Are the birthers dangerous, wacky, or simply distracting? President Obama has chosen the third option. His press conference in which he released his long form birth certificate was an exercise in tut-tutting. Acting the part of adult-in-chief, he reproached the press for indulging in the “silliness” of promoting the birther issue over serious challenges like the national debt and dealing with entitlements. No doubt he realizes that the lecture was futile. Reading about Donald Trump and his outrageous grandstanding is the moral equivalent of rubbernecking as you drive by a fatal accident on the highway. Everyone does it; nobody feels proud when they do.
But there may be a serious undertone to raising the ceiling on shamelessness. When Trump repeatedly said how proud he was to be playing his part in the birther nonsense, when he said of the birth certificate that he “hoped it was true,” and then capped his moment in the sun by denigrating Obama’s credentials for attending Columbia and Harvard, the shameless ceiling was pushed up too far for comfort. Moral viciousness isn’t something to brush aside. For a century after the Civil War the Democrats turned a blind eye to racism, Jim Crow laws, inequality in education between whites and African-Americans, and even lynching. Silence in the face of immorality is itself a kind of immorality. But Democrats redeemed themselves by passing the civil rights laws of the Sixties, while Republicans often sat on their hands and eagerly accepted the shift of the South to their party.
Ever since Nixon’s barely veiled appeal to racism in his infamous Southern strategy and his call to “the silent majority” (code for anyone who hated minority rights and the anti-war movement), Republicans have made hay in more and more shameless ways. By the time they reached their peak years under the second President Bush, the party had perfected lying and demagoguery. Elections were swayed by appealing to fringe issues that no adult, or for that matter no moral child, could take seriously — flag burning, prayer in the schools, gay marriage, abortion rights, Christian fundamentalism, and other so-called social issues played to intolerance. So triumphant was the politics of the shameless that tax breaks for the rich, a war started on the basis of lies and distortion, and a reckless disregard for the approaching financial meltdown could be blithely shrugged off. To this day, nobody in power has paid in any serious way for these catastrophic policies.
Quite the opposite. The birther movement is like old times returning. It is based on an overt appeal to racism and blind ignorance. Pollsters found that the more that Obama offered proof of his birth in Hawaii, the greater the credence being given to birthers, to the point where even now 67% of Republican voters now say they have doubts about his right to be President and more than a dozen states are considering the kind of “prove that you’re a real American” bill that the Republican governor of Arizona, in an act of decency that went against party lines, was forced to veto. We are told that more mainstream Republicans are threatened by the birthers, and perhaps Obama made a tactical move by holding his press conference. His Republican rivals now must show their hand, which means they have to stand up to the crazies on the Right at a time when the Tea Party is threatening them at the same time. Either that or risk ridicule by continuing to pretend that they have doubts about Obama’s birth.
What I’m waiting for is the moment of redemption when, like the Democrats in the Sixties, the party that has pandered to prejudice and fringe lunacy turns the corner. As tempting as it is to win votes the cheap way, does any Republican have the courage to lose votes the hard way? This isn’t a case of a plague upon both your houses. The disastrous problems faced by the new President upon taking office in 2009 were a Republican legacy, just as Southern racism was once a Democratic legacy. What will it take for them to change? Maybe John Boehner will get fed up to the point that he starts working with the Democrats to solve our pressing problems like adults. Maybe Michelle Bachmann will win the Iowa caucus next spring and show the party elders that they have birthed their own Huey Long. Like the genie let out of the bottle, shamelessness isn’t going back where it came from voluntarily. People have to stand up to moral viciousness. Republican theorists like to put themselves in the honorable line of the British conservative Edmund Burke. They need to remember one of Burke’s most famous quotes: “It is only necessary for good men to say nothing for evil to triumph.”
Published in The San Francisco Chronicle