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Birtherism Reborn, And The Enduring Power Of Ignorance

For many of our fellow citizens in the Age of Trump, ignorance really is bliss -- and widespread, writes Rich Barlow. Pictured: Donald Trump, then a possible 2012 presidential candidate, on April 27, 2011 in Portsmouth, N.H. There, Trump said he was "very proud" to have forced the White House's decision to release President Barack Obama's birth certificate. (Jim Cole/AP)
For many of our fellow citizens in the Age of Trump, ignorance really is bliss -- and widespread, writes Rich Barlow. Pictured: Donald Trump, then a possible 2012 presidential candidate, on April 27, 2011 in Portsmouth, N.H. There, Trump said he was "very proud" to have forced the White House's decision to release President Barack Obama's birth certificate. (Jim Cole/AP)
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After years of swimming in the racist birther stream, Donald Trump admitted reality during his presidential campaign and declared, “President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period.” That had some persuasive effect on the public, with one poll in September 2016 finding the number of Americans who agreed with Trump increasing to 62 percent. Then a scary thing happened: Birtherism was reborn.

When the pollster checked back in March, those who considered Obama a native American had dropped to 57 percent, despite Trump’s concession six months earlier. “Over time,” a New York Times report concluded, “people may simply forget the contrary evidence they’ve heard and fall back on their old beliefs,” especially in a polarized nation whose ethos is my side, right or wrong.

Ignorance doesn’t know party lines. The March poll found that birtherism crept back up among both Republicans and Democrats...

Unreason isn’t confined to politics, of course. As I write this, I’m reading a friend’s incredulous Facebook post about watching a Whole Foods shopper hand her 1-year-old a cup with an inch of scalding coffee in it. And sizable minorities of Americans have clung to the Biblical account of creation for decades. But the birther surge corroborates research about the resilience of ignorance in the public square; for example, studies have found that many people continue to believe falsehoods about a political candidate even after they’re disproved.

For many of our fellow citizens in the Age of Trump, ignorance really is bliss — and widespread.

Ignorance doesn’t know party lines. The March poll found that birtherism crept back up among both Republicans and Democrats, though birthers predominate among the former far more than the latter. In less vile forms, ignorance afflicted those progressives who thought Bernie Sanders’ proposed social welfare spending added up. (It didn’t.)

Nor is ignorance bordered by income and educational levels. Trump’s famously gullible base may be blue collar, but there’s no doubting the pay or degrees of the physicist who penned his happy-as-a-clam take on the president’s first 100 days.

Mike Stopa acknowledged in his op-ed the president’s flops. So why is the man smiling? He writes that Trump voters fully anticipated the push-back against their man and then strings together the following two sentences:

“[T]he fact that legislative gridlock persists or that activist judges have thrown roadblocks into Trump’s executive orders is not remotely an indictment of Trump’s policies, but rather a demonstration that more work needs to be done. Trump has assembled a strong team of capable conservatives and populists who will press forward with priorities, including creating jobs for blue-collar workers, curbing climate change hysteria, and vigorously confronting radical Islamic terrorism.”

Leave aside the fact that conservative, not activist, judges have been the potholes bedeviling Trump’s parade. Let’s pass over the climate change skepticism, too. Let’s just ponder the obliviousness to cause and effect in those two sentences. Even presidents with strong teams need to overcome legislative gridlock and act constitutionally to make progress; that’s what strong presidents and teams do. If Trump has raised doubts about his abilities in those areas, you wouldn’t bet the farm on a successful presidency. This paean make sense only by substituting blind faith for examination of the evidence: Pay no attention to those pesky judges and gridlock in front of the curtain!

The president has been an undeniable success in one respect: as a middle finger at the political establishment he and his backers loathe. But at some point, supporters’ anarchic pleasure will wear thin. Those workers who voted for Trump did so out partly out of fear for their economic future; a recent study found that lack of well-paying jobs for white workers without college degrees caused soaring mortality from suicide and substance abuse.

Facing this problem, the president wasted his first three months in office driving down dead ends — pushing pipe dreams about a revived coal industry; gunning for Obamacare; obsessing over a border wall despite inheriting a robust deportation regime from his predecessor; concocting a tax giveaway to the wealthy.

Experts could have given him better ideas for helping economically troubled Americans. But mistrust of expertise is another cultural marker in the Age of Trump.

Experts could have given him better ideas for helping economically troubled Americans. But mistrust of expertise is another cultural marker in the Age of Trump. Who needs experts, when 96 percent of Trump voters still think they picked the right candidate?

But just as ignorance is unyielding, so is reality. If the president stays his course, the economy won't improve, causing the most desperate among his voters to continue to drink or drug themselves to death. Those still living will devour his angry tweets about judges following the Constitution, acclaim his rolling back environmental protections to chase jobs that no longer exist, and applaud his efforts at providing the world’s greatest health care by taking away health care.

And compose odes to Donald Trump.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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