In a Republican primary debate in 2016, candidates Ted Cruz and Donald Trump sparred over each other’s eligibility for the presidency. For years, Trump had been spreading the “birtherist” lie that Barack Obama had not been born in the US. He was now suggesting that Cruz, born in Canada to a Cuban father and an American mother, was ineligible. “Donald’s mother was born in Scotland. She was naturalised,” Cruz said, arguing that if he were ineligible then Trump would be, too. “But I,” Trump shot back, “was born here.” And he was right. They both were. If a person is born to an American parent or born in the US, then that person is eligible to run for president.
I thought of this moment often in the past week. On 11 August Joe Biden selected Kamala Harris to be his running mate in November’s election. Harris, 55, is a senator from California who made her name by asking tough, pointed questions of Trump appointees. Previously she was district attorney in San Francisco and then attorney general in California, positions in which she took decisions – such as working to block gender-affirming surgery for a trans woman who was in prison – that came under scrutiny when she ran for president in the Democratic primary last year.
Already only the second black woman in the US Senate, this month Harris became the first ever black woman, and the first Asian American, to be on a major party ticket. Harris is the child of a Jamaican father and an Indian mother, immigrants to the US brought together by a shared passion for the civil rights movement. She represents something distinct, and – argues Ami Bera, the longest-serving Indian American in Congress – complementary to Biden. With 36 years in the Senate and eight years as vice-president, Biden is “the person who can steady the ship” says Bera, but Harris “personifies and reflects the diversity of the party, and perhaps the future of the party”.
Many progressives – and some of those in communities of colour who are most affected by the US’s criminal justice system – are concerned by her prosecutorial record, which has been perceived as overly friendly towards police and slow to embrace reform. But many (sometimes the same people) also feel her selection recognises that black women are the most loyal voting bloc for the Democratic Party (98 per cent voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center), and that as the country evolves, those at the highest level should change accordingly. Whatever one personally thinks of the selection, Joe Biden made history by choosing Kamala Harris, and Harris made history by being chosen.
The Harris announcement brought the Biden campaign its best fundraising day yet. The Trump campaign, meanwhile, does not appear to have a clear sense of how to run against Harris, oscillating between calling out her record as a prosecutor and saying that she’s a radical leftist. Perhaps that’s why Trump supporters decided to return to a tried-and-tested line of attack.
A day after the announcement, Newsweek published a piece by John Eastman of the Claremont Institute, a pro-Trump think tank, questioning whether Harris, born to immigrants, was eligible to be vice-president. A later editor’s note assured readers that the article had “no connection… to birtherism” which is not, typically, the kind of note one needs to add if a piece has nothing to do with birtherism.
The article was circulated widely on pro-Trump accounts on Twitter. The president then performed his old trick – spread untruths under the guise of asking questions or repeating something he had heard – and offered to the press that Eastman was “very highly qualified” and “very talented” and that he had “heard it today that she doesn’t meet the requirements”. On 15 August, Trump again signalled his openness to the suggestion that Harris was ineligible, saying he had “heard the claim” but had “not got into it in great detail”.
Once birtherism 2.0 was out in the ether, the White House chief of staff Mark Meadows responded to the question, “Do you accept the fact that Senator Kamala Harris is eligible?” with, “Sure.” Trump officials then criticised the media for asking the question in the first place.
The media does, of course, have a role in how racist rumours are spread and amplified. It is responsible for the publication of the original article, giving column inches to questions about birtherism, printing multiple fact-checks assuring voters that Harris is indeed eligible, and hand-wringing over the issue (in columns like this one). But a major part is played by the legal scholars who contort themselves to misread the constitution, by the campaign officials who spread such contortions, and by the president who repeats and declines to dismiss them.
In the early 20th century US nativists argued that immigrant quotas, though limiting immigration from southern and eastern Europe, were not restrictive enough against those groups. Chinese, Japanese and Indian immigrants to the US were not even eligible for citizenship. Today we can still see the legacy of that period. There is one citizenship for people seen as white and established – regardless of when their parents actually entered the country – and another, lesser citizenship for people of colour, whose patriotism, gratitude and right to be in the US is always potentially up for debate.
Responding to the innuendos about Harris by fuming, “But she was born in Oakland!” misses the point. The point is that the first black woman was selected to be on a major party ticket in this country’s history – and the days immediately thereafter were spent debating a racist lie. The point is that Donald Trump can say, as he did in 2016, “but I was born here”, and then stand before the press as US president and refuse to say the same of Kamala Harris.