Donald Trump
Credit: Evan Guest/Flickr

Over the preceding months, we have seen the rise of what I’ll call the pearl-clutching conservative.

This is a high-minded man or woman predisposed to the theory and practice of limited government who has declared one way or another that it would be unthinkable to support a cad like businessman Donald Trump. He is too offensive, too crude, too bigoted, they said, to be the standard bearer of a principled Republican Party. But mostly, they thought he’d lose.

Donald Trump has now united his base and narrowed the polling gap against Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. His success has illustrated what Clinton herself has long expected — that the election is going to be close. Those same pearl-clutching conservatives are now demonstrating that conservative philosophy, nice as it is, is now secondary to their interest in party and power.

Case in point is Tucker Carlson. To my amazement, and the amazement of many, he manages to be taken seriously by Washington media, even the “liberal” National Public Radio, as the editor in chief of the laughable “news” site, the Daily Caller. As such, he on NPR Monday, where he was asked about the role of “birtherism” among Trump’s supporters. He, like other “conservatives,” trivialized its significance.

“He owns [birtherism], for sure, whatever its origins,” Carlson told NPR. “I mean, he gave press conferences about it. But, I mean, he’s clearly ridden immigration and trade to the position he’s in now. I think his bringing this up again was a godsend for the Hillary people.”

What’s the evidence for that claim? Carlson said Trump is outperforming former Republican nominee Mitt Romney “pretty significantly” among black voters. If voters most offended by birtherism are throwing their weight behind the birther-in-chief, Carlson argued, then issues like trade, terrorism, and immigration must matter more.

This is the kind of warped reality one might expect from a partisan spinning polling numbers to benefit a candidate, not from a high-minded conservative. But Carlson, like many of his ideological kin, is nothing of the sort.

Let’s establish some facts.

First, Trump is the primogenitor of a five-year smear campaign to delegitimize the democratic election of the first African-American president in the history of the United States. Second, Mitt Romney was a moderate governor of a liberal state (Massachusetts) who was compelled to demonstrate to GOP’s right wing that he could “stand up” to African Americans. Yet Romney won 5 percent of the African-American vote in 2012.

So, at first blush, Carlson’s assertion appears to be weak. On closer inspection, it’s bullshit.

Carlson was incorrect to say Trump is outperforming Romney “pretty significantly.” Only one poll, the LA Times poll, suggests anything “significant.” As Carlson’s Daily Caller reported Sunday, Trump’s support among black voters shot up 17 points in eight days. That’s literally incredible. Conversely, a CBS News/New York Times poll released last week had Trump at 6 percent among black voters. Yes, that’s more than Romney’s 5 percent, but a one-point difference is not statistically significant.

The Daily Caller isn’t serious. And Carlson is not a principled conservative. If he were, he wouldn’t base a suspect claim of flimsy evidence. Instead, he’s playing the historical role of rationalizer of racism.

Birtherism is the foundation on which Trump built his base of power, and many supporters see issues through that lens. Whether “trade” or “immigration,” the solution for them is going to be bringing the hammer of federal power down on the backs of black and brown people.

As NBC’s Katy Tur noted on MSNBC recently, Trump supporters have consistently told her on the campaign trail they believe Barack Obama is a secret Muslim bent on destroying the American way of life: “They often say that they believe that [Barack Obama] was born in Kenya. They often say that they believe he’s a Muslim. Some of them even go on to say that they believe he’s an undercover operative, a Manchurian candidate, if you will, that has the interests of a foreign power. … Every city I’ve been to, there have been people who’ve said exactly those words.”

Of course, no politician can say that, not even Donald Trump. So the minute the true intention of birtherism meets the scrutinizing gaze of the media, as it did last week, people like Carlson step in to say it’s not all that important compared to other things.

That said, there is another way of looking at it. The facts of Barack Obama’s birth were never the point. He could have been born on Mars. It would make no difference. Saying he’s a secret Muslim, saying he’s bent on destroying the American way of life — these have nothing to do with Islam, the Constitution, or democracy. The point is Obama’s black.

That’s reason enough for some Americans to say he’s illegitimate.So it may be accurate to say birtherism doesn’t matter. Nativist-white nationalism doesn’t care where a black or brown person is born. What’s important to nativist-white nationalism is that black and brown people aren’t white.

Many months ago, pearl-clutching conservatives said they could not vote for someone who said immigrants were criminals, who demanded religious tests, who advocated war crimes, who held press freedoms in contempt, who insulted veterans, and disrespected the rule of law.

All that’s changed.  After all, he might win.

John Stoehr

Follow John on Twitter @johnastoehr . John Stoehr is a Washington Monthly contributing writer. This piece originally appeared in The Editorial Board.