Birtherism is back. Donald Trump, the leading Republican running for his party’s presidential nomination, has publicly called into question the Ted Cruz’s eligibility to serve as president. Cruz, Trump’s rival du jour, was born to an American mother in the Canadian city of Calgary in 1970. Article II of the US Constitution reads, “No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President.”
Trump has characterized the issue of Cruz’s birthplace as “a big problem,” and “very precarious.” Cruz has dismissed it as a “non-issue” and “settled law”—a child born abroad to even a single US citizen is also a citizen at birth; thus “natural born.” Legal scholars overwhelmingly agree with Cruz, but that hasn’t stopped others—particularly his rivals within the Republican party—from piling on a bit of expertly crafted ambiguity.
Arizona senator John McCain, whose own eligibility was called into question when he ran against president Barack Obama in 2008 (McCain was born in the Panama Canal Zone), told Phoenix CBS affiliate KFYI on Jan. 6 that the issue of Cruz’s eligibility was “worth looking into.”
“I don’t think it’s illegitimate to look into it,” he said. McCain was born on a US military base, which is “different from being born on foreign soil,” he claimed.
The Arizona senator is partially correct. It’s not technically an illegitimate line of inquiry, because no federal court has ever actually settled on a singular definition of natural-born citizenship. I’m not a constitutional scholar either, but this seems to be largely intentional. Chances are no federal judge wants to be the one to amend Article II, but there’s probably also a sense that the natural-born clause is a ridiculous, antiquated stipulation built on empty nationalism.
But there’s no spiritual difference between being born on a US military base in Panama and a city in Canada. Neither one makes a potential candidate any more or less qualified, any more or less patriotic.
Because being born in the United States is not an accomplishment. It takes no particular skill. Any natural-born citizen of this is simply a member of the Lucky Sperm Club. If an individual has spent the majority of their life in the United States, paid their taxes here, and cast votes in US elections, is that not a far stronger demonstration of patriotism than the completely mindless act of descending from the right birth canal at the right place and time? America didn’t even have a president technically born in the United States until 1841, with the election of John Tyler. Each and every one of his predecessors were British subjects at birth. It would have been impossible to insist on electing a natural-born citizen then, and it certainly doesn’t make any more sense to insist upon it now.
Beyond that, the natural-born clause is xenophobic, exceptionalist, and not a bit paranoid. It implies inborn superiority to those who are simply the beneficiaries of dumb luck. And more insidiously, the birtherism it inspires signals that Ted Cruz, or whoever is under the birther microscope at a given time, is “not one of us.” They are “others”—not adequately committed to the national project to merit election. (It doesn’t help that Cruz has a Hispanic surname.) Xenophobia is xenophobia, racism is racism—it was gross when Donald Trump questioned Barack Obama’s eligibility for the presidency, and it’s gross now.
Cruz is right—his birthplace is a non-issue. There are plenty of reasons for Americans to disqualify him from the presidency: He’s an extreme social conservative in a time when an increasing majority of the electorate is not. His views on immigration are racist and completely devoid of compassion. He doesn’t believe in the provision of affordable health care to the poor. He wants to abolish the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). He’d likely undo any diplomatic progress made by the Obama administration with the Islamic Republic of Iran. (And Cuba, while we’re at it.) The fact that he was born on foreign soil isn’t on the list.