The Biden campaign’s announcement of Senator Kamala Harris as the Vice-Presidential nominee was greeted with a variety of reactions.1The title of this essay is paraphrased from Lauren Bacall’s famous lines to Humphrey Bogart in 1944’s To Have and Have Not. Coincidentally, Bogart was playing a guy named Steve. Even in a normal election year, this could hardly be considered surprising. Nearly two centuries ago, Tocqueville observed that “no sooner do you set foot upon the American soil, than you are stunned by a kind of tumult; a confused clamour is heard on every side; and a thousand simultaneous voices demand the immediate satisfaction of their social wants.” In this regard, little has changed.
Of course if this was a normal election year, there would also be voices of leadership attempting to mold the tumult and clamor into some governing principle, as American leaders have attempted to do, with varying levels of success, since 1787. But instead we have Donald Trump, whose rapid descent into authoritarianism is only served by unceasing noise and confusion.
Trump’s most fervent supporters understand this, and have adopted his rhetorical flair for dog-whistling the worst elements of his reactionary (to use a kind word) base. Take, for instance, Professor John Eastman of Chapman University, who responded to Harris’s ascension to the Democratic ticket by questioning her citizenship, of course.
This was one of the more offensive tropes of the Obama era, and to resurrect it again in Senator Harris’s case is unconscionable. Indeed, Eastman’s game is apparent from his opening sentence: “The fact that Senator Kamala Harris has just been named the vice presidential running mate for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has some questioning her eligibility for the position.” This elocution was copied straight from the Little Trump Book of Rhetoric—perhaps racists and QAnon adherents question Senator Harris’s eligibility, but no serious person does.
The substance of Eastman’s argument is absurd, relying upon a crabbed interpretation of the 14th Amendment’s definition of natural-born as “all persons born…in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof.” He claims that if Senator Harris’s parents were in America on student visas or some other non-permanent basis (he has no idea whether they were or not, but doesn’t care) when she was born, they weren’t “subject to” what he calls “complete” American jurisdiction, and thus Harris isn’t a “natural-born” citizen. At most, she is instead a citizen born in America who isn’t a “natural-born citizen.”
But wait, there’s more. Eastman finally says the quiet part loud when he gets to his point that not only is Harris disqualified from the ticket, but disqualified from the Senate as well. Why? Well, because he claims she’s not actually a citizen. This is his thesis, buried in what appears to be a meandering aside. As he puts it, “[Harris] would have had to become naturalized herself in order to be a citizen,” and because he claims that “does not appear to have ever happened,” she is…an illegal alien? There’s nothing Republicans could possibly hate more than an Indian-Jamaican illegal alien born in Oakland, California. That’s worse than Pennywise the Clown.
What does Eastman think he’s getting at? Senator Harris is a citizen. The United States of America recognized her citizenship at birth, and still does. She has not been “naturalized” because she is a citizen. This is tautological.
The insincerity of Eastman’s entire exercise wafts from the screen. If Senator Harris found herself splayed out on the Minnesota pavement for ten minutes with a knee to her neck, it isn’t likely Eastman would have worried about whether she was completely subject to American jurisdiction. Nor, when it comes to Eastman‘s attack on Harris’s heritage, does he treat readers to any evidence that his concerns are factually true. Instead, we get the lame and vague assertion that “there is some dispute over whether [her father] was in fact ever naturalized, and it is also unclear whether Harris’ mother ever became a naturalized citizen.” Oh, well, in that case. Every Potemkin Village is guarded by an army of strawmen.
Eastman assures his readers that his is a very “significant challenge to Harris’ constitutional eligibility to the second-highest office in the land,” because absolute loyalty is paramount in the face of—laugh-track—“persistent threats from Russia, China and others to our sovereignty and electoral process.” Eastman earnestly offers that “those concerns are perhaps even more important today” than they were to the Founders. Indeed. And then if all this weren’t enough, Eastman claims that if the Democratic ticket can just “ignore” Eastman’s strawman eligibility requirements, how can they possibly uphold their oaths to the sacred offices they keep?
The intellectual dishonesty is staggering, if only because one can’t help but notice that Eastman’s “significant challenge“ to Harris’s eligibility was published by the Circuit City of “news” publications—the newly-resurrected and right-wing “Newsweek”—and not in, say, a complaint to the District Court for the District of Columbia. Indeed, one would think given Eastman’s sincere and completely non-partisan concern for the American republic, he would be running for the courthouse tomorrow with preliminary injunction papers in hand, daring the courts to stop the ballot-printing presses.
Of course, that’s not the point. If it were, Eastman would have to support his arguments with facts, and he has none. No, Eastman’s motives are two-fold. First, like all discredited conservatives, he is auditioning for the favors and emoluments that come with prostituting for Trump—the book deals and Fox News appearances, with their built-in, conspiracy-soused audiences. And second, he knows what animates those audiences more than all else—unwarranted and unsupported attacks on the loyalty and citizenship of non-white Americans. This is the mother’s milk of modern Republican politics, and the only mandatory rule to join their Fight Club.
Understandably, reaction to Eastman’s essay was fierce, requiring “Newsweek” to issue a statement that Eastman’s argument had “nothing to do with racist birtherism.” Well, nothing ever does, does it? That Eastman used the same rhetorical tricks and dare-you-to-prove-a-negative traps as the Obama birthers rated no mention, because they were supposed to be hidden by all the high-falutin’ pseudo-intellectual drivel. Somehow, Newsweek’s official statement managed to be less convincing than Eastman’s original piece, boiling down to those responsible for its publication reciting their auspicious, Federalist Society-tinged resumes. No word whether they have any black friends.
As for Eastman himself, he allows just enough self-awareness to admit that his argument is likely to be “dismissed out of hand as so much antiquated constitutional tripe.” He should be so lucky. It should be dismissed out of hand, but not for that reason.