Birtherism, the conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was born abroad and thus ineligible for the presidency, served a very specific purpose. It was a tool of delegitimization, a means to drive xenophobic suspicion and racial hostility. It’s why Donald Trump, its chief advocate, never truly dropped the crusade—not after wide condemnation from critics and fact-checkers; not after wide ridicule from much of the public; and not after Obama released his long-form birth certificate, debunking the charge outright. “A lot of people question it,” said Trump in a 2015 question-and-answer session with Fox News’ Sean Hannity a few months before he announced his bid for the White House.
Trump’s birtherism didn’t just feed anti-Obama distrust and paranoia among conservative voters. It helped feed a sense of grievance—a feeling that their country had been hijacked by nefarious forces, and they needed to take it back. And whether Trump realized it or not at the time, it also helped till ground for his eventual presidential campaign and its message of nativist anger and racist hostility. It is now important to remember all of this, as Trump and his backers stoke another conspiracy theory, aimed at delegitimizing a different set of opponents.
Since November, Trump and his allies have adopted a similarly false and conspiratorial take on the election, claiming without evidence that millions of unauthorized immigrants voted in the presidential race, handing a popular vote victory to Hillary Clinton. “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” declared Trump just a few weeks after the election. He doubled down on this claim during the presidential transition, repeating it during a meeting with lawmakers and subsequently announcing a “major investigation” into said fraud. In recent days, the president has given a new twist of specificity to his claims of voter fraud, telling a group of Senate Republicans and Democrats that illegal voters from Massachusetts were responsible for Clinton’s win in New Hampshire.
On Sunday, Stephen Miller, a senior adviser to the president, offered his own support for Trump’s claims. “This issue of busing voters in New Hampshire is widely known by anyone who’s worked in New Hampshire politics,” said Miller in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. “It’s very real. It’s very serious.” Despite being repeatedly pressed for evidence on this claim, Miller said, “This morning, on this show, is not the venue to lay out all the evidence.” This is what someone says when he doesn’t have the goods.
There is no evidence, of course. No evidence of mass voter fraud in New Hampshire, no evidence of mass voter fraud anywhere. There are individuals with registrations in more than one state—unavoidable when people move to different cities and states and register to vote—and there are dead people on the rolls who haven’t been taken off yet. But both are unrelated to mass fraud at the actual polls, for which, again, there is no evidence. In Iowa, for example, just 10 votes out of the 1.6 million cast in the 2016 elections could be classified as improper. And Republican officials in New Hampshire vehemently dispute the notion of fraud in their state. “Repeating: there is no voter fraud in NH. None. Zip. Nada. Hundreds of lawyers, poll workers, watchers, press — not buses rolled in,” wrote Steve Duprey, a New Hampshire Republican and voting member of the Republican National Committee, on Twitter. Nationwide, the most comprehensive research finds a similarly minuscule rate of improper voting. One investigation found just 31 potential cases of voter intimidation in more than a billion ballots cast between 2000 and 2014. And noncitizen voting, contra claims from White House officials such as Miller, is also so rare as to be negligible.
In which case, what’s the point? Why tell tales of voter fraud? Why assert blatant falsehoods on social media and national television?
A part of it, as with birtherism, is to delegitimize the opposition, to convince the public—or at least Trump’s voters—that the popular vote was illegitimate and that the fact of voter fraud means they can’t trust traditional measures of popularity. The polls, the vote, anything that threatens Trump’s self-image as an avatar for the people—it’s all “fake news.”
The other part is simple signaling. In state after state, Republicans presage new voter restrictions and requirements with claims of fraud and abuse. They warn that without strict voter identification or indiscriminate purging of voter rolls, elections would be tainted by the mere possibility of “illegal voting.” And they use that alleged danger as pretext for a cascade of changes, from slashing the types of voting—reducing or ending early and weekend voting—to cutting the number of polling places, limiting hours, and requiring even more documentation. In Texas, for example, lawmakers have introduced legislation that would create strict documentary proof of citizenship to register to vote. Aimed at noncitizen voting, it would also ensnare people who just lack access to those documents, from elderly citizens to low-income blacks and Latinos who, through circumstances, can’t immediately produce birth certificates and don’t have passports.
With Jeff Sessions, an avowed opponent of liberal voting laws, in place at the Department of Justice, and with Kris Kobach, a prolific architect of restrictive voter laws, in an advisory position within the administration, Trump’s constant claims of voter fraud aren’t just the special pleading of someone who craves the affirmation of a popular vote victory; they reflect an actual agenda, aimed at eroding the right to vote for millions of Americans.
What comes next? As a U.S. attorney in Alabama, Sessions prosecuted voting rights activists, and as a senator, he backed the Supreme Court decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act and cleared the path for a wave of voter suppression laws. Now, as attorney general of the United States, he, along with Trump, has a chance to take those efforts national, targeting voters of color by purging rolls, going after activists through prosecutions and other intimidation, backing restrictive laws in court, and dropping cases against states and localities that discriminate in voting.
Birtherism helped the set the stage for the rapid rise and success of a mass nativist movement. In the hands of Donald Trump, the voter fraud myth may do the same for the growing effort to make voting hard again—to make voting white again.