A Discourse of Doubt: Birtherism 2.0

Benjamin Cherry-Smith

In a national election which saw over 150 million voters cast in-person and mail-in votes amid a global pandemic and ongoing pernicious voter suppression, the United States (U.S.) has elected former Democratic Vice-President, Joe Biden, to be the 46th President. With the votes counted and Biden emerging as the clear winner, President Trump has yet to concede, and the formal transition phase between administrations stalled for weeks. Instead of heeding the democratic will of the national, Trump has instead launched legal challenges in all the states where he believes that voter fraud has occurred–Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada, and Georgia.


Under a Republican piecemeal slogan of ‘all legal votes should be counted’, the Trump campaign legal team has sought to challenge the counting and certification of state-wide results. So far though, all lawsuits have been dismissed by state and national courts. However, winning the legal challenge is not Trump’s intent. The intent is to sow doubt over the election results, continue his anti-mail-in ballot discourse, and to establish doubt in the legitimacy of President Biden and his administration–all of which can be termed ‘Birtherism 2.0’.


Birtherism 2.0 is a new iteration on the original ‘Birtherism’ conspiracy theory, which came about before the election of President Obama. During Obama’s presidency, Trump was one of the most vocal proponents of the Birtherism conspiracy theory; a conspiracy theory that, arguably, launched his political career. Birtherism itself, centred on the claim that former-President Barack Obama was born in Kenya and later taken to Hawaii to have his birth registered. In conservative media’s iterations of the conspiracy theory, they also mentioned that Obama’s father was born a Muslim. In the logic of conservative media, this meant that Obama was a secret Muslim and, couched in the post-9/11 security narrative, a secret terrorist seeking to take down the U.S. from the inside.


The baseless conspiracy theory of Birtherism was, fundamentally, about two interconnected points, the right of a U.S. citizen by birth to hold the office of President–Barack Obama–and the continued demonisation and ‘dog-whistling’ of a non-white ‘Other’–Muslims.


Looking towards the contemporary actions of a now President Trump, in a reimagined Birtherism 2.0 we can see the same two fundamental motivators, the right of Biden to hold the office of President and the demonisation of non-white voters. But he has also reanimated Birtherism, specifically targeting Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris in the same way he did President Obama.


The reanimation of Birtherism targeting Kamala Harris by Trump is not unexpected. As political commentators have noted looking forward to the 2024 presidential election, Kamala Harris is set to take a more prominent role in the Biden administration than previous Vice-Presidents. Harris is also expected to be the Democratic front runner in the 2024 primaries because of Biden’s age – currently 78 – and his intentions to ‘act as a bridge’ to the younger generation. Both of these mean that Harris will continue to be a significant figure in the Democratic party. For President Trump, this means he can attack her background as a daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India with the intent to delegitimise her right to hold the role of President and seek to cast her as a racist caricature in the eyes of voters.


A reimagined Birtherism 2.0, however, extends further than its predecessor and is interwoven with a long discourse about U.S. election security and the illegitimate voting of undocumented immigrants who, as the conspiracy theory states, vote Democrat. Indeed, this assertion can be seen in Georgia where he has called for a ‘signature matching’ audit conducted on mail-in votes in a partisan effort to discount those votes; in an election where mail or early in-person votes made up 60 per cent of all votes cast, 48 per cent of which were for Democrats, and saw a large increase in non-white and youth voters. Georgia is also crucial given that the two January Senate run-off elections will determine who will hold the majority in the U.S. Senate.


As President Trump floats his 2024 presidential run, he will be leaving a discourse of doubt hanging over the Biden Presidency–amongst many other issues. His creation of Birtherism 2.0 and the reanimation of Birtherism targeting Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris are designed to undermine American democratic integrity, stoke a base of supporters, and say that Republicans only lose because Democrats ‘cheat’. While Birtherism 2.0 departs from its predecessor in that it is not directly targeting the citizenship of one person and their right to hold the role, it does cast doubt over the legitimacy a Biden administration and maintains its overt racist dog whistles; merely expanded to an ever-diversifying electorate.


Benjamin Cherry-Smith is an incoming PhD student at the University of Adelaide where he researches state influence activities and ontological in/security.