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03/11/2018 Trump, Birthright Citizenship, and the Mainstreaming of Unimaginable Ideas | The New Yorker

Our Columnists

Trump, Birthright Citizenship, and the

Mainstreaming of Unimaginable Ideas
By Masha Gessen October 31, 2018

When Donald Trump proposes something previously unthinkable, like ending birthright citizenship or
building a border wall, he shifts the dominant political story.
Photograph by Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty

W citizenship
citizenship in America, President
citizenship Trump
ith his promise to revoke, by executive order, the guarantee of birthright
Trump has made the inconceivable possible.
President Trump
Most legal scholars appear to agree that the Fourteenth Amendment cannot be
changed in the way that Trump proposes, but his vow has already elevated previously
marginal arguments—they are now positions to be considered. If the President follows
through with an executive order, what may have seemed like legal nonsense yesterday
will have to be weighed by the courts. We have seen this mainstreaming of previously 1/4
03/11/2018 Trump, Birthright Citizenship, and the Mainstreaming of Unimaginable Ideas | The New Yorker

unimaginable ideas many times in the last two years: a ban on Muslims entering the
country, the border wall, the withdrawal from the Paris climate accords, and more.

The idea of revoking birthright citizenship is consistent with Trump’s newly vigorous
embrace of the label “nationalist.” Most recently, at a rally
rally in Houston and in an
interview with Fox News, Trump has defined “nationalist” as the opposite of
“globalist.” The Times columnist David Brooks criticized Trump’s use of the word by
arguing that he loves America more than the President does; both men use the word
“nationalist” as though it were synonymous with “patriot,” but this shift in usage is
significant. “Nationalist” suggests a country under siege and carries the connotations of
thinking of the United States as a nation-state that is ethnically, culturally, and
religiously homogeneous. This, in turn, is consistent with the removal, in February, of
the words “nation of immigrants” from the mission statement of United States
Citizenship and Immigration Services. As with so many things, we haven’t talked
nearly enough about how much these shifts in official rhetoric change the dominant
political story.

When Trump said, on “Axios on HBO,” that the U.S. is the only country in the world
where people obtain citizenship by virtue of being born, he lied. Birthright citizenship
is the rule in the Americas. Many Western European countries allow people who were
born there to apply for citizenship once they turn eighteen. Some countries are more
restrictive. In Germany, for example, a newborn is considered a citizen only if at least
one of the baby’s parents is a legal resident who has been in the country for more than
eight years. This law is a source of shame for many Germans, precisely because it is
rooted in ideas of a nation’s ethnic and cultural purity. These kinds of laws create an
ever-growing class of disenfranchised people who live in Germany legally and can
participate in the economy but not in national politics—and this is precisely Trump’s
objective, too: to shut Americans whom he perceives as other out of the political
system. Two years after claiming, obsessively and falsely, that millions of “illegal
immigrants” voted in the Presidential election, Trump is taking steps to make
immigrant votes illegal.

The pernicious effects of Trump’s statement do not end there. The only reasonable
response to his attack on birthright citizenship is to defend it; the problem is it is
indefensible. It may seem like a self-evident right, but it is based on a decidedly 2/4
03/11/2018 Trump, Birthright Citizenship, and the Mainstreaming of Unimaginable Ideas | The New Yorker

premodern premise. As the Northwestern University professor of political science

Jacqueline Stevens has argued, in an online debate
debate organized by The Economist, “Just as
it would be unacceptable for a government to announce in advance that at birth one’s
options to attend Oxford, earn $1m, or run for Mayor of London will be reserved only
to those able to claim ancestors with these attributes, anyone claiming to embrace
liberal values should find it equally unacceptable to use birth—either in a geographical
territory or to specific parents—as the decision rule for restricting residence in a

This may seem like a novel, even revolutionary, argument, but this is the conversation
we ought to be having in the twenty-first century. Yet we are further from being able to
have this conversation than we were even a week ago. This is the most dangerous and
most consistent effect that Trump is having on American culture: he is bending the arc
of history backward. He made many promises when he ran for President, but the
promise to return to an imaginary past was his biggest. He is keeping it.

Masha Gessen, a staff writer, has written several books, including, most recently, “The Future
The Future
Is History:
Is History: How
History: How Totalitarianism
How Totalitarianism Reclaimed
Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia
Russia,” which won the National Book Award in
Reclaimed Russia
2017. Read more »

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03/11/2018 Trump, Birthright Citizenship, and the Mainstreaming of Unimaginable Ideas | The New Yorker

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