could turn the clock back to Father Knows Best; if we could abolish all gun control, we could restore the eye-for-an-eye justice of the Old West; if we could only prove that Barack Obama was "born in Kenya," his presidency would go away and White Power would be restored.

It's great to dream the American Dream, and the right of an individual to pursue whatever fantasy he or she wants is what makes America so admired around the world. There's nothing wrong with dressing up in Confederate grey and re-enacting your defeat--you just can't impose such a monoculture on the rest of us.

What has been so polluting about the GOP's Southern Strategy over the past 50 years is the winking at racism by supposedly mainstream pols and pundits for short-term votes and ratings. It's the cynicism of a Liz Cheney or a Lou Dobbs doling out MSM legitimacy with each Birther encouragement that really opens a rent in the social contract. Occasionally, you might trip up such media figures with factual arguments, as Chris Matthews did this week with both an addled G. Gordon Liddy and a Republican congressman pushing a bill that would force presidential candidates (i.e., Obama in 2012) to pony up their birth certificates.

But with Birthers and others in the fantasy-based community themselves, no amount of argument or evidence will knock some sense into them. Their lives are defined in significant part by the strength of their denial. Maybe the only way to effectively respond is the way a real American hero, like Buzz Aldrin, did a few years ago when confronted by one of those crazies who insist the moonlanding was faked:

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