It used to be tough and unrewarding to be a crank. You had to communicate by inky mimeograph. The big media monopolies refused to accept your calls. Your neighbours ignored you or laughed at you.
How that has changed! Modern communication technology has empowered cranks, enabling them to build entire virtual crank communities. It has multiplied the number of media outlets--and thus the number of hours to fill--creating new crank opportunities on radio and television.
Among the greatest beneficiaries of these new opportunities: the cranks known as "birthers." The birthers claim that U. S. President Barack Obama is not legally entitled to occupy his office because he is not in fact a "natural-born citizen" of the United States, as the federal Constitution requires.
This claim rests on two assertions, one wrong, one crazy.
The wrong assertion is that Obama is not "a natural-born" citizen because his father was not a U. S. citizen. People born on American soil are American citizens, full stop, regardless of their parents' status in the country. The phrase "natural-born" means that a president cannot be an immigrant himself, not that his parents cannot be immigrants. Nobody imagined that Chester Arthur was ineligible for the presidency because his father was born in Ireland.
The crazy assertion is that Obama himself was born somewhere other than the United States. (The place of birth is usually given as Mombasa, Kenya, although in fact the city of Mombasa was not ceded to Kenya until two years after Obama's birth: Until then, the city had belonged to British-ruled Zanzibar.) The birth certificate showing Obama born in Honolulu is, the birthers claim, a forgery or a fake.
So here's the hypothesis. Barack Obama Sr. has brought his new wife to Kenya. (A journey for which there is precisely zero documentation.) There, she bears him a child. Then--in an era before jet travel and at a time when plane fares cost many, many times more than they do now--she immediately gets on a plane from Mombasa to Nairobi, then another plane from Nairobi to Cairo, then a third from Cairo to London, then from London to Gander, Gander to maybe Chicago, Chicago to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Honolulu. Arriving in Honolulu she presents her--what? two-week old infant?--to the authorities and asks for a birth certificate. Oh--and she also retroactively places birth announcements in the local papers.
There's an alternative hypothesis, which is that the fake happened sometime later, after Barack Obama Jr. immigrated illegally to Honolulu.
Some deep penetration agent in the Hawaiian Department of Vital Statistics generated a false certificate sometime between 1961 and 2008 with a view to sneakily inserting a black man with an exotic name into the Oval Office. Good plan!
The idea is so over-the-line nuts that it has been repudiated even by commentators who are themselves borderline nuts.
And yet, it would not be accurate to refer to birtherism as "fringe politics." Some recent survey data:--Twenty-eight percent of Republicans think Obama was not born in the United States, and another 30% say they are not sure, according to a Research 2000 poll commissioned by the left-wing website Daily Kos.--The pollster who performed the Research 2000 poll broke down the numbers by region for Dave Weigel of the right-leaning Washington Independent. Approximately 70% of white Southerners don't know or don't believe that Obama was born in the United States.--A poll released on Aug. 6 by the very reliable Pew Center finds that 39% of Republicans--a plurality among respondents--think there has been "too little" coverage of the birth certificate issue.
If that's the fringe, it's an awfully large fringe.
It should be noted that an equally disturbing proportion of Democrats were willing to entertain the idea that the Bush administration somehow "knew" about the 9/11 attacks: Thirty-five percent of Democrats asserted that Bush "knew" and another 26% were "not sure" in a 2007 Rasmussen poll.
The poor phrasing of the Rasmussen question muddled two different ideas: The harsh but not paranoid view that Bush negligently failed to heed intelligence warnings--and the truly loony paranoid view that Bush was somehow complicit in the attacks.
The birther survey data is more explicit. The white Southern base of the GOP strongly doubts the legality of the 2008 election and the legitimacy of the man elected. They see him as alien, foreign and suspect.
Is this mistrust racial? It sure looks that way. But there's something else going on too: the trauma of a society adjusting to mass migration, 40-million newcomers since 1970. The people responding to the polls may be thinking: OK, maybe it's legal for the President's father to be a non-citizen from Kenya. But it shouldn't be--the president should have deeper roots in the country than can be sunk in a single generation.
Or maybe all this reflects an even more basic trouble in modern media democracy: With cable blaring 24/7 and the Internet distributing rumors faster than thought and Facebook creating digital enclaves of like-minded networks across the planet--maybe we've all lost some of our immunity to lunacy.
David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.