Back in April of 2011, I was upset when President Obama released his long-form birth certificate in response to demands from one Donald Trump. I thought it was a mistake by Obama, and I said so at the time.
My thinking at the time was that it elevated Trump to Obama’s level–it made it seem like the President had to take what Trump said seriously.
This bothered me because it reminded me of something I read in the book Nixonland, by Rick Perlstein. Perlstein documents how Richard Nixon continually badgered then-President Lyndon Johnson about Vietnam, until Johnson finally responded to Nixon’s criticisms. By doing so, Johnson unwittingly elevated Nixon to appear as the “leader of the opposition”. He made Nixon seem as though he was on a par with the office of the President.
This was part of Nixon’s plan. It was part of how he made his famous political comeback from humiliated has-been in 1962 to President in 1968. It’s always stuck with me, and so whenever I see some would-be Presidential candidate angling to get the President to react to criticism, I automatically think of it.
When I mentioned this in 2011, my friends said I was paranoid, and laughed at the idea that Trump would ever be taken seriously. He was a joke, as shown when President Obama roasted him at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner:
My friends thought this was the ultimate humiliation for Trump. He’d become a laughingstock.
Well, my friends aren’t laughing any more.
I derive no pleasure from this, but it does appear that Trump was using the birth-certificate issue as a proof of concept for his future campaign: say outrageous stuff so the press covers it, then keep harping on it to draw more followers to your “cause”, and then before you know it, some pretty big people start responding to you. And now, the headlines all say “President responds to Trump”.
Once his demands for the birth certificate were met, Trump realized that the press was ripe to be used for his unorthodox quest for political power. But I think he also knew he would stand no chance against a popular and charismatic sitting President in 2012. Hence his decision to delay until now.
The birth-certificate thing was silly and stupid and frivolous and ultimately the conspiracy theorists were proven wrong. But that wasn’t the main takeaway from it. The main takeaway was that Donald Trump asked for something, and the President gave it to him. This emboldened Trump to start trying to see just what else he could get out of the political system.