Donald Trump has now served up a grand total of 6,420 lies and misleading statements as president, according to the newly updated tally from The Post’s indefatigable fact-checking team. The dishonesty has escalated dramatically in the run-up to the midterms, and virtually all of the lies and distortions are ones Trump has repeated before, in some cases dozens of times.
But every now and then, Trump debuts a new species of absurdity, one that isn’t quite a “lie,” one that can’t be fact-checked in the form in which Trump offered it — yet at the same time, it’s so deeply absurd and so heinously destructive to common understandings that it seems to deserve a category all its own.
That’s what happened at a rally in Missouri on Thursday night. Trump once again called for an end to birthright citizenship (which is granted to all people born in the United States) for the children of undocumented immigrants. He said this:
The Democrats want to continue giving automatic birthright citizenship to every child born to an illegal alien. Even if they’ve been on our soil for a mere matter of seconds. Hundreds of thousands of children born to illegal immigrants are made automatic citizens of the United States every year, because of this crazy lunatic policy that we can end.
And they’re all made instantly eligible for every privilege and benefit of American citizenship. All of you, you get nothing more than they do. They’re full citizens. And it’s costing us many, many billions of dollars a year.
The part of this quote that generated attention was his description of “this crazy lunatic policy,” because he was actually talking about a constitutional right. But there’s something just as pernicious embedded in this riff: the idea that all these children of undocumented immigrants are “costing us many, many billions of dollars a year.”
What’s particularly awful about this claim is that he’s talking about U.S. citizens. And he’s asking his supporters to see those U.S. citizens as being in direct competition with them for the country’s spoils and resources.
Trump, of course, regularly makes variations on this claim about undocumented immigrants. He inflates them into a uniformly menacing and destructive presence with lies about how they bring outsize crime and pose an economic threat to Americans. But in this case, he’s applying the claim to their U.S. citizen children — they cost us, and so they should not be granted the privileges of American citizenship that you are granted, because this deprives you of what is yours.
When Trump bellowed out that “we can end” this “policy,” the rally crowd roared with approval.
This whole framing casts the children of undocumented immigrants as undeserving of American citizenship purely on the basis of the background of their parents. That, of course, is the whole point of the push to end birthright citizenship — and precisely why it runs so flagrantly counter to the spirit and values at the core of this provision of our constitution.
As Garrett Epps puts it, at the heart of birthright citizenship is a fundamental conception of civic equality that ideally extends it to all Americans born here, regardless of race or the heritage of their parents. Ending it, Epps notes, “would create a shadow population of American-born people who have no state, no legal protection, and no real rights that the government is bound to respect.” Given who their parents are, for Trump, this is a feature, not a bug. Trump is casting this entire class of people as undeserving of citizenship, as only deserving of this shadow status.
Underlying this push to end birthright citizenship is a form of virulent xenophobic ethno-nationalism that seeks to roll back the country’s evolving racial and ethnic mix, something Trump confirmed with his private “s—hole countries” comment. But Trump can’t say this out loud. Thus he is now applying to these U.S. citizens the same argument he has long applied to undocumented immigrants: They, too, are a menace to your economic well-being. They will take what’s yours.
Daniel Dale, who tracks Trump’s lies assiduously, tells me he first heard this “billions” claim this week, as Trump “has begun talking about birthright citizenship in a sustained manner for the first time as president.” The complication here is: How do you even check such a claim? Do you tally up all the taxpayer-funded services these U.S. citizens avail themselves of? Do you factor in the contributions of their undocumented parents? What about these children’s contributions when they become adults?
Can you even fact-check this claim in the first place without inevitably validating Trump’s ugly underlying premise — that this whole class of U.S. citizens is somehow less entitled to the benefits of being American because of who their parents are?
As Dale put it to me, it’s a “constant challenge for fact checkers” to figure out how to handle “extremely vague claims for which he has not provided any evidence.” The uncheckability of Trumpisms such as these are arguably the whole point of them, since, at bottom, Trump is telling a story, one that he knows will thrill his supporters, one that is supposed to remain beyond the reach of rational scrutiny.
We don’t have the right language for the Trump era
In all kinds of ways, Trump is testing our ability to find the right language to describe our current moment. We struggle to capture the relentless lying about even the most trivial, easily verifiable matters; the nonstop racism and xenophobia and misogyny; the all-around deep rot of bad faith that’s eating away at just about everything Trump says and at so much of what his administration does.
Our language perpetually comes up short. On this final round of campaign demagoguery, with Trump hyping destitute migrants hundreds of miles away into a national emergency, and even sending in troops as props to sustain this monstrous fiction, we keep hearing that Trump is “fearmongering” or “stoking division” or “exploiting racial and cultural tensions.” This blog has used these terms regularly. But they feel, in some sense, deeply inadequate.
So I propose the term “hate narratives.” If you have a better one, I’m all ears.