Is Obama "American" enough for the far right now?

Why even killing of the world's most notorious terrorist probably won't eradicate the scourge of "birtherism"

Published May 4, 2011 2:45PM (EDT)

In this image released by the White House, President Barack Obama makes a point during one in a series of meetings in the Situation Room of the White House discussing the mission against Osama bin Laden, Sunday, May 1, 2011. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon is pictured at right. (AP Photo/The White House, Pete Souza) (AP)
In this image released by the White House, President Barack Obama makes a point during one in a series of meetings in the Situation Room of the White House discussing the mission against Osama bin Laden, Sunday, May 1, 2011. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon is pictured at right. (AP Photo/The White House, Pete Souza) (AP)

Now that President Obama and his national security team have proven their mettle in pursuing and finally eliminating the supreme Islamic terrorist, a question arises: Will the not-insignificant chunk of voters who have rejected the president's basic legitimacy -- expressing skepticism about the circumstances of his birth in the face of conclusive proof that he was born here -- be more likely to view Obama as "American" now?

On CNN’s "Reliable Sources" over the weekend, Washington Post reporter Nia-Malika Henderson suggested that the birther movement may not be about race. She compared the buzz around the issue to those conspiracy-minded individuals who tied Bill Clinton to the "murder" of Vince Foster in 1993 -- an observation that other have made as well. It just seems too easy to describe the ruling passion of those who label President Obama a secret Muslim (or, to recall Mike Huckabee’s infamous slur, a Kenyan revolutionary), as strictly racist. History, though, yields enough clues to suggest that journalists who look for alternative explanations are wrong.

Birtherism has a distinctive history. If you go to the website, you will find a history lesson along with their creed: "The Birthers: Dedicated to the Rebirth of the Constitutional Republic." Much like the Tea Partiers, birthers have linked themselves to America’s founding fathers. Their fealty to the Constitution is centered on a single phrase in Article II that requires the president to be a "natural born citizen."

What does the all-important phrase mean? Birthers interpreting Article II say that "the president must above all else be loyal to this nation." It is a "self-evident" truth that such loyalty is drawn from nature–and they are quite explicit about what that means: "kinship, our most primitive and natural form of citizenship, from blood"; a nativity which comes "from the soil," or "place of birth." It is an ideal of kinship that energizes the birther movement—the transmission of civic identity by descent, through bloodlines, from parents to children.

The website also makes it clear that, for birthers, a natural-born president must have natural-born parents, and that civic identity only exists in a homogeneous population. "If the parents were split in their loyalties," the website declares, "the child would be split in loyalty to America." Mixed heritage is thus a liability, for it undermines proper patriotic breeding. Indeed, for the birthers, the breeding question is inextricably linked to a person’s genetic vulnerability.

President Obama was raised by his white, midwestern mother, and her parents. But his actual upbringing matters not a bit to birthers. For most of them, Obama is his father’s son, because kinship is measured though the traditional order of the father’s line. To make their claims stick, birthers have had to erase President Obama’s mother from the fanciful narrative of his African birth. Just as Glenn Beck indelicately declared that Obama had an instinctive hatred of white people, birthers divorced him from his mother’s family. The father he hardly knew remains the dominant force in his life; the president cannot be an American because he is loyal to his patriarchal line, that is, to his father’s race.

Not surprisingly, the birthers have the Constitution all wrong. The delegates who attended the convention in Philadelphia in 1787 were not much concerned with the president’s nativity. In establishing the chief executive’s qualifications, the initial proposal focused on age and duration of residency, and said nothing about his being a "natural born citizen." The founders made no mention of any requirement that the parents of the president be natural born citizens either. Nor, for that matter, did they require the president to be a Christian. Abigail Adams, the wife of the second president, referred to her daughter-in-law, Louisa Catherine, who married John Quincy Adams, as a "half blood"; by this cultural (though not legalistic) designation she meant that one parent was American, the other English. In sum, the founders could easily have specified that the president have "natural born" parents. But they did not. The reason is obvious. Any talk about kinship and bloodlines bore the taint of aristocracy and royalty, a caste system the founders had rejected during the Revolution.

The convention delegates did, however, vigorously debate the requirements for senators and representatives. Some delegates expressed fears of "foreign attachments"; future vice president Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts indulged in some wild conspiracy mongering when he proposed longer residency requirements for House members to prevent the possibility that foreign governments (he meant the British) might send spies to infiltrate the federal government. He hoped that, in the future, only the native-born would be eligible to serve in the House.

Yet even Gerry could never have imagined the 21st-century birther conspiracy, the most extreme versions of which evoked the "Manchurian Candidate," a plot so cleverly devised that the institution of the presidency could be subverted by placing a secret Muslim in the White House. In fact, the deepest fear the founders expressed had nothing to do with the president’s qualifications. Instead, it was the military powers with which the Constitution endows him. They worried that as commander-in-chief, he might be bought off by a foreign government and drawn into unnecessary wars at the behest of an ally to whom he felt personally indebted. To counteract their fear, the framers insisted that Congress alone be authorized to declare war.

Despite all their efforts, the birther movement cannot look to the founders for its inspiration. Their ideas grow out of a traditional obsession with the legal status of free blacks and mulattos in the decades before the Civil War. When a firestorm of debate flared over Missouri’s admission to the Union in 1819-1820, northern and southern congressmen tangled and principles yielded to racial prejudices. Missouri’s proposed constitution barred blacks from entering the state who were not the legal property of white men. While northerners argued that free blacks were not "aliens or slaves," but "free citizens," opposing politicians and jurists twisted the law to justify the argument that native born free black Americans could be denied the same constitutional protections that native-born white Americans claimed. In the years before the South finally seceded, judges issued decisions in which free blacks were described as "our wards" or "strangers to our Constitutions." Mississippi’s highest court categorized free U.S. residents of African descent as "alien strangers."

