The Republican War on American Citizenship
The Heart of the Matter
In a speech in Texas yesterday, Florida Governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis declared he would, "take action to end the idea that the children of illegal aliens are entitled to birthright citizenship if they are born in the United States." Of course, this vow runs up against the plain language of the 14th Amendment, which 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.” That’s it. That’s the fundamental law of the land.
Even prior to the passage of the 14th Amendment, American jurisprudence, following common-law notions, generally understood citizenship to be granted by birth. But the infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857 explicitly denied citizenship to black Americans. As part of the effort to obliterate slavery, the 14th Amendment would forever codify the right to citizenship of those born here without caveats or qualifications. This is a central bulwark of the most egalitarian part of our political system. I’d argue that the burning hot core of Republican politics today is really a sustained attack on the citizenship rights of those Americans they don’t like.
Let’s go back to the beginning of Trump’s political rise: What was the issue he gained prominence with? Banging on about Barack Obama’s birth certificate, saying he was a natural-born citizen of the country. This is the basic symbol of his political movement. That was what Trumpism was always about: “Enough of this nation of immigrants bullshit, enough of this we are all Americans crap, some people don’t belong here, some people are the enemy, some people aren’t really Americans.” As I wrote last year:
It’s important to remember these menacing stances toward citizenship did not just occur on the level of rhetoric. The Trump administration took concrete policy steps to strip Americans of their citizenship. It launched a DOJ task force that would denaturalize American citizens, the first effort of its kind since the McCarthy era. Trump said he was going to end birthright citizenship with an executive order, an idea he no doubt got from the Claremont Institute’s Michael Anton, then an executive branch staffer and the author of a 2018 op-ed that floated the idea of removing citizenship by executive fiat. More recently, Anton’s colleague at the Claremont Institute, Glenn Ellmers wrote, “ most people living in the United States today—certainly more than half—are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term.” These are the sorts of people who will staff the next Trump administration and probably any Republican administration at this point.
This attack on citizenship is also the real meaning behind the stolen election myth: it stands for little else than "these people’s votes don’t really count. We are the real electorate, the real citizens.” Now this extremely pernicious sentiment is no longer restricted to Trump and his hardcore followers, but is becoming Republican doctrine.
In his 2000 essay On Post-Fascism, G.M. Tamás defines “post-fascist” politics precisely through its hostility to egalitarian citizenship:
Post-fascism finds its niche easily in the new world of global capitalism without upsetting the dominant political forms of electoral democracy and representative government. It does what I consider to be central to all varieties of fascism, including the post-totalitarian version. Sans Führer, sans one-party rule, sans SA or SS, post-fascism reverses the Enlightenment tendency to assimilate citizenship to the human condition.
For Tamás, the progress of the Enlightenment meant the expansion of citizenship from a privilege to a right granted to everyone in a political community regardless of their background:
Once citizenship was equated with human dignity, its extension to all classes, professions, both sexes, all races, creeds, and locations was only a matter of time. Universal franchise, the national service, and state education for all had to follow. Moreover, once all human beings were supposed to be able to accede to the high rank of a citizen, national solidarity within the newly egalitarian political community demanded the relief of the estate of Man, a dignified material existence for all, and the eradication of the remnants of personal servitude. The state, putatively representing everybody, was prevailed upon to grant not only a modicum of wealth for most people, but also a minimum of leisure, once the exclusive temporal fief of gentlemen only, in order to enable us all to play and enjoy the benefits of culture.
At the core of Fascism is a reactionary counter-move against this Enlightenment tendency to expand the notion of citizenship: “Fascism, on the whole, was not conservative, even if it was counter-revolutionary: it did not re-establish hereditary aristocracy or the monarchy, despite some romantic-reactionary verbiage. But it was able to undo the key regulative (or liminal) notion of modern society, that of universal citizenship.” With Fascism, the political movement and its leader decided who and who was not a citizen: “The sovereign was judge of who does and does not belong to the civic community, and citizenship became a function of his (or its) trenchant decree.”
It now might seem very unlikely that these menaces to birthright citizenship will succeed—Surely, this all just campaign trail bluster. Since the 1940s, the Supreme Court has handed down very muscular defenses of citizenship and made the process of denaturalization extremely difficult, even calling it a “cruel and unusual punishment” as forbidden by the 8th Amendment. But we ought to know now that we cannot rest on precedent. The Right is already preparing legal arguments for them. See for example, this debate on the Federalist Society site. Hannah Arendt once wrote, “One is almost tempted to measure the degree of totalitarian infection by the extent to which the concerned governments use their sovereign right of denationalization.” I believe one should extend this say and say one ought to measure the degree of totalitarian infection in a political party by the extent to which it menaces the citizenship of chosen enemies.