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US election word of the week: birther

 © PhotoDiscIn this series we are looking at some of the language and terminology associated with the US electoral process in the run-up to the Presidential election in late 2016. This week’s word is birther.

Although it is not strictly speaking anything to do with the language of the electoral process, the term birther has dominated coverage of the US election over the past week. In the unlikely event that there is anyone who has not encountered it, this refers to the completely unfounded notion that President Obama was born outside the United States and therefore was ineligible to stand for, much less hold the presidency. The related noun birtherism refers to this belief which until very recently was propounded by, among others, the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. But even after Trump finally declared on 16th September that:

President Barack Obama was born in the United States—period

the issue declined to go away. One reason for this was that, just before making this statement, the candidate declared that the whole conspiracy theory had been started by his Democratic rival for the presidency, Hillary Clinton.

The episode is just one example of what is being called post-truth politics, a political culture based on appeals to emotion and a complete disregard for truth or factual accuracy:

In this era of post-truth politics, an unhesitating liar can be king.

Mr Trump is the leading exponent of “post-truth” politics—a reliance on assertions that “feel true” but have no basis in fact.

The sense is widespread: We have entered an age of post-truth politics.

With seven weeks to go to election day, it is impossible to predict what further surprises the campaign will produce, only that there will undoubtedly be some.

Look out for the next post in this series. You can find past posts on the language of American politics here and here, or search for other posts in this series using the tag US politics.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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