Lest We Forget
Historians on the Big Lie Behind the Rise of Trump
In this web exclusive, Bill Moyers and four historians dissect the big lie Trump rode to power: the Birther lie. Nell Painter, historian and Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita, at Princeton University; Khalil Gibran Muhammad, professor of history, race and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School; Christopher Lebron, assistant professor of African-American studies and philosophy at Yale University; and Philip Klinkner, James S. Sherman Professor of Government, Hamilton College discuss the fertile ground on which the birther lie was sown: our nation’s history of white supremacy.
Credits: Gail Ablow, Producer; Sikay Tang, Editor
BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers. The most important thing to remember about Donald Trump is that he was the same man at 12:01 p.m. Friday after he took the oath of office as he was at 11:59 a.m. before his swearing in. His character: the same. His temperament and his values: the same.
What’s different is that in those two minutes Donald Trump was handed the most awesome power imaginable. He now controls the world’s most powerful nuclear arsenal. The Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard are at his command. The FBI, the CIA, the NSA, the IRS, Homeland Security, the State Department, Justice Department, Treasury Department, the Department of Education, the Interior Department — all of the agencies of the executive branch — report, ultimately, to this one man. The world awaits his pronouncements, the markets and the media live by and for his tweets. So here’s the second most important thing to remember about Donald Trump: He rode to power on the wings of a dark lie — one of the most malignant and ugly lies in American history. We must never forget it.
LOU DOBBS (CNN 7/21/09): Up next, the issue that won’t go away: the matter of President Obama and that birth certificate.
DONALD TRUMP (The View, ABC 3/23/11): There’s something on that birth certificate that he doesn’t like.
TRUMP (The O’Reilly Factor, FOX News 3/30/11): He doesn’t have a birth certificate. Now, he may have one, but there’s something on that, with maybe religion, maybe it says he is a Muslim. I don’t know.
CHRISTOPHER LEBRON: I found that as cynical as I am, I couldn’t actually believe people would actually run with this story. But then the story had legs. And then people like Donald Trump didn’t let it go. And I remember when he was going to prove that President Obama was not American, that he was not able to offer that proof. And even more amazingly, Trump has been able to not only convince himself for the longest time but has been able to convince a not-insignificant portion of the American people that no matter what documentation President Obama provides, he’s not American, which is an amazing thing to have done.
NELL PAINTER: The ground was very fertile for the birther lie, and in fact, if it hadn’t been, somebody could have said oh no, no, no, the president was not born in this country, he cannot be president — and it would have fallen to Earth. It never would have gone anywhere.
KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: If it were true, we would have elected someone who had no right to run for president, let alone to become the first African-American president of this country, but more particularly it expresses the illegitimacy of a person of African descent as a true American, as someone truly endowed with the capacity to govern this great nation. And that lie is just the tip of the iceberg, though foundational for everything else that flows from Donald Trump’s lips.
TRUMP (SPEECH, 2/10/11): Our current president came out of nowhere. Came out of nowhere. In fact, I’ll go a step further: The people that went to school with him — they don’t even know, they never saw him; they don’t know who he is. It’s crazy.
PHILIP KLINKNER: There were a lot of rumors swirling around him that he was a Muslim, that he was raised in a madrassa, but the most common was that he was in fact not born in the United States and that his birth certificate from Hawaii was in fact a lie, that he was born someplace else, probably Kenya, but nobody was really pretty sure about that. The Obama campaign sort of pushed back at this pretty hard. They released a short-form birth certificate. They showed the birth notice in The Honolulu Advertiser at the time, but there was never any real question about this. But nonetheless, this lie began to gain real traction among his opponents.
And then once he got elected, then again it really sort of took off because it began to sort of seep into a lot of conservative and right-wing media circles, a lot of attention was paid to people who are going into federal court suing, attempting to either have Obama declared ineligible as president or arguing that he should release his long-form birth certificate.
And it really sort of festered there on the right for a number of years until the spring of 2011, when President Obama finally released the long-form birth certificate.
TRUMP (SPEECH 4/27/11): I was just informed while on the helicopter that our president has finally released a birth certificate.
I am really honored, frankly, to have played such a big role in hopefully, hopefully, getting rid of this issue. Now we have to look at it. We have to see, is it real? Is it proper? What’s on it? But I hope it checks out beautifully. I am really proud. I am really honored.
KLINKNER: But that really didn’t put it away. The number of Republicans who believe that Obama was born outside the United States dropped for a little while but then it popped back up again.
