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Column: Birtherism returns, not as tragedy but as farce in 2020

President Barack Obama with California Atty Gen. Kamala Harris at San Francisco International Airport in 2012.
Former President Barack Obama and Sen. Kamala Harris, whom Biden selected as his vice presidential running mate, have both had their eligibility to serve questioned by President Trump.
(Eric Risberg / AP)

The Birtherism 2.0 brouhaha began the way so many do.

A Trump sycophant, in this case Trump campaign lawyer Jenna Ellis, handed the president a hot-take opinion piece as if it was breaking news. Mere hours later at a press conference, he acted as if that op-ed was a settled legal ruling from a court or perhaps his office of legal counsel: Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) is ineligible to be vice president because her parents weren’t yet U.S. citizens when she was born — on American soil.

For the record:

10:08 AM, Aug. 18, 2020An earlier version of this story said that Mitt Romney was born in Mexico. He was not. His father George Romney was born in Mexico.

When asked about the claim, Trump took the bait. “I just heard it today that she doesn’t meet the requirements and by the way, the lawyer that wrote that piece is a very highly qualified, very talented lawyer.”

It’s all so pointlessly stupid.

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And I’m not even referring to the argument put forward in Newsweek by the “very talented lawyer,” John Eastman, questioning more than a century of law, constitutional interpretation and the plain text of the 14th Amendment on the meaning of “natural-born citizen.” I don’t find it persuasive, nor do most legal scholars, although I don’t think it’s necessarily racist to question whether birthright citizenship is good policy. Most countries don’t have it, and I don’t see how proposing we have the same policy as, say, Sweden or Belgium would make us into moral monsters.

What’s pointless and stupid is using Kamala Harris, Joe Biden’s half-Jamaican, half-Indian but legally all-American running mate, as the poster girl for the issue. At least Eastman had something of an excuse, in that birthright citizenship has been his white whale for a long time, and any news peg will do when you’re obsessed with a topic, I suppose.

On the other hand, Eastman and his co-religionists on this issue weren’t as enthusiastic about using the presidential bidof Republican John McCain (born in Panama) as fodder for their theories (not to mention Canada-born Ted Cruz). It seems that having elected officials who are supposedly less than 100% American is only terrifying when those officials are Democrats, particularly nonwhite Democrats.

But Trump’s decision to promote this new “birther” claim — immediately triggering his surrogates to do likewise — suggests that Trump thinks he can run a 2016 campaign in 2020. This shouldn’t be surprising given that he’s often governed as if that campaign never really ended, acting like a heckler of the government he supposedly runs.

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And that’s the problem. Because even if you think his 2016 campaign proved he was the four-dimensional chess master of legend and fable, and even if you enjoy his 24/7 “own the libs” presidency, this just isn’t 2016 anymore.

Lay to one side the fact that Eastman’s argument, like a ship in drydock, has gone nowhere for years and will continue to be a nonstarter. It has all the political and legal force of a cocktail party conversation starter.

Trump rode the original birther conspiracy theory — that Barack Obama wasn’t born in Hawaii and that he was hiding the evidence — to prominence on the right. But as president of the United States, Trump doesn’t need an issue to get media attention anymore.

Moreover, Obama birtherism was an actual conspiracy theory, and conspiracy theories are always good for clicks and eyeballs. This Harris thing isn’t a conspiracy theory at all, it’s just an arcane legal claim. There’s no implied big reveal in the way there was when Trump’s personal Indiana Jones went off in search of Obama’s birth certificate. This story has no MacGuffin.

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Also, the people Trump won over with Birtherism 1.0 are still with him; indeed, they’re a sizable chunk of his base. Likewise, those favoring the repeal of birthright citizenship are probably in Trump’s column already as well (even though he’s failed to follow through on promises to get rid of it).

Of course, most people who think Birtherism 2.0 is racist, sexist or nativist are probably already committed to voting against Trump. But the swing voters in this election, by definition, are more sympathetic to Trump or Trumpism. They may be undecided, agnostic or apathetic about birthright citizenship or the candidates themselves, but many are likely exhausted with the pointless theatrics and relentless fighting over sexism, racism and nativism driven by the president’s sops to the one segment of the electorate that has been in his corner all along.

@JonahDispatch


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