WASHINGTON – What is Donald Trump’s secret? He is a “joyful warrior” who understands the “entertainment value” of politics. He is “outrageous” and “spontaneous” and “fun to watch.” Bryan Cranston, the star of “Breaking Bad,” finds Trump’s “I don’t give a s–-” attitude a “surprise benefit to the country” and “refreshing.”
“I am Batman,” Trump told some children at the Iowa State Fair, before providing helicopter rides.
But this is reality television with a kick. Trump’s first stab at policy is an immigration plan involving mass deportation and an end to birthright citizenship.
Here is Trump explaining his proposal to Bill O’Reilly on Fox News: “We’re losing so much to so many,” including the jobs they’re “taking” and “a literal crime wave.” “We have to do something about it,” Trump explained, because “we’re losing our country.” The plain meaning of the 14th Amendment – which states that anyone born in the United States is a citizen – won’t be an obstacle to deportations because “many lawyers are saying that’s not the way it is.”
And then there was this exchange: “Do you envision federal police kicking in the doors in barrios around the country and dragging families out and putting them on a bus?” asked O’Reilly. “We have to start a process where we take back our country,” responded Trump. “Our country is going to hell. We have to start a process … where we take back our country.”
It is all fun and games until the mass roundups begin. This summer’s main form of public entertainment is proposing a contraction in the protections of the 14th Amendment and a continent-wide dragnet to capture and deport more than 11 million men, women and children, overwhelmingly of Latino background, because, in Trump’s view, they are taking the country and causing it to go to hell.
How refreshing. How un-P.C. And what about those Heidi Klum comments? Just outrageous.
This is jarring, or should be. It is like “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” but with divisive, politically motivated ethnic stereotyping. The Mexicans, according to Trump, are “cunning.” Latinos without papers are out to rape our women. They are predators and burdens. They are ruining the country. They. They.
It is not easy, but now necessary, to start examining Trump’s joyful, spontaneous combination of ignorance and malice. Lawyers, of course, can be made to say anything. But they can’t prove the 14th Amendment means something other than what it says. In the debates surrounding the amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Republican sponsors of these transformational measures affirmed that citizenship covered “children begotten of Chinese parents” as well as the children of “Gypsies” – the hated immigrants of their time.
Radical Republicans embraced the principle of jus soli – the grant of citizenship to those born on our soil – for a reason. They wanted to constrain future political majorities from stealing the rights of children of any background. It is one of the most radical and wonderful things about America. If a desperate, impoverished, undocumented Guatemalan woman has a baby in Dallas today, he or she, when it comes to citizenship and the right to run for president, is Donald Trump’s exact equal. And he can get two-thirds of the House and Senate, and three quarters of state legislatures, to change it – or he can lump it.
When it comes to Trump, some conservatives have adopted the strategy of “There are some good points here, but … “ and “He is tapping into some real anxiety, but … .” It is an approach that effectively legitimizes Trump’s disturbing enterprise. He is not making a series of arguments about the role of immigration in depressing wages or increasing unemployment. He is choosing an enemy in order to organize and direct public anger. There is a difference between striking a populist chord and feeding cultural resentment with racial overtones.
Conservatives who support restrictionist immigration policies, above all, should distance themselves from Trump’s ethnic polarization. He has become the discrediting stereotype of their views, using rhetoric and arguments more suitable to European right-wing populists. Ethno-nationalist. Conspiracy-minded. All our humiliating national failures result from treacherous foreigners or a stab in the back by our own weak and corrupt leaders. All our problems can be solved by a strong leader who embodies the national will.
No conservative should be playing with this ideological nitroglycerin – unless they truly want to blow up our political order. And then they have ceased to be conservatives at all.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.