Trump at the time was a very big reality media star.
THE APPRENTICE open with SOT: “You’re fired.” 2/9/15
KLINKNER: NBC in particular, I think, wanted to sort of cross-promote one of its biggest prime-time franchises, The Apprentice. So he was on NBC quite a lot. He was on the Todayshow quite a bit. He’d appear on other NBC shows. But he also appeared on other networks — ABC’s The View, things like that.
And the effect was to give Trump really sort of this unparalleled platform to sort of spread this. Whereas people who were doing it before were really just sort of fringe characters, who might get a little bit of time on some TV shows, but really not much at all. So he really took it mainstream.
PAINTER: I have said, more than once, that we would not have Trump without Obama. And that is, on the one hand, we have this current, this running current, of white supremacy — the assumption that nonwhite people are sort of over there and they’re inferior, they don’t work hard.
Black people are not supposed to be powerful. What is the ultimate defiance of that assumption? The ultimate defiance is the president.
LEBRON: There is a strong subset of Americans who are fearful of black empowerment. And I don’t mean this in the radical sense; I mean just basic everyday citizenship empowerment. Be able to pick up on that.
Then also decades of Republicans and dog whistle politics, Willie Horton ads ….
WILLIE HORTON AD, 1988 PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN: One was Willie Horton, who murdered a boy in a….
LEBRON: …“super predator” talk, you know, with respect to criminality and law and order, which is basically code for policing black neighborhoods.
Somebody like Trump comes in and there’s a perfect storm of fear, loathing and a deep history of using policies to suppress blacks’ freedom and liberties. And Trump comes on the end of a black presidency and says, listen, this man is giving health care away for free; doesn’t that scare you? This man wants to let gay men and women marry. That’s not how you should live your life. This black man is doing that.
And that’s why it’s no accident he has stepped into the perfect storm, of basically, white paranoia, white fear, of an era of possible black…true black liberation and justice.
KLINKNER: I think it’s very much tied in to the discomfort and fear that a lot of white Americans had about the first African-American president. And we’ve seen this throughout American history, that white Americans have often sort of disregarded African-Americans as not just full citizens, but sometimes full human beings.
And so I thought it was interesting that here we have the first African-American president, and here was an attempt to sort of delegitimize him in a very overt way as not actually being American. Not just sort of saying you know he says un-American things, but in fact he is, in fact, not an American.
TRUMP (CNBC 5/29/12): Nothing has changed my mind. By the way you have a huge group of people. I walk down the street and people are screaming, “Please don’t give that up.”
JONATHAN KARL (ABC NEWS, 8/11/13): But you don’t still question he was born in the United States, do you?
TRUMP (TO KARL): I have no idea… Well, I don’t know, was there a birth certificate? You tell me. You know some people say that was not his birth certificate. I’m saying, I don’t know. Nobody knows.
KLINKNER: I think for many Americans, the whole definition of America is caught up with race: that whites are the only people who have the requisite characteristics that would allow them to be full citizens and therefore the political leaders of the country. And that’s something that goes back to the first African-Americans who were enslaved in the United States. It goes back to things like the three-fifths clause in the Constitution.
It goes back into the disenfranchisement after Reconstruction and the Civil War.
MUHAMMAD: When I think about the justification for this lie, I think of an image that comes from a broadside, a pamphlet, just after the end of slavery. It was published in 1866 and it’s framed by this image of the Capitol and it’s a commentary on what is about to become the Freedmen’s Bureau. At the center of it is this black man in tattered clothes, looking like someone who had just left the fields after having picked cotton. He’s leaning back with his arm resting just underneath his head. His feet are kicked up, one leg across the other, and it essentially says that if you support the federal government you will be supporting the black takeover of America. And this is a white man’s country.
This is what the big lie looked like in 1867. And it is exactly the same wiring and visual inputs and rhetorical tropes and frames that frames the illegitimacy of this man who has become president today and what we ought to do about it.
KLINKNER: If you’re going to tell a lie about somebody, it works a lot better if you focus on somebody who is different from you. They have a different skin color, they attend a different church or house of worship. They come from a different country or speak a different language.
It’s harder to sort of see them a common citizen. Easier to see them as somebody who’s different and therefore dangerous to you and to your country.
PAINTER: I would not say white supremacy is a big foundational lie. I would say white supremacy is a big foundational fact. Because during our colonial period in the United States, they laid the ground work for a society that’s divided along racial lines. So in 1964, when Barry Goldwater ran on not approving the Civil Rights Act, he had a large following. It was not a winning following; it was not a winning strategy in 1964. But it said, hey, there are votes here.
