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Crazy "Birther" Conspiracy Theories Get Boost in Mainstream Media

The movement is a sinister attempt to paint Obama as illegitimate, foreign, and suspect. Why are pundits like Lou Dobbs taking it seriously?

If James von Brunn weren't in a locked security ward at Southeast General Hospital in Washington, D.C., and awaiting trial for the murder of a security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the 88-year-old racist and neo-Nazi might have taken comfort from listening to Lou Dobbs' syndicated radio show or watching Dobbs on CNN in recent days. Von Brunn would have likely felt some sense of affirmation from Dobbs, as the host began belatedly championing the cause of so-called "birthers," the angry band of right-wing conspiracy theorists who claim President Obama has not released a valid birth certificate and, in some cases, flat-out assert that he was not born in America and therefore is ineligible to be president of the United States. (Here's a good birther primer; here's the official right-wing defense of birthers.)

Had von Brunn been listening, Dobbs would likely have "spoken" to him. Just a few months before opening fire at the museum, von Brunn, apparently a proud birther himself, had done his best to spread the word online about Obama's illegitimate rule: "What is going on??? WHERE ARE THE GOOD PEOPLE IN THIS COUNTRY - ARE YOU OUT THERE???"

Ranting online, von Brunn also denounced the "dishonest & conspiratorial Media" for ignoring the blockbuster birther story.

Then suddenly up popped Dobbs, who, again and again in recent days, has propped up the birthers and taken on all comers who dared dismiss claims that Obama has failed to prove his U.S. citizenship. Suddenly, for dedicated birthers like von Brunn, the rudderless movement had a willing mainstream spokesman, somebody who reached beyond the paranoid confines of WorldNetDaily and Newsmax or the Michael Savage show and branched out into the masses.

Suddenly, the birthers had media big shot Lou Dobbs onboard as he, at times, turned his radio and television programs into a birther paradise, floating the same loaded, fact-free assertions that conspiracy theorists had been making for nearly a year:

  • "But we're going to keep talking about this until we get some straight answers."
  • "What is the deal here? I'm starting to think we have a -- we have a document issue."
  • "And all we need here is a doggone document, but for some reason the president doesn't want to release that."
  • "There are real questions here that need to be answered."

Dobbs has certainly taken some heat for his recent birther turn. (He's "effectively destroying his career with this stuff," birther expert David Weigel wrote at The Washington Independent.) But there's more to this story than Dobbs. And the phenomenon in play isn't just about a birth certificate. And it's also not isolated or accidental.

Because, yes, viewed in a vacuum, the movement seems like the nutty fringe. But viewed in a larger historical context, birthers share obvious ties to traditional right-wing assaults on previous Democrats, and birthers have all the marks of a GOP Noise Machine creation. The movement is about a larger, more sinister attempt to paint Obama as illegitimate, foreign, and suspect (i.e. not like you and me). To portray him as "a gratuitous interloper," as radio host G. Gordon Liddy put it. As someone who isn't who he says he is. As -- let's face it -- the Manchurian Candidate, with all the evil connotations that come with it. ("WHO SENT YOU???" von Brunn demanded to know of Obama.)

And it's about the disturbing role media figures like Dobbs play when they act as the bridge -- as the transmitter -- between the radical and the mainstream. When they legitimize the craziness, if only in the eyes of the crazies themselves. As MSNBC's Rachel Maddow noted this week, "The home run for conspiracists of any stripe is when their ideas can leave the lunatic fringe and enter the mainstream."