This is an excerpt of a guest column published on Medium on September 9, 2020.
I am a communication, ethics, and leadership professor at New York University and Columbia University, and have spent the last two years studying Trump’s language for my book, Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It. In it I profile Trump’s revival of the birther conspiracy that Barack Obama was not born in the United States.
That claim had been definitively disproven when the State of Hawaii released Obama’s birth certificate, called a Certificate of Live Birth, in 2008.
But in February 2012, Trump told the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that he was going to run against incumbent President Barack Obama. He repeated the birther claim that Obama had not been born in the U.S. Trump spent the next five years building support from white supremacists and others by attacking Obama’s legitimacy.
In April, 2012 Trump falsely claimed that the Certificate of Live Birth that the State of Hawaii had released four years earlier was not the same as a birth certificate. He told Fox & Friends,
“They give you a certificate of live birth, which anybody can get, just walk into the hospital, and you get a certificate of live birth. It’s not even signed by people. Now, this guy either has a birth certificate or he doesn’t. And I didn’t think this was such a big deal, but I will tell you, it’s turning out to be a very big deal because people now are calling me from all over saying, please don’t give up on this issue. If you weren’t born in this country, you cannot be president.”
A month later Trump claimed that he had sent investigators to Hawaii to look into the birth certificate claims, and that “they can’t believe what they’re finding.”
He repeated this line many times over many interviews, but never provided evidence that he had sent investigators, or what those investigators found.
In response to the controversy created by Trump, President Obama asked the state of Hawaii to release the long form of his birth certificate, which it did. Contrary to Trump’s claim that a long-form birth certificate is different from a “Certificate of Live Birth,” this longer document also was called a “Certificate of Live Birth.”
But despite that evidence, birthers including Trump persisted. The following month a Gallup poll showed that 13 percent of all Americans, and 23 percent of Republicans, believed that President Obama was not born in the United States.
Trump never did run for president against Barack Obama. But even as he ran in 2016 he kept insisting that Obama was not born in America. It was only in the very last weeks of the 2016 campaign that he grudgingly admitted that Obama had been born in the US.
Naturally, he blamed Hillary Clinton for having started the birther rumors.
Rachel Maddow asked Michael Cohen, who had been Trump’s personal lawyer and fixer for ten years, about what she called Trump’s obsession with Obama, and his “almost desperate need undercut President Obama in some way.”
She noted that in the book Cohen says that Trump “didn’t necessarily actually believe that President Obama was born in a foreign country but he liked the effect that it had, for him to advance this theory.”
She pointed to a passage in Cohen’s book where he said that Trump liked to use incendiary language: “the more divisive, the better, because it would arouse strong feelings for those who took his side.”