Donald Trump’s appeal to conspiracy theorists is helping his potential presidential bid.
Update: In response to criticism from “birthers” who claim he is not eligible to hold office, President Barack Obama released his birth certificate Wednesday morning, along with a statement saying, “We do not have time for this kind of silliness.”
At one time in American history, being a conspiracy theorist would have hurt a candidate’s chances of winning the presidency. Now, it actually helps.
That is to say: At least some would-be-chief-executives are convinced that espousing loony ideas is the right way to campaign. Case in point: Donald Trump’s “birther” fixation.
You’ve probably heard how Trump, a New York real-estate developer and reality-show host, has been flirting with a run for the Oval Office.
Ever since the helmet-haired business mogul began talking about a possible White House bid, he has also been challenging U.S. President Barack Obama to show the public his birth certificate.
Doing so puts Trump in the so-called “birther” camp: the group of U.S. right-wingers – many of them tea party supporters – who maintain that the current president was born in Kenya, and is therefore ineligible for the office he won in 2008.
Why would Trump hitch his political star to a fringe group that most Americans don’t identify with? The answer is quite simple: If Trump runs for president, it will be on the Republican ticket, and not as an independent.
Running as a card-carrying member of the Republican party means Trump must first face 2012 primary voters in order to win the party’s nomination. These voters are notoriously conservative.
The late Richard Nixon once wrote that the key to becoming a Republican president is to tack to the right as far as possible during primary season, and then retreat to the political centre as quickly as possible once the presidential campaign kicks off. And Nixon gave this advice before the advent of the tea party.
The primary voters, for whom social issues are crucial, will naturally resist a Trump candidacy. Not only is the businessman from the liberal bastion of New York, but he also belongs to a select group of Republicans – including Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani – who have had multiple marriages break down.
Trump is betting that by appealing to their pet issue – Obama’s supposedly disputed birthplace – he can placate the “birthers,” or even win them over. (For the record, Hawaiian bureaucrats have certified Obama’s birth, and you can find his birth certificate online at the speed of Google.)
Questioning Obama’s citizenship helps Trump burnish his credentials with the extreme right. It also fits with his record of bashing foreign nations like China and Saudi Arabia, which Trump says are “ripping off the United States.”
(In Canada, we can see the same kind of soft-core xenophobia at work in the Conservative attack ads reminding voters how Michael Ignatieff has spent years outside the country.)
Trump isn’t the only Republican hopeful who has appealed to “birthers.” For instance, Mike Huckabee has remarked during interviews how Obama’s growing up “in Kenya” makes him disconnected from the American mainstream.
“The Donald” also isn’t the first unlikely presidential hopeful who has made a name for himself by forwarding nutbar theories. In 1992, another strong-willed business leader with a flair for self-promotion took a stab at presidential politics. Ross Perot, however, ran as an independent. This meant he didn’t have to run within a party structure, thus allowing him to avoid any kind of primary process.
Perot, a Mexico-bashing Texan, briefly dropped out of the race that year. But later, jumping back into the campaign, he spoke darkly about then-president George H.W. Bush’s alleged plans to disrupt his daughter’s wedding ceremony. Since no proof was ever offered to support the existence of such a conspiracy, Perot’s insinuations were taken as more proof that the tiny Texan had a propensity for making irrational statements – hardly the ideal temperament for a potential president.
On election night that year, Democratic strategist James Carville famously declared Perot’s $60-million campaign “the most expensive single act of masturbation in the history of the world.”
The centrepiece of Trump’s presidential musings has been his appeals to the “birthers.” However, whether his fixation goes down in history as similar onanism, or as a political masterstroke, remains to be seen.
One thing is certain: Democrats would love to face Trump in the 2012 general election.
Obama adviser David Plouffe recently commented, “I saw Donald Trump … rising in the polls and, given his behaviour and spectacle the last couple of weeks, I hope he keeps rising.”
Trump says he’ll drop a big hint about his intentions on the May 22 season finale of Celebrity Apprentice – so stay tuned!
Photo courtesy of Reuters.