Just when we thought MAGA-istas couldn’t go any lower, they grab shovels and dig a basement. Even by recent standards, many political observers expected the home stretch of this year’s presidential campaign to be quite ugly. But already, we’re witnessing a campaign of a different sort that—because it’s based on racism and nativism—will likely be even uglier.
Welcome to the campaign to “other” Kamala Harris.
The verb—formerly known as an adjective—describes the action of attempting to depict someone as not being from around here, being different or foreign or unrelatable. That last one is key. The objective of othering isn’t just to create fear and anxiety. It’s also to create a gap, a chasm, between the “other” and the kind of ordinary, red-blooded, flag-waving folks that make America great (again). The goal is to make sure folks can’t relate to the other.
Relatability is everything in politics. So, for the next two and a half months, it will be the singular mission of the Trump-Pence re-election team and all its sewer dwelling accomplices to make California’s junior senator, and the first woman of color on a presidential ticket, appear as un-relatable as possible to as many voters as possible.
And while they’re smearing Harris by trying to portray her as some foreign agent, Republicans are also branching off and seizing the opportunity to go after one of their favorite targets: so-called birthright citizenship, and that pesky language in the 14th Amendment that grants U.S. citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof.”
That’s where this whole new birther slander is coming from. The Constitution says, via the 12th Amendment, that “no person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice-President of the United States.” Add to that, Article II of the Constitution, which makes clear that “[n]o person except a natural born citizen...shall be eligible to the office of President.”
At first blush, the question of Harris’ eligibility would seem to be—to borrow the phrase that the former prosecutor used last week to describe the case she intends to bring against Donald Trump and Mike Pence—“open and shut.” Harris was born on U.S. soil, in Oakland, California on October 20, 1964. That makes her not just a citizen but a natural born citizen. She became a full-blooded “American” the way most of us did, the easy way, without earning it, because of an accident of geography. Case closed.
Wait. There’s more. This is politics, after all. Where facts don’t count for much.
So someone named John Eastman, former dean of Chapman University Law School in Southern California, subtly shifted his focus away from Harris and toward her parents, who are—the horror!—immigrants.
You know how Americans feel about those people, how we’ve always felt. As Chris Rock likes to say about racism, “That train is always on time.”
In an op-ed for Newsweek, Eastman wrote: “Before we so cavalierly accept Senator Harris' eligibility for the office of vice president, we should ask her a few questions about the status of her parents at the time of her birth.”
Apparently, while Harris’ parents eventually became U.S. citizens—you see, while it may be hard to imagine for those of us who are born here and magically plopped on third base, the process of obtaining U.S. citizenship is long and complicated—they were not citizens at the time of her birth.
So, at the top of that list of questions we should be asking, wrote Eastman, is whether Harris’ parents were in the country legally?
Oye! Do you see what’s happening? Conservatives are giving Harris the Latino treatment. Next, they’ll be asking if her parents spoke English, smuggled drugs, had divided loyalties, or plotted to return California to Mexico. Already, some on conservative talk radio are calling Harris an “anchor baby.”
That’s how right-wingers marginalize the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants. Never mind that we don’t know if Harris’ parents were undocumented. And even if they were, that fact wouldn't make her any less of a U.S. citizen under the 14th Amendment as commonly interpreted.
We’ve seen this movie before. And it’s obscene — not to mention, un-American.
The Eastman piece stirred up so much resistance, including from those who accused it of reawakening the “birther” whispers that dogged President Barack Obama, that it left the editors at Newsweek dazed and confused. They were actually for the op-ed before they were against it. Early Friday, they defended the column, and their decision to run it, as having nothing to do with race. But by that evening, they were apologizing for running it in the first place.
“This op-ed is being used by some as a tool to perpetuate racism and xenophobia. We apologize,” wrote Josh Hammer, Newsweek’s opinion editor, and Nancy Cooper, its global editor-in-chief, in a note attached to the op-ed.
The note went on: “The essay, by John Eastman, was intended to explore a minority legal argument about the definition of who is a natural-born citizen in the United States. But to many readers, the essay inevitably conveyed the ugly message that Senator Kamala Harris, a woman of color and the child of immigrants, was somehow not truly American.”
Brilliant. If this train wreck was inevitable, then how did these supposed journalists miss it?
“The op-ed was never intended to spark or to take part in the racist lie of Birtherism, the conspiracy theory aimed at delegitimizing Barack Obama, but we should have recognized the potential, even probability, that that could happen,” the editors added. “All of us at Newsweek are horrified that this op-ed gave rise to a wave of vile Birtherism directed at Senator Harris.”
Well, at least they’re horrified. I suppose that’s something.
What changed in one day? Simple. There was the journalistic equivalent of a cataclysmic event: Trump referenced the piece and the questions that Eastman raised about Harris’ eligibility to serve. And Trump being Trump, he went a step further and concluded on his own that the likely Democratic nominee for vice president didn’t meet the qualifications.
Let me be clear. It’s not wrong for law professors to ask questions. But it is wrong for politicians to use those questions, and the fog they create, to cast their opponents as different, foreign, and sinister by exploiting bigotry and nativism.
That’s where we are. This isn’t some scholarly, white-gloved debate over birthright citizenship.
This is fucking racism and xenophobia straight up. Why? Because white males don’t get this kind of treatment. And because—pick up a history book—it’s always been easiest to question the citizenship, and thus patriotism, of the sons and daughters of immigrants. It’s a natural impulse for some to demonize those who have dark skin, or have foreign-sounding names, or practice a different religion.
Harris checks a few of those boxes. She’s different, and she’s exciting because she is different. The Republicans have to try to use that strength against her. It’s political jujitsu. They have to make her asset into a liability. That’s how the game is played. But there are rules to the game, and one of them says that you can’t be so desperate to win that you stoke hatred, engage in racial fear-mongering, and destroy the country you seek to lead.
Don’t think that could happen? It’s already happening. And this is just the beginning for Harris, and the Democrats. More racism is on the way.
After all, this is America. And that train is always on time.