MUHAMMAD: Barry Goldwater rose to power in 1964, absolutely rejecting the federal government’s responsibility in what was then fast becoming the Civil Rights Act of ’64
That essentially said the federal government has no right to make white people of the South like black people, and that if the federal government pushed too hard in enforcing such things, it was unconstitutional. That spirit, that rejection of the possibility for civil rights, is exactly what has crystallized in Donald Trump’s support on the right, because Obama essentially was perceived to have gotten through an electoral process that was rigged from the beginning.
That these illegitimate voters came to the polls — and, you know, all of them black or brown or yellow, but none of them really white folks, and that’s true. A majority of whites voted against Obama in 2008 and an even greater majority of whites voted against him in 2012. I mean, there’s something to be said for that, but that is exactly what stoked this notion that our country has been taken over by vandals. By mongrels, by mulattos, by Mexicans, by Muslims, by people who have no legitimate claim to the heritage of this — what they would say, white Christian nation.
TRUMP (PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDACY ANNOUNCEMENT SPEECH 6/16/15): When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.
PAINTER: I don’t believe Trump was an accident, because the Republican Party has been seeing and grasping the political power of white supremacy.
GEORGE WALLACE (SPEECH 1/14/63): And I say, segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.
PAINTER: And when George Wallace made such a success in 1968, and then into the early 1970s — hey, there are really votes here.
So 1968 and Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy — a purposeful harnessing of white supremacists’ assumptions and beliefs.
One of the strengths of Donald Trump is that he has had so many Republican officeholders endorsing him. If the Southern strategy had not been such an important current in current Republican ideology, those officeholders would have said, no, no, no, no, no, no — this person is terrible.
KLINKNER: I think in the last couple of decades, we have been sort of building to this moment. There was a backlash by many whites against the civil rights movement, who were upset about the changing status of African-Americans. Adding to that were fears about immigration and changing the demographic character of the United States.
Rising numbers of nonwhites, growing political power, greater cultural status for nonwhites in America. And that made them sort of very fearful about all of these sorts of changes. And so when someone comes along and says that, “Here’s this person who’s ascended to the highest office in the land, but he really shouldn’t be there, he’s really not legitimate,” it plays to their fears, but also, perhaps, gives them a little bit of hope that those sort of fears and the things that they worried about actually haven’t quite come to pass yet.
MUHAMMAD: This explains David Duke’s appropriation of a civil rights movement for white people to roll back a big government intent on grinding them into insignificance, and ultimately this explains why no matter what Donald Trump says or does about women, about Mexicans, about Muslims, about Syrians, it speaks to the heart and soul of that part of America that insists that this may be our last chance to hold on to this nation.
And we’ve seen in midterm elections, we’ve seen in gubernatorial elections since 2008, the emergence of a class of political leadership that insists at the state level of creating a new class of pro-white warriors.
(RALLY, ARIZONA 7/11/15): [Crowd chanting: USA! USA!]
TRUMP: Don’t worry — we’ll take our country back very soon, very soon.
LEBRON: So, what I think has happened with Trump and his ability to hold onto this lie — I think he got invested in it because there is a cohort of Americans that were going to easily go along with him.
One thing I think Trump is actually very good at doing is, he’s a very good psychologist. And I think Trump saw that there are certain keynote themes that if you hit on them, you can rally the people, which is what makes him sometimes dangerous, where if you look at old — I have to say, if you look at old Hitler tapes, for example, the ability to kind of rile the people up around topics about which they feel threatened, and the biggest threat for a lot of people is this black man who from their point of view is taking their country away from them.
KLINKNER: If there are any parallels between Hitler and his big lie and Trump and what he’s doing is that Hitler’s big lie was the stab-in-the-back thesis. The idea that Germany had lost World War I because it was stabbed in the back, not because it lost on the battlefield against the Allied powers; it was because at home, Jews and capitalists and Bolsheviks and socialists had destroyed Germany from within.
So that’s a big lie that he’s been pushing. And Trump, like many other demagogues throughout American history, have identified racial, ethnic, religious minorities as somehow working from within the country to destroy it.
LEBRON: Donald Trump is able to stir up the masses because he’s able to say this very simple thing that is plausible to a lot of people, but really taps into deeper fears about who is taking what from them. If they’re not as prosperous as they think they ought to be, who is doing this to them? It must be somebody else doing it to them, which is also the ironic thing. All of a sudden, the conservative reliance on personal responsibility gets completely off-loaded to this black man who was elected by the people.