The question of how to define a natural-born citizen reached the Supreme Court in the notorious Dred Scott case of 1857. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (appointed by unapologetic slave-owner Andrew Jackson) argued that free blacks were never contemplated by the founders as part of the national community. Insisting that African Americans were not recognized as citizens in any state, before or after the Revolution, he dismissed all contrary evidence. To Taney, as with the birthers, facts were irrelevant.

Taney’s goal was to restrict citizenship to one of two processes: naturalization or biological inheritance. Blacks had been explicitly excluded from citizenship in the federal Naturalization Act of 1790, he noted. Even more telling, according to constitutional historian James Kettner, Taney wished to ignore "volumes of judicial precedents emphasizing place of birth without regard to ancestry." Taney thus transformed "natural born citizen" into a racial category.

The birthers have the same idea in mind. Ultimately, they don’t really care what it says on President Obama’s birth certificate, short or long form. For these modern-day Taneyites, Obama’s citizenship is questionable because his civic identity is tainted by descent -- he is, unmistakably, the son of an African man. The birthers, like Taney, believe that a natural-born citizen must be possess the right pedigree: he must descend from the same race as the founders, or be born on U.S. soil in the image of the founders. For Taney, the national community was a closed community. Even if they haven’t gone so far as to say so explicitly, for today’s birthers the presidency is an exclusive club.

Their obsession with placing Obama in Africa at the moment of his birth was a means to diminish the influence of his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham. Republican hopefuls Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee deliberately circulated the strange story that Obama’s politics can be traced, genetically, to the anti-colonial revolutionary rhetoric that once existed in his father’s homeland.

But what about the equally ridiculous claim that Obama’s paternal grandmother testified to her grandson’s birth in Kenya? Why did that idea capture birthers’ imaginations? Here, historical precedent may again shed light. In 1907, a law was passed in the United States stating that any natural-born female who married an alien automatically lost her citizenship. She was expatriated without her consent. Compare that to the law that prevailed from 1855 to 1922, by which any alien woman who married an American citizen immediately became a citizen, bypassing the normal naturalization process.

It was a longstanding tradition in American history that a wife’s civil and political rights came through her husband. Under the law, marriage made husband and wife "one person." The argument that citizens cannot have two allegiances was applied to wives: her first allegiance was to her husband. She could not vote or exercise political rights, because she had no independent civic identity. Her husband acted as her political proxy, voting in her stead. Recall that women did to receive the right to vote until 1920.

The birthers, too, in recurring to antiquated racist assumptions, assume that President Obama cannot have dual allegiances. Either he is all-American or else his true loyalty resides elsewhere. Birthers have made Obama’s mother a cipher all over again. Her political identity was subsumed into her African husband’s. In effect, he "voted" for her. Because she is deceased, it has been easy for birthers (not to mention the hubristic Donald Trump) to erase the president’s mother from the picture. She was never able to testify. And her World War II hero father presumably had no need to; his service to his country should have spoken volumes.

At the time of the 1907 law, women who married aliens were considered unpatriotic. Until 1967, interracial marriages could still be considered illegal in most southern states. What matters to birthers, subconsciously or otherwise, is the taint of foreign blood, the taint of African blood, Obama, Sr.’s alien status. Stanley Ann Dunham had made an unnatural and unpatriotic choice of a husband.

The racism of the birther movement, then, is not just a wacko conspiracy. Adherents of this new old cause have a large following because of our country's troubled history. Of course, Americans are by no means the only culture to rationalize discrimination on racial and gender grounds. It happens on every continent, constantly. In the modern age, anxiety over what makes a "real" American is most often tied to wartime, or "Cold War time"; but in this case, it was the "national emergency" of a person becoming president whose physiognomy tapped into vestigial fears.

Finally, there is the newly hatched probe (thank you, once again, Donald) into the president’s educational pedigree. For hardcore birthers, President Obama cannot possibly deserve his office. There must be a catch somewhere. How, akin to "uppity" free blacks past, did he move into elite circles from which black aspirants were traditionally barred? The world has been turned upside down for birthers.

The term "birther" has always sounded idiotic. If they want a more legitimate-sounding name, they should call themselves "descenters." For what they really seem to be defending is that every child inherits his nationality from his father, just as he inherits his surname: Barack Hussein Obama II instead of Barry Dunham.

In their campaign to unearth the secret life of President Obama, birthers make descent more important than consent -- the republican principle that Americans choose their officeholders by popular election. For them, nature trumps consent. According to their logic, natural-born presidents have natural-born American parents. And by nature, they mean the traits passed down from one’s ancestors to his rightful heirs. We’ve seen this logical construction before: it worked for something known as the "divine right of kings." Loyalty to the sovereign? Didn’t we, at some point, declare national independence in order to move beyond that sort of thinking?

So maybe those who suggest that it’s not just racism that motivates the birthers really are on to something. Maybe it’s something that really is un-American..

By Nancy Isenberg

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By Andrew Burstein

Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg are historians at Louisiana State University and co-authors of the forthcoming book "The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality." Follow them on Twitter @andyandnancy.

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