When Mitt Romney released his birth certificate last week, it prompted a slew of sarcastic headlines mocking the move as unnecessary at best, at worst as a nod in the direction of conspiracy theorists who believe President Obama was born outside the country.
But, as it turns out, Romney has his set of detractors questioning his American citizenship — an Internet subculture that embodies the sort of rubber-and-glue politics that's helped define this election, and one that reflects the way fringe voters translate suspicion of a candidate in the Obama era.
The Romney birthers' predominant theory is that because George Romney was born in Mexico, his candidate son is not a natural-born citizen, and therefore Constitutionally ineligible to occupy the Oval Office. (This theory has the unfortunate side-effect of disqualifying President Chester Arthur, the son of an immigrant from Ireland.)
Others believe the younger Romney was, himself, born in Mexico; others point to supposed evidence that his birth certificate is a fraud — and a few even contend that he was raised up by Mormon polygamists to be a presidential plant. But the bottom line for all of them is that Mitt just isn't American enough to be president.
In its relatively short life, the story — perpetuated in the fever swamps of the web — has been deeply developed, with conspiracy-mongers tracing Romney's ancestry back four generations, and citing chapter and verse of the Constitution to support their claim. (Romney's father was, in fact, born in an American colony in Mexico to two U.S. citizens, and left the country as a young child. Mitt was born in Michigan.)
The theory, which started to gain traction shortly before the Republican primaries, has also attracted adherents of various ideological stripes, from left-wingers to Ron Paul libertarians.
One of the most active Romney birthers on the web is a 46-year-old mother of four from Tallahassee named Christina. A self-described world traveler and aspiring writer, Christina says she's unconcerned about where Romney was born (though she wasn't fully convinced by his birth certificate), because the real issue is his father's citizenship.
"I am a student of history," she said, declining to give her last name because she worries about "the nuts online." "I do not think 'natural born' is about where, but who... it is about protecting the interests of America. If Putin came over here 20 years ago, got some woman pregnant and she had a kid here and we find out his dad is Putin, imagine the crap that would hit the fan. Now put this back in the 1948 timeline when we really distrusted the Russians."
Christina said she's found a community of fellow skeptics online — she rejects the term "birther" as derogatory and dismissive — that are equally dismayed that the country's two major-party nominees are both non-natural born citizens.
"It's about allegience to one's country, and the Founding Fathers knew that if a child had a parent who was a citizen of another nation they would most likely have split loyalties," she said. "I find it unacceptable that we cannot find a qualified American."
That said, even without Romney's Mexican roots, Christina — a Ron Paul supporter — wouldn't have been pulling the lever for Mitt, who she described as "bought and paid for by big business and special interests."
Asked whether the Republican would make a better president than Obama, she responded, "Let me ask you this: Is it better to go off a 10,000 foot cliff at 100 mph, or 50 mph?"
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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