The Media Zone

How the media make sense and nonsense of the world.

Zombie Issues and Trump’s “Birther” Pangs

How Trump and news media keep alive zombie issues

It’s baaaaaaaack! Once again, Donald Trump has audaciously  lashed himself to the mast of the zombie issue of the actual birth place of President Obama.  A couple of years ago he sailed the issue into the fray while testing the waters of a run at the GOP candidacy for President. He even sent an investigator toHawaii to check birth records and at one point declared they had found some dramatic evidence that would prove the “birther” charge that Obama was not born in theU.S.  The vaunted proof never made it out ofTrumpTowers.

When Obama tactically dignified the birther charges with a release of the official short form of his Hawaiian birth certificate, it shut up Trump.  But only for a while. Soon the demand came from Trump’s birther supporters that they now need to see the long form birth certificate. (who knew there two forms?) That received some traction on the right as Trump smugly went around garnering media attention for the subject.  He could accomplish this because he was a celebrity, a candidate for the Presidency and because it stirred the pot of election year controversy, always good for the media interests and its 24-hour news cycle.

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Eventually, Obama tried to put a stake in the heart of the birther campaign paranoia. He released his long form birth certificate. To no one’s surprise (except the rationalist slice of the American population pie chart when it comes to Obama), that really didn’t quell the suspicions, rumors, books and charges, and articles by the right wing punditry.  They made a tactical shift: away from the legal documentation of Obama’s American birth inHawaii to why it took so long for him to release it. For starters, that is.

Was it fraud, a counterfeit, wool overAmerica’s eyes? It became obvious the birthers would not be satisfied with anything that contradicted their mutually-validating opinion that this “occupier” of the White House must be a fraud; must be illegitimate. Obama would not have been elected, they tell each other, if people knew the truth. In mere nanoseconds, the internet birther sites were chattering 24/7, reinforcing retrenching and recruiting.

In effect, a large segment (Truth: I almost typed pigment) of the population can never accept the legitimacy of Barack Obama as President of the U. S. So, if one “swift boating” charge of illegality or poor character doesn’t work (Islamist, non-Christian, anti-American, Socialist, Communist, one-man terrorist sleeper cell), they will find another. For example, an increasing number of Americans are repeatedly resensitized to a concern that, since President Obama was born with foreign nationality, Kenyan, (in addition toU.S. citizenship), he might not actually be a "natural born citizen" and therefore might not be eligible, under the Constitution, to serve as President.

Obama can run but he can’t hide from these seekers of truth. Staying and fighting doesn’t help much either. But really, how can it? The fact that Republicans and their fringe fraternity brothers did not challenge the legitimacy of either John McCain (born in Panama) or Barry Goldwater (born in Arizona before it was a state, merely a territory), certainly makes the challenge of Obama reek of racism (or, worse, prejudice toward the elite – student presidents of the Harvard Law Review).  And take a gander at the rat’s nest of murkiness of the "natural born” citizenship of Mitt Romney if you want to see a world class double-standard.

Donald Trump is also world class: a world class, self-promoting celebrity who never saw a controversy he wouldn’t exploit to advance his favorite cause—himself. When told that the President released the long-form birth certificate, he took the credit for forcing the issue and relieving the American public of this very serious and legitimate concern. Case closed, right? At least so far as “The Donald” is concerned. Right?

Wrong! Trump has more fish to fry and more pots to stir. He still wants his name in lights and to be next to power. Enter his endorsement of Mitt Romney. He will soon join Romney in a fund raiser in Las Vegas. Bloodied but unbowed on the topic, he still keeps the birtherism flame alive: “Look, it's very simple, a book publisher came out three days ago and said that in his written synopsis of his book he said he was born in Kenya and raised in Indonesia. His mother never spent a day in the hospital," Trump told the Daily Beast.

Trump has never acknowledged the long-form birth certificate issued by the Obama campaign to be authentic, and remains skeptical. For Trump, the birther controversy is the gift that keeps on keepin’ on. And now that he’s angling for connectivity with Romney, he will enthusiastically carry the dirty birther water to help secure Romney’s election.  

Like a one-man super-PAC, Trump will keep the birther issue alive because it’s red meat that gets out the troops and brings in the dollar. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, can use the money it raises but still take the high road: protest his belief in the legality of Obama’s presidency, yet hedge on criticizing the birther movement itself.  It’s a common main stream GOP tactic because it fears throwing cold water on the Tea Party.

That Trump is a celebrity in the most boisterous,

Donald Trump blowharding
archetypal sense of the term is self-evident. Everything he does, ranging from whomever he marries, businesses or candidacies that succeed or fail, wealth that disappears and reappears depending on why and by whom it is being assessed, his hair style, and whether he eats pizza with a fork, is all grist for the Trump allure and the Trump celebrity mill.

Unlike the really wealthy but below-the-radar, powerful political game players, like the Koch brothers, Trump truly loves his celebrity. He displays that amorousness every chance he can. It helps his businesses and massages his enormous ego. Clearly he is little- troubled by ridicule, embarrassment, inconsistency, or even failure. He is the Energizer Bunny of the modern celebrity-political landscape only with a mouth instead of a drum – perhaps a distinction without a difference.

We are weathering a time in which wealth, exhibitionism, chutzpah, media access and celebrity have unseemly relationships with politics, campaigns, and governance. I am reminded of two films, Network and A Face in the Crowd, that offer scathing indictments of mixing celebrity with politics and showmanship and feeding the brew to a naïve and needy audience of Americans.

A Face in the Crowd

In both films, a complicit and cynical media gleefully keep the band playing and the circus bringing in the rubes and ratings. In neither film does anything good for our social and political system grab a breath. A battle is won, but the war over political and news media sanity and common sense continues to be lost. The media has and will continue to have affairs with authoritarian power-lovers.  Trump is just the latest bed partner. 

Money and power:  The two great corruptors of the democratic process when used as tools to preserve the power of those with money.  As media, politics and celebrity keep strengthening their unhealthy, unholy alliance, I’m reminded of the ad line from Cronenberg's remake of The Fly, “Be afraid, be very afraid.”.” 

Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., is Senior Editor of the Journal of Media Psychology and Emeritus Professor of Media Psychology at Cal State, Los Angeles.

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