THE BIRTHERS…. I call them “conversation enders.” These are comments that lead you to know, the moment you hear them, that the writer/speaker is either clueless or intellectually dishonest, and there’s really no reason to engage the person in a serious dialog.

I suspect we all have them. When I hear, “Tax cuts are fiscally responsible because they pay for themselves,” it’s a conversation ender. When I hear, “Evolution is just a theory,” it’s a conversation ender. When someone says, “Global warming can’t be real because it’s cold outside,” it’s a conversation ender.

And when someone questions whether Barack Obama is a natural-born citizen of the United States, it’s definitely a conversation ender. With that in mind, Ben Smith has a good piece today describing the odd little movement behind this argument, making up a group apparently known as the “Birthers.”

Out of the gaze of the mainstream and even the conservative media is a flourishing culture of advocates, theorists and lawyers, all devoted to proving that Barack Obama isn’t eligible to be president of the United States. Viewed as irrelevant by the White House, and as embarrassing by much of the Republican Party, the subculture still thrives from the conservative website WorldNetDaily, which claims that some 300,000 people have signed a petition demanding more information on Obama’s birth, to Cullman, Alabama, where Sen. Richard Shelby took a question on the subject at a town hall meeting last week.

Their confinement to the fringe hasn’t cooled the passion of believers; the obscure New York preacher James Manning turned up at a National Press Club session in December to declare the president “the most notorious criminal in the history not just of America, but of this entire planet.”

Smith wisely notes that, in our reality, the claim itself is transparently ridiculous. But the fact that these strange people are out there, aggressively pushing their argument, is a dynamic with multiple angles.

For example, the nuttiness in some ways helps the White House because it makes the president’s detractors look ridiculous. Former Clinton White House press secretary Jake Siewert said, “At some level, they’re not that bad to have around because it reminds people that under the mainstream conservative press there’s this bubbling up of really irrational hatred for the guy.”

And that’s precisely what worries some conservatives who want their attacks against the White House to be taken seriously. Michael Medved referred to the Birthers as “crazy, nutburger, demagogue, money-hungry, exploitative, irresponsible, filthy conservative imposters” who are “the worst enemy of the conservative movement.” He added, “It makes us look weird. It makes us look crazy. It makes us look demented. It makes us look sick, troubled, and not suitable for civilized company.”

So, the “mainstream” right is debating whether they should actively root for Obama’s policies to fail, and the “fringe” right is debating whether Obama is even eligible for the presidency.

Just keep on talking, guys.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.