If there’s been a more clinically insane political phenomenon in my lifetime than the “birthers,” I’ve missed it. Is this what our national discourse has come to? Sheer paranoid fantasy?

I’m talking about the people who have convinced themselves that Barack Obama was not really born in the United States, and thus is ineligible to be president. Even some commentators who usually are among Obama’s most rabid critics have acknowledged that this idea is simply nuts. Yet it persists, out there on the farthest fringes of the right-wing blogosphere. Oh, and also on CNN, which is usually a little closer to reality.

It has been definitively shown that there is not a scintilla of truth, or even the slightest ambiguity, in the whole “birther” idea. Officials in Hawaii have attested again and again that Obama was, in fact, born in Honolulu on Aug. 4, 1961. When the “birthers” demanded to see his birth certificate, state officials produced it. Journalists have looked at this complete non-story from every angle and concluded that it is, in fact, a complete non-story.

To believe otherwise, it’s necessary to explain the fact that birth announcements heralding the arrival of baby boy Barack Obama ran in two Honolulu newspapers in August 1961. So to be a card-carrying “birther,” you have to believe not only that Hawaiian officials conspired to fabricate records, but also that “they” — not state officials, necessarily, but the generic malevolent “they” who inevitably lurk behind the deepest, darkest conspiracies — somehow managed to alter or replace clippings in yellowing newspaper archives.

That’s what the less crazy birthers have to contend. The alternative scenario — for those who really ought to put their tinfoil hats back on — is that somehow this was all planned back in 1961: “They” diabolically planted these birth announcements 48 years ago, establishing a false record, so that a chosen infant who was actually born in some foreign land — Kenya? Indonesia? Manchuria? — could be groomed, perhaps programmed, and someday installed in the Oval Office. Cue evil-genius laughter.

These would be people who also believe that Stanley Kubrick’s comic masterpiece, “Dr. Strangelove,” was actually a documentary — and that Obama’s ultimate aim, as cleverly deduced by Gen. Jack D. Ripper, is to “sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.”

There are probably people out there who think the world is flat, and they’re not worth writing about. The “birthers” wouldn’t be either unless you believe a poll released last week by Research 2000 revealing that an astounding 28 percent of Republicans actually think that Obama was not born in the United States and another 30 percent are “not sure.” GOP officials need to order more tinfoil.

The survey, commissioned by the liberal Web site Daily Kos, found that 93 percent of Democrats and 83 percent of independents have no doubt — duh — that Obama was born in the United States. That only 42 percent of Republicans are similarly convinced is a fascinating indicator of just how far the Republican Party has drifted from the mainstream.

Also beyond the Outer Limits of sanity is CNN anchor Lou Dobbs, who has been giving prime-time exposure to the “birther” lunacy — even while denying that he believes in it. Dobbs’ obsession with the “story” has become an embarrassment to the network, which has tried to position itself as untainted by political bias. CNN/U.S. President Jon Klein has pronounced the story “dead,” but insists that it’s legitimate for Dobbs to examine the alleged controversy, though in fact no controversy exists.

The “birther” thing is only Dobbs’ latest detour from objective reality. For years, he has crusaded against illegal immigration by citing facts and figures that often turn out to be wrong. Television can confer a kind of pseudo-reality on any manner of nonsense.

Is this an orchestrated campaign to somehow delegitimize Obama’s presidency? Is the fact that he is the first African-American president a factor? Is it that some people can’t or won’t accept that he won the election and serves as commander in chief?

Maybe, maybe not. Trying to analyze the “birther” phenomenon would mean taking it seriously, and taking it seriously would be like arguing about the color of unicorns. About all that can be said is that a bunch of lost, confused and frightened people have decided to seek refuge in conspiratorial make-believe. I hope they’re harmless. And I hope they seek help.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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