Sheriff Joe Arpaio recently took a break from persecuting Latinos to do some law enforcement work critical to Maricopa County -- investigating the authenticity of President Obama's birth certificate; the same one the White House produced months ago and which put to rest, once and for all, the outrageous claim that Obama was not born in the U.S. and, therefore, neither eligible to be President nor an American citizen.
Arpaio obviously seized upon the discredited "birther" issue to distract attention from the overwhelming evidence that he is not the tough law-and-order sheriff he pretends to be, but a racist thug who uses his badge to bully the county's Latino citizens. Late last year the U.S. Department of Justice issued a report detailing a litany of appalling abuses of power perpetrated under Arpaio, including unlawful stops, detentions, arrests, and use of excessive force. The DOJ concluded that the Sheriff's office has engaged in an illegal "pattern and practice of unconstitutional conduct and/or violations of federal law." So, it's not surprising that Arpaio, who may face federal indictment, concluded that Obama's birth certificate is a forgery.
On its face the "birther" issue is a silly fringe challenge to the president's legitimacy. Obama is hardly the first president whose legitimacy has been attacked. Bill Clinton's authority as commander in chief was questioned because he did not serve in the armed forces during the Vietnam War. And his citizenship was questioned amid rumors that he had sought to expatriate when he was a student overseas.
But the "birther" issue is part of something much more sinister. At bottom it is an attack on Obama's identity as an American, as a product of American culture. The challenges to Clinton, as absurd as they may have been, were based on actions Clinton took as an adult, such as avoiding the draft or allegedly renouncing his citizenship. Even at their most extreme, Clinton's political opponents derived their opposition from what he did, not who he was. Not so with Obama. The president's opponents on the extreme right focus their attacks on his American identity and less on his record.
Unfortunately, such attacks are not the sole province of the political fringe. Indeed, challenges to Obama's American identity have been common throughout the Republican primaries. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich asked, "What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anticolonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]? That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior." He even went on to imply that the president was elected under false pretenses. Obama, he said, "played a wonderful con, as a result of which he is now president." Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, in his stump speech, indirectly challenges Obama's American identity by claiming he seeks a "fundamental transformation of America," into a country people "wouldn't recognize...a European-style welfare economy where people feel entitled to what their neighbor has." Former Senator Rick Santorum has even gone so far as to question the president's Christianity, declaring that Obama's agenda is based on "some phony theology. Not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology." While Santorum can hardly deny the president's obvious Christian faith, he concedes it begrudgingly, and with more than a hint of saracsim, "If the president says he's a Christian, he's a Christian."
The subtext of these carefully parsed words is chilling -- the president is an alien in our midst whose very presence in the Oval Office threatens America's national security and culture. Would these attacks on Obama's American identity be possible were it not for factors other than his politics, such as his skin color and pedigree?
It comes as no surprise that Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his allies on the fringe right are interested in delegitimizing the president based on his background as the son of a Kenyan immigrant. After all, Arpaio's ugly brand was built on the belief that the darker a person's skin, the more likely it is they are illegal. Attacks on Obama's American identity are a just a natural extension of that racist doctrine.
Nor is it surprising that the Republican candidates have pushed the political envelope to the extreme right in an effort to lock in the party's base. At least as far back as Richard Nixon, the Republican playbook has been to run hard to the right in the primaries and steer back to the center for the general election. But now that Mitt Romney has won super-Tuesday, including the must win State of Ohio, and is the presumptive Republican nominee, it will be interesting to see if he continues to reinforce silly and discredited questions about Obama's American-ness, or, instead, focuses on the important issues facing the American people.