If Shakespearean plays were updated for modernity, Donald Trump’s last decade might well be the premise of “Much Ado About Nothing.” After all, this is the man who started a legal war over the location of a flagpole in Southern California and starred in a reality TV series based on his own hiring decisions. More recently he’s become the public face of the “birther” movement, which claims that President Obama is ineligible for his office by virtue of being born outside the United States.
With Obama finally revealing official documentation demonstrating his birth in Hawaii, he has — maybe — put these concerns to rest. Except, no one should have been concerned to begin with: the United States of America does not require domestic birth as a condition of its highest office.
The Constitution requires that “no person except a natural born citizen . . . shall be eligible to the Office of President. . .” A “natural born citizen” is a citizen from birth, but not a citizen by birth.
Birthright citizenship — the idea that a person is a citizen by having leapt from the womb over a particular patch of ground — has been accused of many ills, including interfering with standing immigration laws and the welfare system, but it was not formalized until the end of the American Civil War as a means of granting citizenship to former slaves and their descendants. While it has long been a practice of common law to recognize birthright citizenship, citizenship from birth was also attained if the parents were citizens. There is no legal grounding for the idea that a citizen must have been born on U.S. soil to take office.
Being born in Kenya, Malaysia, Hawaii, or even Mars is irrelevant to Obama’s qualifications as president. His mother was a citizen of the United States at the time of his birth — an uncontroversial claim even for the “birthers.” Because of this, Obama was born a citizen of the United States, with all the privileges and legal rights that implies.
Trump’s sound and fury on the issue has signified nothing, and yet his ardor and that of his fellow “birthers” has diminished the already lackluster quality of American political discourse and distracted from the real issues: how — despite promising humility and peace — Obama has led the U.S. to a third Middle Eastern war, how — despite campaigning as a civil libertarian — his actual record is worse than Bush’s, how — for all the talk about fiscal responsibility — he is calling for expansions of government in every possible sector of life.
And yet, in some sense, Trump has done the nation a service by calling into question the integrity of American media, which proclaimed for months that Obama simply could not produce the documents he obtained with hardly a flick of his pen. It also reveals that a man who had right on his side in every aspect of the controversy felt it necessary to conceal information that could have saved him considerable stress and weakened some of his more vocal critics.
If these are Trump’s and Obama’s strategies for getting elected, they may need to find new campaign managers.
Andrew Glidden is a writer living in Berkeley, California.