Trump's Birther Libel and American History

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Barack Obama is not the first African American politician to have his birthright questioned. Meet Hiram Revels, the first black senator.

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Is Donald Trump eligible to be president of the United States?

Article II of the Constitution requires that the president be a "natural-born citizen." I will admit Trump's citizenship -- but "natural born"? Could any child born of woman maintain that smirk, much less that truly inhuman combover? Doesn't the dead animal on his head make him, like Shakespeare's Richard III, "so lamely and unfashionable/that dogs bark at me as I halt by them"? Does he remind you of Macduff, who was "from his mother's womb untimely ripped"? Could he not be a changeling, of the kind celebrated in folklore, an ugly simulacrum of a child left behind in the real Baby Trump's cradle by a boggart who paused to sour the milk in the churn and frighten the family cat? Or perhaps an actual alien, like the Enormous Giant Head in Mork and Mindy, originally brought into the U.S. as a confidential informant by former FBI Washington Special Agent-in-Charge Guy Hottel during his now documented investigation of the Roswell incident?

Call me an "earther."

The drip-drip-drip of "birther" propaganda is part of a general, persistent assault on the legitimacy of immigrants and non-whites in American culture.

OK, I am gibbering--but so is Trump in his phony crusade to exploit the "controversy" over Barack Obama's status as a "natural-born" citizen.

The deranged claim that Barack Obama is ineligible to be president is an intractable symptom of American hebephrenia. Is there no blood level of Haldol that will quiet the birther voice in the air?

Consider that, in 2008, one of the two major-party candidates actually was not born in the United States. That was John McCain, the child of American citizens born in the Canal Zone. Scholars debated the issue in decorous fashion, but no serious buzz gathered around a suggestion that McCain was not a "natural-born citizen" as required by Article II. Instead, the whispers gathered around Barack Obama, who, as anyone but liars and lunatics now knows, was born in the United States.

I can't help relating this national obsession to the story of Hiram Revels. Revels, a black man, was born free in 1822; he was selected by the Mississippi State Legislature in 1870 as the United States Senator of African descent. But when Revels presented his credentials to the Senate, Democrats managed to delay his swearing-in for three days, on the grounds that, as a black American, he could not have been "nine years a citizen of the United States" as required by Article II § 3 cl. 3 of the Constitution.

As University of Michigan scholar Richard Primus shows in a fascinating article, some Democrats argued that Revels had only been "made" a citizen in his native country by the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868. Others denied that even that Amendment made black people citizens; some said the Fourteenth Amendment was not even part of the Constitution; some suggested that no matter how many years passed, no black man could ever be a real Senator. Though they had no chance of prevailing, they used the Congressional Globe--the nineteenth century equivalent of C-SPAN--to send their party's message: black Americans were not "real" Americans and never could be. America was a white man's country.

During my years in the Pacific Northwest, I used frequently to meet people who assured me that they were "sovereign citizens," white males who were at the center of the "organic Constitution"; outsiders--Native Americans, black people, Asian Americans, women--were citizens, true, but only "Fourteenth-Amendment citizens," in a separate, lesser category under the law.

The same blood obsession runs through the current attempt to strip citizenship from American-born children of undocumented alien parents. The framers of the Fourteenth Amendment's Citizenship Clause could not have been clearer about their desire to decouple American citizenship from race or national origin. But foes of birthright citizenship insist they could not have meant what they said. Blackstone, Locke, Madison, Jefferson--who were all dust by the time the Amendment was framed--would not have approved of birthright citizenship. No mere amendment could possibly dislodge the principle of membership by blood.

I find myself wishing Obama had been born in Kenya. If he had, he'd still be eligible to be president. Article II does not require the president to have been born in the United States; it requires him or her to be a "natural-born citizen." That term is not defined in the document; but at the time of the framing, at least four British statutes made clear that children born abroad to British parents were "natural-born" subjects of the Crown. The first Congress after adoption of the Constitution passed a statute using the same language. The citizenship statutes in force in 1961 guaranteed the citizenship of any child born abroad to one American parent who had resided in the U.S. for two years after the age of 14. Even had Stanley Ann Dunham somehow teleported herself from Honolulu to Mombasa while in labor (which, for those "birthers" still puzzling out the big words in this article, she did not), her child would still be a "natural-born" citizen, as eligible to serve as John McCain.

The drip-drip-drip of "birther" propaganda is part of a general, persistent assault on the legitimacy of immigrants and non-whites in American culture. Lurking behind the rhetoric of "I want my country back" is a simple refusal to recognize the citizenship, or even the humanity, of anyone but white males.

That the birther libel is now carried in the public sphere by a grotesque like Trump only underlines that uglier truth inside the ugly lie.

Image: Reuters/David Ake

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Garrett Epps is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He teaches constitutional law and creative writing for law students at the University of Baltimore. His latest book is American Justice 2014: Nine Clashing Visions on the Supreme Court.

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