Yes, it’s Birtherism 2.0.
As of now, it isn’t clothed in a conspiracy theory as it was with President Barack Obama; some conservatives insisted that Obama was born in Kenya and had benefited from some kind of elaborate plot to falsify records to make it seem otherwise. Trump claimed in 2011 that he had sent investigators to Hawaii (which was almost certainly a lie) and said “they cannot believe what they’re finding.”
But in Harris’s case, it’s taking two forms: First, some are claiming that because her parents were immigrants, Harris doesn’t qualify as a “natural born citizen,” as the Constitution requires, and is therefore ineligible to be president, which means she can’t be vice president. Second, a weird amount of attention is paid on the right to the details of her heritage, in an effort to prove that she isn’t really Black.
Newsweek ran a ludicrous op-ed by a conservative law professor claiming that Harris is not a natural-born citizen (she was born in Oakland, Calif., for the record); viral Facebook posts are claiming the same thing. Trump campaign lawyer Jenna Ellis says Harris’s eligibility for the office is “an open question.”
Meanwhile, right-wing provocateur and convicted felon (though pardoned by Trump) Dinesh D’Souza went on a bizarre, extended Twitter rant about how Harris possibly descended from a slaveholder in Jamaica makes her not quite Black (tell that to the millions of Black Americans who have something similar in their family histories). Conservative radio host Mark Levin said “Kamala Harris is not an African American . . . her ancestry does not go back to American slavery.”
Don’t look for any coherence in all this; what matters is that while liberals are celebrating the fact that the first Black woman (and first Indian-American) is on a national ticket, some on the right whipped out their magnifying glasses to determine whether Harris is not what she appears.
Hearing right-wingers question Harris’s blackness is particularly bizarre. While that kind of intricate racial enumeration has a long history in the United States, in the past it was usually about defining the boundaries of whiteness and determining who could be admitted to the dominant group. Much of that energy went toward ensuring that Black people would never be able to slip through that border; the “one-drop rule” said that if you had any Black ancestry at all, that made you Black. Yet now, a few conservatives are weirdly determined to turn that upside down, to say that Harris has insufficient Black blood to be truly Black.
The attempt to define her as not really American is at least more comprehensible. But it seems unlikely that this iteration of birtherism will capture the GOP the same way it did when Obama was president; polls regularly showed that as many as half of Republicans thought Obama was not an American. That said, Harris will certainly be targeted with plenty of good old-fashioned race-baiting, painting her as a racial avenger out to get white people (Tucker Carlson claimed on Wednesday that Harris believes “only people of a certain color” should be given a coronavirus vaccine).
Even if conservatives drop the birtherism angle, the fact that some of them went there so quickly tells us something important. In many ways, Harris represents just the kind of America that seems to fill Trump and many of his supporters with anger and fear. She’s a multiracial child of immigrants who rose to the heights of her chosen field. She went to Howard University and cooks Indian food with Mindy Kaling. She’s a walking demonstration of why America’s history as a magnet for immigrants makes us the most dynamic country in the world.
And if Harris becomes vice president — and after that, perhaps president — it will symbolize the fact that, for all his efforts to slam shut America’s doors, for all the miles of border wall he built, for all the people seeking asylum he turned away, for all the children he wrenched from parents’ arms and threw into cages, Trump could not make America “great” again in the way he promised.
This is a profound failure that Trump’s supporters will come to understand as time goes on, whether he wins or loses in November. America is still, despite his efforts, a land of immigrants. Older white people will continue to be shocked and angered when they hear people speaking Spanish or Mandarin or Somali in the supermarket. Our culture — our food, our music, our entertainment, our language — will continue to evolve and change. All that is what Trump said he would unwind. But he never could.
And while Joe Biden is the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee precisely because the party’s voters decided he’d be least threatening to whites (and men, and older people) in the general election, Kamala Harris is a reminder to the MAGA set that, in the end, their project is doomed. I suspect that at some level, even they know it.