We’ve gone far enough now with the Trump political phenomenon to know that it is no mere or momentary matter of name recognition which has placed him as the top contender for the Republican nomination, as bizarre an eventuality as that might appear. He now leads all national polls and all polls in the key early primary and caucus states – and by significant margins. We’ve also witnessed key GOP stakeholder Fox News try to derail Trump’s campaign and fail miserably at it. Lots of top Republicans jumped on that bum-rush Trump bandwagon only to be damaged in turn when it collapsed. We’re now in a categorically different phase. Trump is now defining the GOP policy agenda. And that makes him far more than a top candidate or even a nominee.
Ending birthright citizenship used to be an idea embraced on the far right of the House GOP caucus and bandied about by rightwing policy wonks. Trump has now not only made it a signature of his campaign. He’s also pulling all the other candidates along with him. Now Bobby Jindal, Lindsey Graham, Scott Walker and others have all joined him. (Here’s a good run-down of the list and what it means.)
It is difficult to convey just how mammoth a change this would be or how bad an idea it is. “Birthright citizenship” is at the core of the post-Civil War concept of American citizenship and the whole framework of rights and governance built around it. It’s written into the 14th Amendment! It’s what prevents us from having intergenerational resident non-citizen populations like they do in Germany and so many other countries.
Just as a practical matter it seems highly, highly unlikely anyone could pull that off since amending the Constitution is so difficult. On the other hand, conservative legal writers and polemicists are now saying you can just interpret the constitution differently and get rid of birthright citizenship that way. At National Review Online Andrew McCarthy crows that it’s “not hard to read the 14th Amendment as not requiring birthright citizenship.” Funny – except when you realize that in recent years it’s usually only taken a couple years for plainly ridiculous far right legal theories to jump from the blogosphere to at least four votes on the Supreme Court.
In any case, that’s not all!
Trump is also pushing for reducing legal immigration and the forced deportation of 11 million undocumented immigrants – something that if it ever actually happened (and there’s simply no practical way it could) would amount to a sort of trail of tears nightmare and would have severe consequences for the economy. You can’t deport three or four percent of the working population, concentrated in a few sectors, and not think it’s going to have big economic repercussions. Back in 2012, the Kris Kobach’s of the GOP were pushing nonsensical ideas like “self-deportation” – a bare and implicit recognition that deporting over ten million people is all but impossible in a rule of law society and that it scares a lot of people because it’s so awful to contemplate. But no more. No we’re going to be shipping by rail and truck to the Rio Grande. And if all that weren’t enough, he wants to build a massive concrete wall along the entire Southern border and have Mexico pay for it. That seems quite likely to happen!
Fun aside, Republican strategists realize that they can’t win national elections while losing the Hispanic population by big margins. Close can be good enough. But the 2012 margins aren’t workable. And a steeper divide could be catastrophic. In three years we’ve now gone from the need to support comprehensive immigration reform, to balking on supporting the deal, to embracing the policies that used to be held by the comical likes of Steve King and another couple dozen members of the House who do yeoman work keeping TPM in business by providing a steady stream of radioactive nonsense that even current GOP congressional leadership almost always ignores.
But these are now the official Republican positions. Going into a presidential election year. And Donald Trump is defining the terms of the debate.