KLINKNER: It’s not just Hitler; it’s demagogues everywhere. They get into this symbiotic relationship with their audience. That he throws them red meat and they respond and they cheer lustily.
TRUMP (RALLY IN MOBILE, ALABAMA 12/17/16): People who come into our country illegally, they’re taken care of better than our vets. Build the wall. Build the wall.
KLINKNER: And then he…he likes that, he likes that sort of response that he’s getting from the audience, and he feeds off that, and therefore he throws them even more red meat.
TRUMP (RALLY 12/17/16): Do not worry — we are going to build the wall, OK? Don’t worry; don’t even think about it.
MUHAMMAD: If we think about the legacy of Adolph Hitler and the Nazis, it’s hard not to see the relationship of a big lie that blames the minority population for a nation’s problems.
That at the end of the day, this lie at the most granular level, especially in America right now, has always been part of the package of what made America actually great. Because in the end, those people have always believed that they were meant to be in charge. And our political systems, our museums, our classrooms have all advanced this point of view.
So the lie is broken down, and the only way to fix it, the only way to put it back together, is to wipe the world clean of these realities. To move these people out of the way, to get them out of the polls, to get them out of our classrooms. To tell them to go back to where they came from, so that we can have nice, neat images, whether they are in our own homes or in our classrooms or in our museums or wherever we find them, that reaffirm to us that the little lies we’ve always been telling ourselves — that we’re perfect, that we’re great as white people — is still true.
Obama’s physical presence shattered those little lies. And you need to get the big lie back in place.
TRUMP (RALLY IN WEST BEND, WISCONSIN 8/16/16): There can be no prosperity without law and order.
MUHAMMAD: When I think about his appeals to racism and this explicit call for law and order and the criminalization of black and brown people, he does remind me of Richard Nixon. But Richard Nixon, for all of his flaws, was a public servant. He was a career politician. And he did some good things and some bad things. It’s not clear at all that Donald Trump has ever done anything good for anyone but himself.
KLINKNER: We like to think people are rational, but they’re not. And when it comes to politics, people are partisan beings. They’re very much rooted to an identity as a Democrat or Republican, a liberal or a conservative. And we tend to get our information from like-minded people.
So when people like Donald Trump or a Democrat or Hillary Clinton, or whoever it is, tells something that’s not true, we tend to hold onto that. Even when it’s proven not to be true, we don’t want to give up that belief, because it’s a partisan belief, and therefore it goes to our identity of who we are or what we believe in, what types of people we associate with.
And in many cases, the correction almost makes us want to hold that belief even more deeply, rather than give it up.
A very famous political scientist years ago by the name of V.O. Key said that the voice of the people is but an echo chamber. That what comes out of an echo chamber bears a very strong relationship to what goes into it. And when you have people like Donald Trump, when you have prominent people in the media, in politics, that are expressing lies and misperceptions and untruths, the American people are going to say those sorts of things.
They’re going to come to believe those sorts of things, because that’s what they’re hearing from the people that they trust. The media also bear a very strong role in this, because they’ve been giving a platform to people like Trump. They haven’t been giving them the types of pushback and scrutiny that they really do deserve.
MUHAMMAD: Donald Trump did us a favor, because he shows us how active and significant white supremacy is in this country. I mean, we needed to know it. We needed to see it. We needed to punch a hole in the mythology of post-racialism, because we need to deal with it. I mean, we think about an oncologist — we don’t want our oncologist telling us a little lie that we don’t really have cancer.
Donald Trump — he provides us an opportunity, a window, an X-ray into a malignant tumor in our society. Now, the tumor’s always been there, but it’s grown. And we’ve tried to address it in ways small and large, and we’ve won some of those battles. But ultimately, the patient is very sick, it is our nation, and we need to extract it once and for all.
DIP TO BLACK.
CHIEF JUSTICE JOHN ROBERTS: Please raise your right hand and repeat after me: I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear
TRUMP: I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear
ROBERTS: That I will faithfully execute
TRUMP: That I will faithfully execute
ROBERTS: The office of president of the United States
TRUMP: The office of president of the United States
ROBERTS: And will to the best of my ability
TRUMP: And will to the best of my ability
ROBERTS: Preserve, protect and defend
TRUMP: Preserve, protect and defend
ROBERTS: The Constitution of the United States
TRUMP: The Constitution of the United States
ROBERTS: So help me God.
TRUMP: So help me God.
ROBERTS: Congratulations, Mr. President.