In a country whose founding documents declare that all are created equal, views like those held by the president create cognitive dissonance. How can anyone lay claim to the American creed while excluding people on the basis of race? For Trump and his supporters, the answer is to ignore that dissonance entirely. This is how many of the Founders themselves approached this fundamental contradiction, so it is no surprise that this nationalist’s delusion still retains ideological purchase today.
The Constitution enshrined individual rights while denying the vote to women and allowing black people to be owned as property. In 1790, the nation’s first immigration law limited naturalization to “free white persons” of “good character.” In the 1857 Supreme Court case Dred Scott v. Sandford, Chief Justice Roger Taney concluded, in a decision employing the language of individual freedom and government restraint, that black people could not be citizens under the Constitution. The adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment after the Civil War explicitly reversed that decision, but was followed by a nativist panic beginning in the late 19th century that culminated in immigration restrictions based on discriminatory pseudoscience, which lasted until the middle of the 20th century.
Adam Serwer: A white man’s republic, if they can keep it
In these fits and starts, we can see a battle over the fundamental nature of American citizenship that has been waged since the founding. Was America founded as a fundamentally white and Christian country? Or as a land of opportunity, where anyone of any background could come, thrive, and contribute? Neither faction is truly wrong, and neither is truly right, and neither has ever won anything resembling a permanent victory—and perhaps neither ever will.
This is not, fundamentally, a battle over facts, but a clash of values. Trump’s rise to the leadership of the Republican Party began with his embrace of the racist conspiracy theory that the first black president was not born in America. The point was not that birtherism is false, which its adherents all know; the point was that people like Barack Obama—a black man, a second-generation immigrant with an Arabic middle name—can never truly be American the way white people who got here yesterday can. Embracing birtherism meant embracing the idea that American citizenship only truly belongs to white people, a principle from which Trump has never wavered since.
Trump and his supporters will continue to advocate for discriminatory policies, and they will deny that their overtly bigoted remarks are bigoted, yet by their works you will know them. The Trump administration’s attempts to purge undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, its shattered promises of citizenship to immigrant service members who signed up to give their life to their adopted country, the deliberate squalor of border facilities designed to dissuade illegal immigration by violating fundamental human rights—these are all reflections of the president’s ideological belief that only white people can truly be American citizens, and that the diversifying American electorate represents an existential threat to the United States as he and his supporters understand it.