Donald Trump surveys the crowded town hall, his face locked in an expression that can only be described as a smiling scowl. His eyes finally settle on a middle-aged man in the front row.

“OK, this man. I like this guy,” he remarks.

The room is filled to the brim with ecstatic supporters, but only one gets the pleasure of asking the Donald the first question.

In an exchange that has since been replayed countless times, the man asserts that President Obama is a foreign-born Muslim and that the country is filled with “training camps, growing, where they want to kill us.” His emotion visible, his voice straining, the man asks, “When can we get rid of them?”

Throughout the question Trump nods along, seeming to agree with the questioner. He responds quickly, giving a boilerplate answer: “You know, a lot of people are saying that and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening. We’re going to be looking at that and a lot of other things.”

Trump’s response, as revealing as it is of the candidate’s refusal to negate the racism of his supporters, says very little about his actual beliefs or policies; it’s difficult to discern  when he’s being serious and when he’s just trying to please a voter. But one thing about his response is absolutely serious, and frighteningly so: many people do agree with this now-infamous Trump supporter.

A September poll from Public Policy Polling found that a shockingly low 29% of GOP primary voters believe that Obama was born in the United States. What’s more, the same poll found that 40% of Republican voters believe that Texas Senator Ted Cruz—an American citizen who has openly talked about his Canadian nationality—was born in the United States. In sum: more Republicans believe that Cruz was born in America than they do Obama.

This poll isn’t an anomaly. A September CNN poll found that 43% of Republican primary voters, and a full two-thirds of Trump supporters, still believe that Obama is a Muslim.

These polling results beg the question: What kind of worldview must one have to subscribe to these kinds of theories? And under what broader ideological and historical framework do these ideas fall?

Answering these questions requires a trip to what could be described as an alternate reality.

A parallel universe exists in the imagination of the American extreme right, a universe that is invisible to most Americans. Mainstream news sources don’t endorse conspiracy theories, and even candidates who count conspiracy theorists among their supporters, such as Donald Trump and Ben Carson, don’t delineate the full details of what they believe. Even when major news outlets announce the results of opinion polls, they barely scratch the surface of what their respondents actually think. When, for instance, a full 70% of GOP primary respondents answer that they do not believe that President Obama was born in the United States, they are not asked to explain where they do believe he was born.

But there is a place where the full worldview of the American extreme right is laid bare in remarkable translucency: YouTube. With one YouTube search you can enter a radically different world, a world in which President Obama is an agent of a malicious New World Order, in which FEMA is setting up concentration camps in Wyoming, Eric Holder is in league with Los Zetas and the national implementation of Sharia is imminent. The cardinal belief, however, the axiom by which this brave new world operates, is that President Obama is not an American citizen.

The two-word search “Obama Birth” retrieves a colossal 1,260,000 distinct YouTube hits. When controlled for view count and recent view history, the search results show many videos with view counts in the high millions and high view growth rates, indicating abundant and sustained interest in President Obama’s birth.

The most popular conspiracy video retrieved by the search, posted by a YouTuber with the alias “Conservative Watchman,” has over 6,000,000 views and the title “Not Natural Born—TRUTH MATTERS.” A patchwork of clips from right wing documentaries and selectively edited footage from President Obama’s press conferences, it is almost the Platonic ideal of the right wing anti-Obama citizenship conspiracy video. In quick succession, it hits all the movement’s talking points. First a radio host tells us that Obama is foreign born, specifically Kenyan. Then a lawyer named Philip Berg, since disbarred, tells us that Obama is bent on destroying the Constitution. Finally, a series of clips of Obama mentioning Muslim family members and saying the Arabic phrase for “welcome,” “as-salamu aleikum,” is supposed to convince the viewer that the president is a confirmed Muslim.

These birther videos do not exist in a vacuum. Instead, they are part of a sustained and extant movement that has retained an astoundingly large viewership over the past seven years. Because I watched dozens of conspiracy videos for the purpose of writing this article, YouTube began to treat me as it would a conspiracy theorist; instead of folk songs and Bruce Springsteen hits, my “suggested videos” docket began to show conspiracy videos, and increasingly extreme ones at that. It did not take long for my YouTube feed to become saturated with conspiracy content. In a crop that included a video from 2014 alleging that Obama has devil’s horns, perhaps the most alarming was a video called “Is Obama really Osama Bin Laden?”

