Birthright citizenship: Trump’s latest sideshow distraction

Migrants walk along the highway as part of a thousands-strong caravan of Central Americans continuing its slow journey toward the U.S. border, between Niltepec and Juchitan, Oaxaca state, Mexico, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP Photo)

Migrants walk along the highway as part of a thousands-strong caravan of Central Americans continuing its slow journey toward the U.S. border, between Niltepec and Juchitan, Oaxaca state, Mexico, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP Photo)

Does Donald Trump truly intend to erase the Constitution’s provision that awards citizenship to all babies born on U.S. soil? (Doubtful.) Can he even do that, by simply signing an executive order? (Nope.) So why is he saying something so preposterous?

Because he’s a carnival barker who’s trying to distract suckers on the midway. If he can’t pull ’em in with the bearded lady, he’ll offer the two-legged boy or the three-legged man or the four-legged girl. Whatever sells tickets. And with the congressional midterm elections just six days away, Trump is working his base hard, targeting immigrants by every rhetorical means possible — migrants of color on the march, babies of color being born — hoping to pull in enough customers to avoid an election debacle.

Of course it’s all smoke and mirrors (to borrow Jimmy Breslin’s famous phrase), sound and fury signifying nothing (to borrow Shakespeare) — nothing of substance, anyway. He’s sending troops to the border to face off against an “enemy” that’s shrinking in size 900 miles away. And since that ploy — politicizing the military for election purposes — won’t provide the kind of TV pictures he envisioned, he clearly needed to try something else. Hence his new rhetoric about ending birthright citizenship: “It was always told to me that you needed a constitutional amendment (to end it). Guess what? You don’t.”

Guess what: You do.

If he were to actually read the Constitution (insert joke here), he would find this unequivocal language in the 14th Amendment: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” All persons born, with no exceptions. Congressional Republicans — the “party of Lincoln” Republicans — championed that principle in 1866.

The principle was reaffirmed in 1898 by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that a Chinese baby born in America was a citizen, regardless of the immigrant parents’ status. The justices traced the principle back to English common law and ruled that the amendment “in clear words and manifest intent, includes the children born within the territory of the United States … of whatever race and color.” The 14th amendment was reaffirmed again in 1982 by the Supreme Court, which looked at the literal language and found “no plausible distinction … between resident aliens (parents) whose entry into the United States was lawful, and resident aliens whose entry was unlawful.”

Trump’s trial balloon is not even new; he targeted birthright citizenship way back in August 2015 when he was road-testing his xenophobia. His proposal was widely ridiculed by sane conservatives at the time; ex-Bush senior aide Michael Gerson said, “This cannot be called the rule of law. It would be viciousness and prejudice on a grand scale.” And Trump’s attempt to dust it off and float it anew is being assailed by sane conservatives; ex-Reagan advisor Linda Chavez said yesterday that Trump’s ploy “exposes the depths of his contempt for our Constitution … The president’s motives are purely political — hoping to stir up his anti-immigrant base in advance of next week’s midterm election.”

Bingo. Because what else do he have to offer? He can’t sell the big ’17 Republican tax cut to the average base voter, because most of the savings went to upper-bracket Americans and to the corporations. He can’t sell the promised repeal of Obamacare, because it never got repealed, and the health care issue in 2018 is virtually owned by the Democrats (as I’ve written elsewhere). All he can offer is fear of The Other, be they women, children, or babies of a non-Caucasian persuasion. He doesn’t actually need to achieve anything (he hasn’t kept his promises to Build a Wall or deport 11 million people); his base just loves that he echoes their grievances. And who knows, maybe that will be enough to prompt a huge midterm turnout surge. (“Did you hear what our president said about birthright citizenship? Hey, we hate that, too!”)

Indeed, there’s a Machiavellian method to his madness — as former Bush aide and conservative commentator David Frum noted yesterday on Twitter: “Trump’s birthright citizenship vaporware is intended to prod cable TV into discussing something exciting to him, not boring stuff like preexisting (medical) conditions and why would-be murderers are allowed amass arsenals that could equip the police department of a small town. Or the worst month on world stock markets since 2009.”

All authoritarians, real and aspiring, seek to flood the zone with distractions. They’re all carnival barkers, bent on turning citizens into suckers, hoping to render them numb and dumb. Samuel Johnson, the great 18th-century British essayist, lamented that even civilized societies can fall prey to “the artifices of self-deceit,” to the point where “reason by degrees submits to absurdity, as the eye is in time accommodated to darkness.”

We’ll learn next Tuesday whether, or to what degree, reason still prevails.

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