The widespread coverage of Donald Trump’s role in the birther movement has suggested that the Republican candidate was one of the architects of what folklorists usually refer to as contemporary legends but what the public knows as urban legends that Barack Obama is not a citizen of the United States. But that isn’t true. Trump jumped on the birther bandwagon most assertively in a Good Morning America interview in 2011. To be sure, the Republican candidate has more name recognition than any other birther, but he was rather late to the game of trashing the 44th president, a process that commenced almost immediately after the then state senator from Illinois gave his rousing nomination speech for John Kerry as the Democratic candidate for president on July 27, 2004.
Barack Obama was in for a slew of unsubstantiated rumors, contemporary legends, and conspiracy theories. Every element of his identity has been contradicted and recast. In addition to the claims that he is not a citizen, his religious affiliation has been challenged with a voluminous number of transmissions suggesting he is really a Muslim. Then there are the notions that he is profoundly unpatriotic as evidenced by the claims that he refused to wear a flag pin, sing the national anthem, and salute the flag. His sexual orientation has been speculated upon in a large number of texts that name him as “Bathhouse Barry.” Many of these toxic texts allege that he has had former lovers killed in order to keep his same sex escapades secret. To explain his marriage and family life, some adherents claim that Michelle Obama was born Michael Robinson and had a sex change operation. Most of these texts were making the rounds long before the Donald of Oz started promoting the birther lore in the middle of President Obama’s first term. Then candidate Obama had to dedicate a section of his campaign website, entitled “Fight the Smears,” to debunking the multitude of rumors and contemporary legends in 2007.
Those of us who document and analyze contemporary legends have learned that products, situations, and personalities can contain core characteristics that lead to extensive folk speculation. In the early 1990s the makers of Snapple Iced Tea had to grapple with two sets of rumors that beset its product. One cycle alleged that the owners were pro-lifers who used the company’s profits to support Operation Rescue, the extremist anti-abortion group. The other cycle claimed that the owners were in the Ku Klux Klan and used their profits to support white supremacist activities. Of course none of these allegations had any merit. But by scrutinizing the characteristics of Snapple, we can identify traits that also apply to Barack Obama.
Both Snapple and Barack Obama burst on to the national scene very quickly. Before Snapple, the colas dominated the soft drink world with little competition. No one had imagined that a high-priced iced tea would seduce the market the way Snapple did. But in the early 1990s sales of Snapple Iced Tea seriously cut into the soft drink market. Before his electrifying speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, few political insiders would have predicted that a Hawaiian born, Harvard educated half Kansan/half Kenyan could attract so many supporters.
Snapple is an unusual name for a non alcoholic libation, and many voters never expected to attach the label serious Presidential candidate to someone with the name Barack Hussein Obama. Snapple distinguished itself as a different kind of beverage choice, and Obama depicted his himself as a different kind of politician.
Both Snapple and Obama attracted huge numbers of ardent followers. An early television advertising campaign for Snapple consisted of the “Snapple lady” reading authentic iced tea love letters that were mailed (via the postal service) to the company’s headquarters. And Obama’s story resonated with many Americans who have twice put him into the White House.
Thus unusual names, unconventional promotion strategies, instant and unprecedented product appeal of the variety associated with rock stars, can all add up to a consumer or voter backlash that manifests itself in the spread of unsubstantiated hearsay. While Snapple had lovers, it also had haters. The adulation bestowed by so many upon young Barack Obama clearly distressed those unable to find anything appealing in his profile. To those unnerved by Obama, the presence of so many supporters was just as disturbing as the man himself.
The human impulse to construct pithy stories surfaced so they could try to convince themselves and others that he was completely undeserving of the trust and respect he was receiving. Although there are some individuals such as Andy Martin, Jerome Corsi, and Orly Taitz who aggressively fueled the birther fires, they would not have flourished and spread without a sizeable segment of the American population predisposed to perpetuate anti-Obama indictments. No one person started the birther rumors, they represent collective problem-solving for those who need there to be an ironclad reason why this man should not be president.
The rumors and legends about Barack Obama started in 2004 and have persisted throughout both his terms in office. Through the recent Ebola scare a series of texts alleged that he intentionally sent American servicemen to Liberia so that they would become infected with the disease, bring it back to the United States, thereby creating an epidemic that would kill Christians. Depending upon the choices he makes following his presidency, he and his family may reach a point where the rumor mongering will subside. But Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton should be careful as well. They too share some characteristics with Snapple Iced Tea.