Thanks to Donald Trump—real-estate mogul, reality-TV star, and possible candidate for the Republican presidential nomination—a fringe conspiracy theory is now front and center in American politics: the claim that President Barack Obama might not be a natural-born American citizen.
By focusing on Mr. Obama’s birth certificate, Mr. Trump has garnered a lot of attention and some support. According to the latest CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey, among Republicans he is now tied with Mike Huckabee as the most popular prospective GOP presidential nominee. If responsible Republicans don’t speak out immediately against Mr. Trump’s gambit, it will do substantial damage both to their party and to American politics.
The Trump case goes like this: Mr. Obama doesn’t have a birth certificate, his grandmother has stated that he was born in Kenya, his family is fighting over which Hawaii hospital Mr. Obama was born in, and “nobody knew” Mr. Obama while he was growing up in Hawaii.
The problem is that Mr. Trump is wrong on every particular.
Many media outlets have shown that Mr. Obama has a certificate of live birth that includes an embossed seal, an official signature, and all the information necessary for proof of citizenship. The directors of Hawaii’s health department and its registrar of records have both verified that the information on Mr. Obama’s birth certificate is identical to that in the state’s record. His certificate would be accepted by the State Department and any court in America. “In other words,” the conservative magazine National Review has written, “what President Obama has produced is the ‘real’ birth certificate of myth and lore.”
In addition, both the Honolulu Star and the Honolulu Advertiser published birth announcements just days after Mr. Obama’s birth. Mr. Trump speculates that Mr. Obama’s grandparents put the ads in the papers “because obviously they want [Mr. Obama] to be a United States citizen.” That sounds like an odd strategy. No one disputes that Mr. Obama’s late mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was a U.S. citizen. She graduated from Mercer Island High School outside Seattle the year before she gave birth.
Yet people like Mr. Trump act like the president appeared out of nowhere. He ominously said, “I’ve seen too many things,” hinting that there is a massive conspiracy underway that is obscuring the truth. What he is trading in is nonsense.
The problem for Republicans is that some significant figures within the party are giving a wink and a nod to his efforts. Sarah Palin has said, “I believe [Mr. Obama] was born in Hawaii,” but in recent days she also said, “More power to [Mr. Trump]. He’s not just throwing stones from the sidelines, he’s digging in, he’s paying for researchers to find out why President Obama would have spent $2 million to not show his birth certificate.” (Ms. Palin has refused journalists’ requests to explain where the $2 million figure comes from.)
Representative Michele Bachmann (R., Minn.) has said that she takes the president at his word and doesn’t care about the issue. But she has added: “The president just has to give proof and verification, and there it goes”—even though proof and verification have already been given.
When prominent figures in a party play footsie with peddlers of paranoia, the party suffers an erosion of credibility. While certain corners of a party’s base might be energized by conspiracy theories, the majority of the electorate will be turned off by them. People are generally uneasy about political institutions that give a home to cranks.
There’s more than a partisan cost to all this. Mr. Trump is succumbing to a pernicious temptation in American politics: not simply to disagree with political opponents, but to try to delegitimize them. The argument isn’t simply that Mr. Obama is wrong on almost every public policy matter (which I believe he is). Rather, the argument is that his presidency is unconstitutional and that he is alien.
Something like this happened with Mr. Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, who inspired such rage in some of his critics that they deemed his presidency illicit.
In self-governing societies, there have to be unwritten rules by which we abide. Among them is that we accept the outcome of elections and keep our public debates tethered to reality.
From time to time people emerge who violate these unwritten codes. They delight in making our public discourse more childish and freakish, focusing attention on absurdities rather than substantive issues, and stirring up mistrust among citizens. When they do, those they claim to represent should speak out forcefully against them.
Mr. Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, led the Office of Strategic Initiatives in the George W. Bush administration.