Make America Hate Again: Donald Trump and the Birther Conspiracy
Bates College, US
Dr. Stephanie Kelley-Romano is an associate professor and Chair of the Rhetoric, Film, and Screen Studies department at Bates College, Lewiston ME. Kelley-Romano would like to thank Lisa Maurizio and Helen Weetman for reading drafts of this essay throughout the spring and summer. In addition, the authors would like to thank the anonymous reviewers and the editors for their thoughtful comments and suggestions.
One of the most publicized and commonly embraced political conspiracies has been the “birther movement.” The conspiracy, which gained traction amid the 2008 Presidential election, alleged that Barack Obama was ineligible for the Presidency on grounds he was not born in the United States. Though the movement was continuously debunked by a myriad of people, birthers remarkably managed to keep the conspiracy alive and relevant, due in large part to Donald Trump. Analysis of birther rhetoric, and specifically Donald Trump’s use of it to continually undermine Barack Obama, provides a particularly robust understanding of the rhetorical forms that facilitate the resiliency of conspiracy. In this essay, we combine Richard Hofstadter’s concept of the paranoid style with generic approaches to conspiracy to unpack the ways birther rhetoric functions—both formally and stylistically—to advance a rhetoric of white supremacy. Furthermore, we analyze Donald Trump’s role as conspiracy advocate and the specific rhetorical strategies he employs to use the birther controversy for his political advantage. Keywords: Barack Obama, birther movement, white supremacy, hate speech