The Republican Attack on Citizenship
From Rhetoric to Reality
I wasn’t planning on doing a post today, but the column by my friend Jamelle Bouie in today’s New York Times compelled me to write something. The piece makes the profound and unnerving observation that there’s been escalating rhetoric from Republicans that attacks the very citizenship of their political rivals. Jamelle writes:
The obsession with nonexistent voter fraud is hard to ignore. But there were other ways that Republicans expressed their belief that they were the only legitimate members of the political community.
Sarah Palin’s rhetoric about the “real America,” very much in evidence during the 2008 presidential campaign — “We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America” — was one of these ways. So was the Tea Party movement, whose members understood themselves as a disenfranchised majority, under siege by a Democratic Party of burdensome illegal immigrants, ungrateful minorities and entitled young people. The Fox News commentator Glenn Beck captured some of this feeling during a 2010 broadcast. “This is the Tea Party. This is you and me,” he said. “You are not alone, America. You are the majority.”
Mitt Romney’s infamous claim that there are “47 percent of the people” who are “dependent upon government,” “believe they are victims” and are unable to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives” was condemned as classist and prejudiced during the 2012 presidential election. But you can also read it as an expression of the belief that there are some Americans who count — the “makers,” in the language of his vice-presidential nominee, Paul Ryan — and some Americans who don’t.
Yes, the Republican Party’s present-day election denialism is much more extreme than the rhetoric surrounding voter fraud or the idea that there is a “real America.” But the difference is ultimately one of degree, not kind: Republicans have been trying to write Democrats out of the political community in one way or another for decades. It was only a matter of time before this escalated to denying that Democrats and Democratic voters can win elections at all.
This is the animating notion driving the Republican Party now: liberals, minorities, immigrants, just about whoever bugs them, just aren’t really Americans. This the notion that stands behind behind the stolen election “lie,” which I prefer to call a myth, because it embodies in imaginary form the sentiments and beliefs of this section of the electorate. This open radicalism is what was so exciting to them about Trump as a candidate; he was really willing to go there, in effect saying: “Enough of this ‘nation of immigrants bullshit, enough of this ‘we may disagree, but we’re all Americans’ bullshit, they are the enemy.”
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.
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt 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.” To this, we should add a corollary: one can measure the degree of totalitarian infection within a political movement by the extent it attacks the citizenship rights of its opponents. After witnessing McCarthyism, she remarked, “It seems absurd, but the fact is that, under the political circumstances of this century, a constitutional amendment may be needed to assure American citizens that they cannot be deprived of their citizenship, no matter what they do.” At one time, the Supreme Court seemed to think that the Constitution already implied that, with Earl Warren writing in Trop v. Dulles that denaturalization violated the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment: “It is a form of punishment more primitive than torture, for it destroys for the individual the political existence that was centuries in development.” We know now how little to rely on the Court’s precedents.