As I noted earlier this evening, I was wrong about what I thought would happen when Steven Bannon took a leave from Breitbart News and took over the Trump campaign. I assumed that formally teaming up with Bannon would mean Trump finally ditching even the pretense of a ‘pivot’ and doubling down on a 90 day primal scream of rage and derp. It is still largely rage and derp. But Bannon brought a discipline to Trump’s operation that his two predecessors never could. Yes, yes, the bar is so low it might simply be a painted over part of the floor. But recognize the difference. Bannon kept Trump on the teleprompter mainly. He limited the Curiel/Khan type debacles. And yet even with the Bannon/Conway leadership, two people Trump seems largely to trust and work with, it is amazing the degree to which the campaign remains a war between a semblance of strategy and management and Trump’s instinctive drives and arrested emotional development.
Today Trump didn’t quite recant his recantation of birtherism. But in practice he did. When asked why he President Obama was born in the United States he said this.
“Well, I just wanted to get on with, you know, we want to get on with the campaign. And a lot of people were asking me questions. And you know, we want to talk about jobs, we want to talk about the military. We want to talk about ISIS and how to get rid of ISIS. We want to really talk about bringing jobs back to this area because you’ve been decimated. So we really want to get just back onto the subject of jobs, military, taking care of our vets, et cetera.”
In other words, I said it because I had to if I wanted to win the campaign.
Not only is Trump refusing to say he has anything to apologize for. He is essentially saying that he hasn’t actually changed his position or his mind. He just said it to get people off his back.
Islamophobes like Trump frequently reference the Islamic principle of Taqiya. For them, it is the Islamic license to lie to non-believers in the cause of Islam or jihad. In fact, it’s a broader and more nuanced concept, most avidly embraced by Twelver Shia but by Sunnis as well under more limited circumstances, which outlines when dissimulation is permitted in cases of persecution or other extremity. In this case, Trump has embraced the Islamophobe’s version of Taqiya: I lied to achieve the greater good.
Indeed, some of Trump’s most ardent birther supporters are already fashioning a sort of Trump Birther Truth Movement. Sheriff Joe Arpaio says he’s not bothered by Trump’s statement and notes that Trump never said the long form birth certificate Obama released in 2011 wasn’t forgery. His most ardent birther supporters haven’t skipped a beat and already devising theories about how he didn’t really recant at all. In any case, just five days into his supposed post-birther phase, Trump is already backsliding, already saying to supporters more or less openly that he didn’t actually change his mind.
As I noted last week with video of the 2011 interview we did with Trump, at his most candid moments Trump has been open about the roots of his birtherism: it sells. He saw early that conservative Republicans had a rabid appetite for it and he meant to feed it. Whether the whole idea was true or not, I suspect never really entered into Trump’s calculus. It’s not a salesman or a con man’s way of thinking. But with Trump, once Trump says it, it’s absolutely true and never won’t be.
Earlier this month I picked up chatter that the Trump campaign was readying Trump to issue a true apology for being a birther – not just changing his position, but a true recantation and admission he’d been wrong. I’ve even heard that something like this was in the works before the interview with The Washington Post forced the campaign up the timeline and combine that terse, teeth-gritted 30 second statement with his DC hotel informercial.
My sense though is that the campaign, which is to say Steven Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, had essentially convinced themselves that Trump would do or had agreed to do something he simply never would: admit he was wrong and apologize. Thus what I said above: even the more disciplined, sharper campaign Bannon ushered in must still contend with, and at the end of the day, fail to overcome Trump’s most profound psychological and moral defects.
Go back and watch the video of Trump ‘renouncing’ birtherism. It’s teeth-gritted and angry, something he was clearly forced to do and could only bear to do by packaging it with more self-assertive nonsense. ‘Hillary wanted to be a birther but she failed. Only I could succeed.’ And now five days on, he’s back to it, back to being a birther, or perhaps a Hidden Birther, whose occultation will end only once he accedes to the presidency.
Trump will never be able to answer why he stopped being a birther. I’m tempted to say that’s because he hasn’t stopped being one. But, as I said, Trump’s adoption of birtherism was more or less openly cynical and opportunistic. So just what constitutes ‘being one’ is complicated. But once he did become one it became a matter of Trump’s highest principle: always being right. He can’t answer the question because this isn’t a policy issue upon which one can recognize knew data or simply ‘evolve’. Any credible explanation of why he stopped being a birther would have to grapple with the fact that the entirety of it was a lie. That would require admitting error and contrition – two things Trump is wholly incapable of ever doing.