Barack Obama may be out of the White House, but birtherism — the widespread conspiracy theory, heavily promoted by Donald Trump, that Obama faked his birth certificate and was never eligible to be president — still reigns as the guiding philosophy in right-wing circles. The conservative impulse to accuse Democrats, particularly women and people of color, of being imposters who cheated their way into power has simply attached itself to other targets. Most notable among these at the moment is Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., a freshman representative whose charismatic promotion of progressive policies is drawing heavy amounts of media attention and driving Republicans nuts.
Last week, the right-wing noise machine focused on Ocasio-Cortez’s youth, kicking up a blizzard of feigned outrage over the fact that she went to high school in the suburbs, danced in a silly video while an undergrad at Boston University, and went by the nickname “Sandy” when she was a kid. Progressive counter-mockery seems to have stymied the attempts to gin up outrage over the dancing video, but the right-wing smear machine has redoubled its efforts to make “Sandy” a thing.
On Sunday, blogger Jim Hoft of Gateway Pundit — whose given name is likely neither “Jim” or “Gateway Pundit” — posted this breathless headline:
The “evidence” for the claim that Ocasio-Cortez is faking her biography is a tweet in which the congresswoman jokingly calls herself “Alex from the Bronx,” which is reasonable enough, since she both lives there now and represents much of the Bronx (as well as part of Queens) in Congress. Hoft tried to frame the word “from” as some definitive statement of a person’s identity, falsely implying that Ocasio-Cortez conceals that she spent much of her youth in Yorktown, New York, a town in Westchester County roughly 20 miles north of the New York City line. (In fact, Ocasio-Cortez prominently mentions this fact on her campaign site.)
Because Ocasio-Cortez no longer uses her childhood nickname, Hoft accused her of being one of many “Democrat hoaxers.” Also included in this alleged group is Beto O’Rourke, who is thus accused for keeping his childhood nickname.
Note that there’s no way to win this game. No matter what approach one takes to a childhood nickname — losing it or keeping it — the right will hold it out as “proof” that a Democrat is an imposter. That’s because these trolls are operating from a foreordained conclusion, which is all Democrats or liberals or progressives are a pack of phonies. All evidence, no matter how trivial silly, is reverse-engineered to fit this conclusion.
You know who’s actually hiding something? President Donald Trump. Trump is a literal con man whose grifting was so out of control that he was involved in more than 3,500 lawsuits even before he was elected president. His campaign image as a successful businessman was completely fake, the result of a character he played on “The Apprentice” who was precisely the opposite of the incompetent buffoon who bankrupted his businesses at least six times. Whatever money Trump has made has largely come to him through shady business practices and outright fraud. The closest he’s gotten to legitimate profits has stemmed from selling the brand of his fictional TV character.
Everything about Trump is a fake, and often a shoddy one at that. He presented himself as a Christian family man, while paying off porn models and actresses to hide the fact that he was cheating on his third wife with them. Trump claims to know “more than anyone” on literally dozens of subjects, including the military and the economy, but it’s unlikely he has read a book since childhood and needs information to be presented to him in arresting graphic form, rather than text. He frequently portrays his flukish 2016 electoral victory as a smashing success, although he lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million and was the beneficiary of an illegal propaganda campaign orchestrated by Russian spies.
It’s likely that one reason Trump became so obsessed with “proving” that Barack Obama was a fake was because he understands that he himself is a fake.
But this whole situation is about more than the well-documented tendency of right-wingers to project their own sins onto the left. It’s also about policing who is and isn’t considered a legitimate leader. Trump may be a half-literate fraud who quite likely sold himself out to Russian oligarchs, but so long as he’s a white man advocating for white male dominance, conservatives will continue to pretend he is a sober-minded paragon of morality and steadfast leadership.
By the same token, anyone who advocates for equality and diversity is inherently, in conservative eyes, an illegitimate leader. This tendency to accuse politicians of being somehow fake is particularly bad when the politicians aren’t white men, as everyone from Obama to Elizabeth Warren could tell you. But as the attacks on O’Rourke demonstrate, white men get this same treatment too, if they’re seen as unacceptably liberal. After all, in right wing eyes, any white man who actively fights for greater equality and social justice must have some kind of hidden agenda, since it’s inconceivable that he believes in his stated values.
It’s tempting to shrug off the attacks on Ocasio-Cortez, and others like them, as the obviously silly ravings of fringe characters. But Hoft, who is a honking moron in most regards, knows what he’s doing. As my colleague Andrew O’Hehir observed over the weekend, with regards to the Beltway pearl-clutching over Rep. Rashida Tlaib calling Trump a “motherfucker,” there’s “no way to separate the exaggerated reaction to Tlaib’s remarks from the fact that her presence on Capitol Hill, and even her existence as an American citizen, pushes people’s buttons.”
While right-wing nuts like Hoft are blunt about their hostility towards people they view as “other,” the furor over Tlaib’s comments in the mainstream press suggests that many powerful people who are more centrist, or even liberal, share his discomfort with diversifying our collective notions of what a president or a congressperson should be.
That’s how the right-wing noise machine works: It kicks up fake scandals and accusations, creating a ton of smoke, on the premise that if the smoke keeps swirling long enough, ordinary people will start feeling doubts and wondering whether there’s a fire. This strategy helped transform Hillary Clinton, who is more honest than most politicians, into a figure of suspicion in the mainstream media, which kept turning non-scandals like her infamous email server into major news stories that distorted the public perception of Clinton.
This strategy is especially potent when applied to politicians who aren’t white or male, because a large number of powerful white male media figures are ready to believe the worst about anyone who doesn’t look like them. CNN’s Chris Cillizza, the standard-bearer of chin-scratching white male “serious” thought in D.C. politics, wrote a piece in July warning Democrats to slow their roll with Ocasio-Cortez, saying that politics is “a lot harder than it looks” and insinuating that in Democrats’ eagerness to believe, they were failing to notice that Ocasio-Cortez was in over her head.
The likelier story is that Cillizza, who has a long history of sexism, was the one who was letting his hopes overwhelm the evidence. He perceived Ocasio-Cortez as a dimwit because that was what he wanted to see. That’s exactly the audience that the Jim Hofts of the world are trying to influence. They probably won’t get the likes of Cillizza to agree that there’s anything nefarious about the nickname “Sandy,” but they can create a cloud of suspicion around Ocasio-Cortez that helps the white-guy punditry justify the belief that there is something “off” about her.
Progressives need to punch back, early and often, against these right-wing attempts to smear Democrats as “phony”. Trying to rise above all this, unfortunately, only means these attacks tend to grow: They starting on the fringes, then work their way up through Fox News and into the mainstream media. That’s what happened with birtherism. Obama and his supporters ignored it as a fringe conspiracy theory until 2011, when Obama finally cracked and released his birth certificate.
By then, unfortunately, Trump had used the conspiracy theory to establish himself as a prominent right-wing leader and to build momentum for his campaign, which was largely predicated on evicting the alleged imposter Obama and restoring white-male-ness to the Oval Office. The consequences, in other words, couldn’t have been worse.
Luckily, Ocasio-Cortez seems to get this, tweeting out a video of herself dancing outside her office on Capitol Hill. More importantly, she has used all the attention she’s been getting to kickstart a discussion about restoring marginal tax rates to the levels of the 1960s. Her ability to take all the nonsense and noise and flip it around into substantive policy discourse is a marvel, and something all progressives should learn from.