As Media Matters for America recently noted, the Obama birth certificate conspiracy theories continue to circulate, spread by such notable conservative voices as Rush Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy, and Michael Savage. The Birthers are now apparently a permament part of American conservatism, providing daily proof to non-conservatives that the Right has gone batshit insane. But how did this come about? What chain of events has led us to the point where a significant fraction of the conservative movement has embraced a crazy conspiracy theory? The answer, I think, is that this is an unintended consequence of one of Karl Rove's dirty tricks operations.
Our story begins in the summer of 2004, when the men masterminding George W. Bush's re-election campaign receive word that CBS's 60 Minutes is researching a story on Bush's incomplete service with the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War. For Karl Rove, the solution is obvious: just do a variation of the trick he pulled during the 1986 Texas Governor's race, where he planted a bug in his office and then claimed it had been planted by his opponents. In this case, Rove fed several forged documents to 60 Minutes, then alerted the three proprietors of the right-wing blog Powerline that the documents were forgeries. The "forged documents" story quickly drowned out the National Guard story, Bush went on to win re-election in November, Dan Rather was forced to resign from CBS, and Powerline was named Time magazine's "Blog of the Year" for 2004.
Needless to say, this isn't the official version of the "Rathergate scandal". Officially, nobody knows how 60 Minutes wound up basing its story on forged documents. Officially, the Powerline boys figured it all out by themselves. In the wake of the "Rathergate scandal", right-wing bloggers were deliriously high-fiving each other over having killed the National Guard story and gotten Dan Rather fired. They convinced themselves that they were a new breed of citizen journalists. From that point on, the wingnutosphere began searching feverishly for "the next Rathergate", the next chance to demonstrate their citizen journalist chops. This has resulted in the 2005 Schiavo Memo freakout, the 2007 Scott Beauchamp blogswarm, and Michelle Malkin's countertop stalk. Despite all their efforts, though, the wingnut bloggers were unable to replicate the success of "their" Dan Rather takedown.
Then came Barack Obama's presidential run.
At first, the Citizen Journalist Right ignored Obama, believing as they did that Hillary Clinton had a lock on the Democratic nomination. Then, on January 3, 2008, Barack Obama won the Democratic caucus in Iowa. Suddenly there were chain e-mails flying into in-boxes all over the country claiming that Obama was a secret Muslim, that Obama's campaign was being funded by Hugo Chavez, and, above all, that Obama wasn't an American citizen.
Obama responded to the last claim by releasing a Certificate of Live Birth from the state of Hawaii in June. This caused the Citizen Journalist Right to spring into action, determined to prove that the CoLB was a forgery. Since the CoLB was genuine (as attested to by numerous Hawaii state officials), the Citizen Journalist Right went into a paranoid frenzy, building ever-larger conspiracy theories to explain why nobody was paying any attention to them.
Which brings us down to the present. A disturbingly large proportion of American conservatives still believe the birth certificate was a forgery, still believe Barack Obama was born in another country, still are filing lawsuits, and still hope to force Obama from the presidency. The Birthers are a monster that is consuming conservativism, and conservatives have Karl Rove to thank for their existence.