Why birtherism matters
As I expected, I was chastised in comments by a drive-by commenter who claimed paying attention to this birther thing is a waste of time, because important things are going on. It was the "ignore it and it'll go away" argument in another form, and I was happy at least that it seems so far only one person is trying to pull it. Nonetheless, I think it's important to understand that this is about way more than a bunch of conservatives getting a crackpot idea in their head. For that reason, I recommend watching Baratunde Thurston's video on what has transpired.
Like I said yesterday, one of the things that has happened is that Obama, by forcing this issue, has stripped the plausible deniability away from birthers that they are "just asking questions". The fact that they're not satisfied as they claimed they would be demonstrates that this was never about a legitimate concern about his citizenship, but that they were groping around for a way to say that they will never accept black Americans as full Americans. That Trump immediately switched to questioning Obama's education is telling, and if anything, it's more stark than questioning his birth certificate in demonstrating the racism of this whole fiasco. This is because when Donald Trump talks, you get a strong feeling he has to pay someone to wipe his ass for him, because he's too stupid to figure it out for himself. For him—a man stupid enough to claim that the right to privacy has nothing to do with abortion, a man who probably thinks that combover looks good—to suggest that Barack Obama isn't smart is pure, unadulterated racism. Baratunde is right to compare this birther thing to literacy tests and other Jim Crow laws that prevented black people from voting. (And which Republicans are bringing back in places like Kansas and Florida.) No matter what the cursory justifications for this are, the underlying reason for these kinds of "tests" on black Americans is to say over and over again that the people issuing the "tests" and demanding the "proof" don't agree that black Americans are American. And, in the case of Arizona with their "papers, please" law, saying that Hispanic Americans aren't American. Or, as Sarah Palin puts it, Real Americans.
This right wing obsession with trying to kick large segments of our population out of the category Real Americans has immediate effects on the people being discriminated against, and it has effects far beyond that. I'd argue that this culture war is why our country's screwed in so many ways. Culture war got Bush into office, where he promptly started two unwinnable wars to bankrupt the country. Culture war is why our Supreme Court nominations are so contentious, and why the court is now far to the right and cheerfully ripping up the legal rights of anyone who isn't a billionaire or a corporation. it's why our economy is going down the drain, because large segments of the population are more concerned about making sure people they don't like don't get a piece of the pie that they are willing to stand by while a handful of rich people take it all from all of us. The line-drawing of who is and isn't a Real American is complicated, but the biggest, most consistent aspect of it has been racism against black Americans.
The culture wars really got started with the battle over civil rights. That's how domestic terrorism was born. That's how Bible-thumping as a cover for reactionary politics was developed. That's how Jerry Falwell got his start, as a segregationist. That's how the modern Republican party formed, in response to federal laws banning discrimination and harassing voters at the polls. There's a tendency in our country to pretend we've put all that behind us, but as the birther movement shows, that isn't so. I'm not saying that progress hasn't been made, of course, but these culture wars over identity still shape our politics in disgusting ways. The people who voted for Richard Nixon are still around, and they vote in larger numbers than the rest of the population, and so they and their Real American obsessions have an outsized influence on this country.
That's why I don't think the proper response to birtherism is to look away or minimize what's going on, because it makes everyone deeply uncomfortable. Culture warriors and racists benefit if everyone politely pretends they're not as vile as they are, and Trump is just the latest example of this. Confrontation is how you fight this kind of bigoted bullshit. People who promote it are the lowest of the low, and people who coddle it should not get away with it.