What Trump's birther comments really meant

Story highlights

  • Paul Begala: Donald Trump has finally admitted Obama was born in the United States
  • I've made myself into a student of Trumpiloquence: his bluster, double-talk and mendacity, Begala says

Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House. He is a consultant to the pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC Priorities USA Action. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Fifty-two words. That's all it took for Donald Trump to finally admit the President of the United States of America was born in the United States of America. Of course, those 52 words came five years too late. Because for half a decade, Trump fanned the flames of birtherism: a toxic, malevolent, racist attempt to delegitimize our first African-American president.

Here's what he said Friday as he attempted to draw a line under the controversy:
    Paul Begala-Profile-Image
    "Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it. I finished it. You know what I mean. President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period. Now we all want to get back to making America strong and great again. Thank you, thank you very much."
    But it's not as simple as he's trying to make it sound.
    Throughout the course of this campaign I have made myself into a student of Trumpiloquence: the remarkable blend of bluster, double-talk, sophistry and mendacity that is the Orange One's native tongue. And so, as a public service, let me translate Trump's words for you. First, what he was really saying to his angry white base:
    "My fellow oppressed, aggrieved, angry white folks: I truly do love the poorly-educated. Hillary is a witch, and a weak one at that. She lost to Obama and let that Kenyan Muslim become president. I am the only one who has stood up to the Great Imposter, and I cannot wait to see him moved out of our White House. I will replace his weak-kneed whimpering with a warrior's battle cry. I have to say this crap about Obama's birth because the media wants to crucify me. But watch my eyes: they're blinking in Morse Code: K-E-N-Y-A-N. You get it. It's like a hostage tape. I need you more than ever. We must not allow the coastal elites to replace a weak Kenyan with a weak woman. Thank you, thank you very much."
    But even as Trump was trying to appeal to his most committed followers, his campaign aides have likely persuaded him to try to walk back his half-decade crusade to undermine the very legitimacy of the Obama presidency. They are too smart to think he can get any African-American votes. He averaged just two percent of the African-American vote in recent surveys.
    To put that into perspective, George Wallace, running for president in 1968 on an openly racist, pro-segregation message, got three percent of the nonwhite vote.
    So this isn't about Trump winning African-American votes. It's about convincing college-educated white voters that he is not a racist. As my friend and colleague Ron Brownstein has written, "No Democratic presidential nominee has carried (college-educated whites) in the history of modern polling dating back to 1952."
    When Hillary built a sizable lead this summer, it was due in large measure to her strength in this traditional Republican cohort. A main reason the race has snapped back to a dead heat is because Trump is improving among the white college crowd. Hence Friday's statement. So let me translate what Trump was trying to say to these folks:
    "My fellow well-off, well-educated white people: Hillary is the real racist. She started the birther movement; it's all her fault. I had to say this crap about Obama's birth because I need the racist bumpkins to win. But now I've put an end to it. I'm really one of you. I mean, look at me: I'm standing in the five-star hotel I'm opening in Washington. Those rural rednecks are never setting foot in here, any more than those hillbillies are gonna join Mar-a-Lago. But now that I've got them all jacked up, let me reassure you: I'm no racist. And Hillary is. Bet you didn't know that, but she is. I'm one of you: a country club Republican who doesn't hate black people at all. Thank you, thank you very much."
    Follow CNN Opinion

    Join us on Twitter and Facebook

    Can Trump succeed in this effort to hold his base and expand his appeal? That depends on how gullible folks are. I do not doubt the intelligence of those who are taken in by Trump's con; some of the smartest people in America fell for Bernie Madoff's scam. Trump knows what every con man knows: You can go far in life by simply telling people what they want to hear -- even if it's two completely different things at the same time.