This isn’t the first time I’ve asked that question and it’s probably not the last.
The classic conspiracy theory collects perhaps random events and attempts to impose an interpretation on them assuming a cause based on a cabal of powerful individuals controlling major world trends and events. It may be a reaction against the increasing influence of faceless bureaucracies; it may be a view of the world less anxiety producing than the alternative of being ruled by chance. Certainly there is no shortage of reasons not to trust the government. The powerful have never been very transparent about their actions. Nixon betrayed the people through what came to be known as Watergate; Reagan had his Iran-Contra Scandal; Clinton had Lewinski; George W. Bush had his weapons of mass destruction and there are many more examples.
However, with perhaps the sole exception of Bill Clinton, postwar conspiracy theories have not focused on a single politician until Barack Obama. In the case of both Clinton and Obama, the stories took on more the shape of a political smear than a classic conspiracy theory. Both Obama and Clinton were charismatic figures and consummate politicians – and were bitterly hated by their opposition. Can one imagine a more jaundiced view than that expressed by many Obama opponents who say that every action Barack Obama takes is for the purpose of destroying the country?
It doesn’t matter so much for this examination whether hatred of Obama is racial, xenophobic, religious or political; it’s there, and it forms an organizing principle for understanding what the denialist observes. The sorts of random events that are collected and connected into a denial story include quite a bit of obvious fraudulent evidence from Obama detractors (fake Kenyan birth certificates, edited grandmother tapes, fake Kenyan intelligence documents and lies about Hawaiian laws) plus careless or ambiguous statements from Kenyans, various artifacts in documents that seem inexplicable to the uninformed and genuinely odd things which are part and parcel with the rough edges of modern life.
However, Obama denialism hasn’t created much of an organized conspiracy beyond the general conclusion that Obama is ineligible, he knows it, and everybody else (except the denialists) is afraid to say so. And because the “evidences” of the conspiracy are in and of themselves so mundane, Obama conspiracies really don’t explain why the world is the way it is. With no explanation, Obama denialism doesn’t perform the function of removing anxiety about random events. It doesn’t explain natural disasters or the crash of a financial market. People are still at the mercy of mindless bureaucracy and they don’t understand its machinations any better then they did without denialism. About all it does is attempt to restore control of the denialists over their situation through the belief that they can remove Obama from office. It is not the rule of chaos they are trying avoid but the rule of the demonized Other.
Still, the role of confirmation bias, secret knowledge, the value of the lone researcher, the perfidy of the press all fit the conspiracy theory mindset. Obama denialists think like conspiracy theorists; they just do it for a different reasons: the acting out of hatred and political advantage.
My conclusion for now is that it is useful to use the conspiracy theory model to understand Obama denialism, so long as one maintains the caveat the the underlying function of the theory is different.