Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Birthright Citizenship and Political Code

Most people, including me, viewed Donald Trump’s announcement for the presidency as an indulgent rant. But what if his unfiltered monologue, especially the part about rapists and murderers from Mexico, was a cold, calculated move to revive the Republican Southern strategy, a strategy of “us” versus “them” that has buoyed GOP presidential hopes since passage of the Civil Rights Act.

U.S. PassportTrump’s performance since then, including his bulging rally in an Alabama stadium and a working strategy to win Southern primaries, suggests he knows exactly what he’s doing.

For a candidate strong on show and a no-show on policy, it was revealing that Trump’s first policy paper centered on immigration. He expanded on his wall-building idea with a call to trash birthright citizenship contained in the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

As problems facing America go, birthright citizenship doesn’t surface at the top of the list of pressing issues. But for a slice of the American electorate who feels marginalized by progress, birthright citizenship has become code for political red meat.

To the extent contemporary Americans contemplate the Fourteenth Amendment, it is usually in connection with its role of ensuring equal protection under the law. Few recall, or know, that the first sentence of the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment reads, “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.”

Sounds pretty straightforward, and it is if you accept the common meaning of the words in the Amendment.

The back story of the Fourteenth Amendment is clear enough, too, and very revealing. Congress approved it July 9, 1868 as part of the Reconstruction following the Civil War. Southern states objected to the Amendment, but were forced to adopt it as a condition of re-admission to the United States. The Fourteenth Amendment effectively voided the U.S. Supreme Court’s earlier Dred Scott decision, which declared black Americans, even ones born on U.S. soil, weren’t U.S. citizens.

By losing the war, Southern states weren’t in a position to object to freedom for former slaves or their national citizenship. But they did pursue a policy of denying freed slaves citizenship rights at the state level.

It wasn’t until 1898 in the Wing Kim Ark case that the Supreme Court cleared up the situation in a ruling involving a man of Chinese descent who was born in the United States of non-citizen parents, went to China for a period of time and then returned to America, where his birthright citizenship was denied. The Supreme Court confirmed he was a citizen, solidifying birthright citizenship.

The United States muddled though more than a century with that interpretation as the law of the land. But in 2015, facing a charter bus full of GOP presidential candidates, Trump has chosen this issue as a battle cry. Random choice? Bad staff advice? Or calculated strategy to agitate an alienated segment of the GOP political base for political gain?

Donald TrumpThis isn’t the first time Trump has flirted with the issue of citizenship. When everyone else moved on, Trump kept pounding on the “birther” drum, claiming President Barack Obama wasn’t really born in America and, therefore, wasn’t qualified under the Constitution to be commander in chief because he wasn’t a native born citizen.

A guy attuned to TV ratings like Trump may have noticed that his stubborn, outspoken persistence on this issue earned him respect from a shadowy quarter of the Republican Party, a shadowy quarter that may be larger than party leaders may want to admit.

Pundits who predicted Trump would self-immolate by the end of summer now have retracted their predictions. Some, like Ruth Markus of The Washington Post, say they can foresee Trump capturing the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.

anchor-babiesNo one ever said Trump was dumb. However, many of us may have missed his political acumen hidden beneath his “know-nothing” bluntness. He speaks in simplistic terms because the constituency he is trying to activate thinks in simplistic terms. He raises questions about the Fourteenth Amendment because somewhere he went to school on how to speak the code of a Southern presidential strategy without actually using the N-word. Anchor babies works just as well.

Trump asks whether we are a country or not because of what he calls a leaky border with Mexico. He could look out from one of his Manhattan towers with a pair of binoculars to see the Statue of Liberty and know the answer. But that’s not the cynical answer he needs to elect him President of the United States.

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” doesn’t fit on a hat.





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