The film begins with a full-screen image: a bright yellow Gadsden flag, the kind seen at Tea Party protests and, more recently, at Donald Trump rallies. As the opening lines of Carmina Burana play in the background, an image of President Obama comes into focus. Latin words can be heard, chanting: “O Fortuna! Velut luna! Statu variabilis!” An image of Osama Bin Laden’s face then appears to President Obama’s left. In an incoherent and bizarre sequence that almost eludes written description, President Obama’s eyes are transposed onto Bin Laden’s face. All-caps captions declare the two faces to be a perfect match. By now Carmina Burana has reached its climax, and the video becomes even more surreal. Obama’s official Senate portrait appears next to an early image of Bin Laden and, as the rococo flourishes of Carmina Burana get louder and louder, the two portraits become one.

The video’s quality can be best described as primitive, resembling a middle school student’s first PowerPoint presentation. And that doesn’t even account for the video’s frighteningly unhinged content. Its closest parallel might be the third Star Wars movie (spoiler ahead), Revenge of the Sith, in which the virtuous Chancellor Palpatine is actually revealed to be the evil Darth Sidious. So why should anyone care about a crank video made by someone with minimal Photoshop skills? Because five million people cared enough to watch it. A vigorous conspiratorial subculture exists beneath the fabric of American politics, a subculture that is impenetrably bizarre to all those who don’t subscribe to it.

Matthew Jacobson is a professor of history and American Studies at Yale who studies the intersection of race, nativism and political culture. He has published widely on politics of nativism, including a book that examines the 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate, a film one can see as a clear ideological predecessor to today’s conspiratorial YouTube videos. This YouTube subculture, Jacobson said, reveals “a deep sense of white displacement” felt among the conspiratorial radical right—the notion that the country’s basic political institutions have been subverted by undeserving foreigners. “I remember seeing an extraordinary on-the-street interview of a woman, conducted shortly after President Obama was elected,” he said. “She was crying, almost hysterically, saying that she had lost her country.” This anger at the prospect of losing one’s country to a minority group, Jacobson added, is no new phenomenon in America.

Jacobson delineated three common features of conspiracy theories: distance from reality, anti-government sentiment, and syncretism.

“You have theories that are so out-there,” he elaborated, “such as that Bin Laden conspiracy, that they are unhinged from reality itself. This makes a precise ideological categorization difficult.”

But, he says, they all seem to stem from an extreme mistrust of government. “Most theories very clearly relate to the long standing anti-government sentiment in American political discourse—the movements against government programs including Social Security, Great Society and, more recently, Obamacare.”

Jacobson also sees a certain amount of syncretism in the conspiracy movement –that is to say, places where the extreme left and right converge. Radicals of all backgrounds like to think of the world’s problems as the intentional orchestrations of a secret cabal, a conspiracy bent on destroying free institutions.

This casts the Donald Trump phenomenon, as well as the widespread animus directed against immigrants, in a clearer light. When describing illegal immigration from Mexico in his campaign announcement, Donald Trump infamously said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems.” A conspiracy-minded Trump supporter does not hear the repeated use of “they” in that statement as a grammatical misstep. Instead, he or she hears it as an indication of a deliberate plot—a mysterious “they” that is threatening the nation.

Trump’s insistence that he knows how the game is played taps into the collective psyche of his supporters—a psyche that views every loss of control as the result of a dark conspiracy. The conspiracy movement’s robust online presence forces us to reckon with the reality that racist conspiracy theories predate Trump. They are pervasive, pernicious, and not going anywhere.

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  1. The Article II “natural born Citizen” requirement is not about one’s race.

    Was is racist when John McCain’s Article II constitutional eligibility was questioned?

    Was is racist when George Romney’s Article II constitutional eligibility was questioned?

    Was is racist when Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Article II constitutional eligibility was questioned?

    If you don’t like the Article II requirement then seek to have it amended or repealed. Properly.

    1. For a reasoned analysis of the subject, visit Birther Report and read the comments there. All questions about whether race is involved will be resolved.

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