Right-wing myths never die. They simply mutate, changing their forms with the times while retaining the core beliefs that made them appealing in the first place. It would be understandable to assume that birtherism—a conspiracy theory that holds that Barack Obama is not a “real” American citizen—would serve as the exception to this rule, as Obama’s presidency moves into its twilight years. After all, it only started because of right-wing anger over a black man in the White House, so why shouldn’t it disappear as he prepares to move out?
And yet, as TPM reporter Catherine Thompson discovered, one of the biggest proponents of birtherism, WorldNetDaily author Jack Cashill, has been busy expanding the boundaries of birtherism to target four Republican candidates that he claims are not natural-born citizens, and therefore not eligible to be president: Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio and Rick Santorum.
In the real world, of course, all four of these men more than fit the Constitution’s definition of a natural-born citizen, which just means that you were awarded U.S. citizenship upon birth.
But birtherism isn’t about and has never been about the facts. All this talk about citizenship rules and birth certificates is just an elaborate mechanism for conveying, without coming right out and saying, that “real” Americans are white—preferably of the blonde and WASPy stripe.
Cashill has zeroed in on three politicians—Cruz, Rubio and Jindal—who are deemed non-white in 2015 America. More surprising is the inclusion of Santorum. Sure, a century ago, Italians were frequently considered non-white in the same way Hispanics are now, but for quite a few decades most Americans have generally thought of them as white. Cashill, without a hint of self-consciousness, suggests that means the accusations against Santorum are the “weakest of the cases” and that only “the purest of the constitutionalists would take up that challenge.”
At this point, it’s clear that what makes someone “pure” is how strict they are about policing the boundaries of whiteness. But in the grand tradition of racists never admitting they are racist, Cashill denies that he is driven by bigotry. “I mean Ben Carson is unquestionably legitimate,” he told Thompson. “It’s not a question of race, it’s not a question of even ethnicity. It’s a question of where a person was born and to whom the person was born.”
There’s good reason to be skeptical that Cashill, who wrote a book defending George Zimmerman, is really so free of racial bias, just because he carefully avoids accusing a black man who has zero chance of actually getting the Republican nomination. After all, Cashill has theorized in the past that Obama’s “real” father is an unnamed “black guy” from Seattle who somehow convinced Barack Obama Sr. to claim the boy as his own. He got so caught up in his bizarre conspiracy theory that is carefully crafted to titillate right-wing fears about miscegenation that he seems to have forgotten that the biological son of two American natural-born citizens born on American soil meets his (incorrect) criteria for presidential eligibility. Which suggests that yes, Virginia, this is about race.
This is what reading birthers and birther-type writings is always like: A bunch of confusing pretzel logic concocted to justify a straightforward hostility to U.S. racial and ethnic diversity, a hostility so all-encompassing that even Italian-Americans, who thought they were safe, are getting a second look. Trying to piece together the logic is headache-inducing, which might make you wonder why right wingers bother in the first place. Why not just come right out and say you only want white people (however that’s defined) in the running, rather than create evermore elaborate arguments that don’t actually fool anyone?
It all goes back to the myth of “political correctness,” this conservative notion that the liberal thought police, through the power of their disapproval, have made it verboten to share racist ideas. All these elaborate conspiracy theories are, at their core, an attempt to communicate racist ideas while evading the mythical thought police. The complexity of the conspiracy theories is a thornbush of bullshit, deliberately knotty and intimidating in order to scare off anyone who might dive in and try to find a quote that provides irrefutable proof of the bigotry that emanates out of the whole enterprise.
Because of this, birtherism became extremely complex soon after it was first created. For years now, there have been entire taxonomies of birtherism, such as Josh Marshall’s or Adam Serwer’s, that lay out the various subthreads and levels of commitment to birtherism among conservatives. Almost all, however, can be defined by how much racist intent you want to convey without crossing the line into unmistakable bigotry.
In light of this, it seems like the most obvious thing in the world that birtherism would mutate once again, to reflect the increasing amount of purity policing going on with conservatives and the Republican Party. Most of that purity policing has been ideological in nature, pushing Republicans to become more right wing and rigid on culture war issues like immigration and reproductive rights. But in that context, it makes sense that this purity policing would drift into questions of personal identity and whether or not conservatives believe that people of color—and Italians!—can ever truly be real Americans. Though, you know, not in a racist way, no sir, no way.
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about liberal politics, the religious right and reproductive health care. She’s a prolific Twitter villain who can be followed @amandamarcotte.