Donald Trump once claimed to have sent private investigators to Hawaii to prove his belief that President Obama was not born in the United States and was therefore ineligible for the the presidency.
What is now commonly-described as birtherism has reemerged as major story, been covered extensively by the news media, but this time not at Trump's initiative. A man at one of the mogul's events in New Hampshire on Thursday said both that President Obama is a Muslim and “not even an American.” He also argued Muslims “are a problem” in this country. Trump sidestepped the question, not attempting to defend Muslims or explain that the president is both American and a Christian.
That this incident happened may have been news, but in truth it was one of the least surprising moments of the 2016 campaign. Of course "birthers" come to Trump’s events. In 2011, the real estate mogul was perhaps the most prominent person in America still propagating the falsehood that the president was not born in the United States.
Even as some of Trump's policy ideas, such as ending birthright citizenship and building a wall between the United States and Mexico, address real conservative concerns about illegal immigration, the mogul's 2016 campaign has seemed at times intentionally designed to stoke the concerns of older, white Americans about the increasing racial, ethnic and religious diversity of America.
And Trump does not just spread rumors on racial issues, as he has also questioned the use of vaccines and suggested the Mexican government intentionally sends criminals to the United States, despite little evidence behind either claim.
But that the New Hampshire man felt so comfortable demeaning the president’s citizenship and criticizing Muslims in public also illustrates that these views are not limited to Trump.
In 2008, at one of the town halls during his presidential run, John McCain rebuked a woman who said Obama couldn’t be trusted because he is an “Arab.” McCain told the woman Obama is a “decent family man.”
Other Republican leaders have been unwilling to follow McCain’s example. For the last seven years, influential Republicans from evangelical leader Franklin Graham to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker have cast doubts on Obama’s Christian faith. The president has been continually described on the right as un-American, having values more aligned with Kenyans or Muslims than Americans or Christians and being foreign-born.
To be sure, there is little evidence that most Republicans have views that are anti-Muslim, racist or nativist. Ben Carson, who is black, is surging in polls of the GOP race, and the Cuban-American Marco Rubio is considered one of the most likely people to win the GOP nomination. Republicans the last two campaigns have tapped McCain and Mitt Romney as their nominees, both of whom avoided the birther views of Trump.
But Trump and some other conservatives have continually promoted the view that Obama is lying about his heritage and background. It’s not surprising Trump did not condemn a man expressing views that Trump himself appears to hold.