By John Avlon, CNN
(CNN) — It was only a matter of time before former President Donald Trump went birther on Nikki Haley.
After all, the former South Carolina governor and UN Ambassador is a pioneering candidate, the daughter of immigrants from India, and she’s rising in the polls. It’s not only concern about his electoral prospects that’s driving him; Trump’s massive yet fragile ego also feels threatened. So he reached for the most reflexive slur he could find via the far-right news site Gateway Pundit, reposting on Truth Social the false claim that Haley is not constitutionally eligible to be president because her parents were not US citizens when she was born in South Carolina. The Gateway Pundit post cited a legal analysis piece on the American Greatness site.
This specious claim flies in the face of the 14th amendment, which says people born in the US are automatically citizens. The requirement to be a “natural born” citizen to be eligible to run for president means being a citizen at birth rather than through naturalization later.
The claim about Haley is a lazy and xenophobic rehash of the so-called birther attacks Trump baselessly directed at President Barack Obama’s supposed ineligibility for office.
This isn’t a dog whistle; it’s a bullhorn. In 2016, Trump also raised a phony birther issue about Ted Cruz. In 2020, he questioned whether Kamala Harris was eligible to run for office on similar but equally false grounds. See a pattern?
Now he’s trafficking in the same desperate play against Haley. No one who’s ever described themselves as “Iowa nice” ought to fall for this desperate cut-and-paste bigotry.
But Trump’s mind hits rewind whenever he feels backed into a corner, repeating the same old attacks at higher volume.
There’s another relevant — and revealing — example of this dynamic. Think back to 2016 Iowa caucus. Polls showed that Trump was narrowly ahead. But Iowa voters are open to last-minute persuasion and when caucus day came, Cruz beat Trump.
What did Trump do? He reflexively cried that Ted Cruz had “stolen” the Iowa caucus through unspecified “fraud,” tweeting that “either a new election should take place or Cruz results nullified.” Lying and threats are the only way Trump can react to losing.
Trump’s tantrum was so absurd that it didn’t get much traction at the time. Trump went on to legitimately win New Hampshire and ultimately the Republican nomination. Cruz went from warning about Trump’s fundamental unfitness for office to eagerly lining up to spit-shine his shoes, like so many of his Republican congressional colleagues.
But the 2016 Iowa caucuses aren’t the first example of Trump trying out the “stolen election” script. As McKay Coppins’ excellent book “Romney: A Reckoning” reminded me, Trump first tried out this vile bile duct release on our democracy back in 2012. On election night, as President Obama pulled ahead of then-GOP candidate Mitt Romney, Trump rage-tweeted some of the same language he would later use to spread the election lie that led to the January 6 attack on the US Capitol by his supporters.
“We can’t let this happen. We should march on Washington and stop this travesty. Our nation is totally divided!”
“Lets fight like hell and stop this great and disgusting injustice! The world is laughing at us.”
“This election is a total sham and a travesty. We are not a democracy!”
The ugly echoes are direct evidence of the fraud Trump tried to pull on the American people after losing the 2020 election. The rhetorical attacks were ready to be deployed, absent facts and context — the furious blame-shifting of someone who would rather destroy our democracy than accept defeat with grace and dignity.
So it’s no surprise that Trump mailers in Iowa are pre-emptively accusing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis of rigging the caucus. The tragedy is that so many supporters have been willfully duped and played for fools.
A recent Washington Post poll found that 69% of Republicans believe that President Biden’s 2020 election win was not legitimate. Even more unhinged, 34% of Republicans believe that the attack on the US Capitol by Trump supporters intended to stop the certification of the election was an “inside job” by the FBI.
Trump’s lies have a clear constituency in his party, perpetrated by a fragmented and hyper-partisan media market where algorithms elevate the most extreme accusations. Even worse are the Republican lawmakers and other leaders who are afraid to confront what they know to be Trump’s lies and instead enable him with a flotilla of rationalizations.
The latest example is every member of the GOP House leadership backing Trump before a single vote has been cast, including House Whip Tom Emmer, who Trump viciously attacked during his failed bid to become Speaker of the House. The New York Times reported that Trump marveled at Republicans’ willingness to fold in the face of his threats, remarking “they always bend the knee.”
Bullies have contempt for weakness. They only respect strength — even though they bitterly resent people who fight back. That’s why Haley has come under Trump’s fact-free fire as her campaign is hitting its stride.
There’s no basis for Trump’s attack on Haley’s eligibility for office, just as there was no basis for his attack on Obama’s eligibility for office. There’s no basis for claiming the 2020 presidential election was stolen by Joe Biden, just as there was no basis for saying that the 2016 Iowa caucus was stolen by Cruz.
Trump’s repeated, knee-jerk lies reveal the desperate, hollow core of his character. This month voters in Iowa and New Hampshire will have the opportunity to demonstrate their character and determine the direction of not just the Republican Party, but our democratic republic. When casting their vote, they should keep in mind the old adage, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” If the GOP falls for Trump’s lies again, the shame will reflect on all of us.
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