Birther aftershocks still being felt in 2016

Matthew Kelly

Old conspiracies die hard. 

Eight years after Barack Obama’s United States citizenship was first brought into question during the 2008 presidential campaign, the Birther movement continues to make waves in American politics.     

Donald Trump, one of the most prominent figures to dispute Obama’s place of birth, continued to fan the flames of the controversy long after the 2011 release of the President’s long-form birth certificate. Given his history with the issue, it is somewhat surprising Trump is now taking the offensive on this issue in the 2016 election cycle.

In a statement made Friday, the Republican candidate publicly admitted his acceptance of Obama’s Hawaiian birth for the first time, and proceeded to blame Hillary Clinton for the origins of the movement. 

“Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy,” Trump said. “I finished it.”

Clinton has vehemently denied any association with the conspiracy, but rather than point fingers at either candidate or rehash a controversy that deserves to be anywhere but center stage in this election, several deeper, underlying question should be examined.

What about political candidates’ origins captivate the American public and what does the Constitution say about politicians’ eligibility to serve in the nation’s highest office?

Most voters want an all-American president who will champion the values of the country unequivocally. Therefore, any allegations that call candidates’ legitimacy into question are likely to draw national attention.

In a political world where opposing campaigns are constantly combing through evidence and making accusations intended to rally voters against candidates, it should come as no surprise that such issues as citizenship manage to dominate the news cycles.

Another situation that exemplifies this principle occurred during the 2016 Republican primary season. Presidential candidate Ted Cruz’s Canadian birth to an American mother and Cuban father was scrutinized by his opposition — namely Donald Trump — and other examples of such controversy in recent history are anything but scarce.

According to the Constitution, there are three requirements that must be satisfied for a candidate to be eligible for the presidency. They must be at least 35 years of age, must have resided in the United States for at least fourteen years, and must be a natural-born U.S. citizen. The Constitution’s interpretation of “natural-born” citizenship also allows for individuals born abroad to at least one American parent to attain the office.

This third condition has been cited decidedly more often than the other two in presidential campaigns, and why should it not be? The Constitution’s ambiguous word choice and selective interpretation throughout American history make it an easy stumbling block for presidential hopefuls.

Of course the Birther movement in the U.S. has deeper undertones — undertones of racial and religious mistrust. These issues go much deeper than merely questioning citizenship, but delegitimizing politicians on such grounds can offer a politically correct venue for individuals to reject candidates whom they hold a prejudice against.

The framers of the Constitution wanted to guard against the outside influence of foreign governments on a nation during its formative years, but in this day and age, the public’s obsession with candidates’ origins go decidedly overboard.

Of course it is reasonable to generally screen against candidates who do not meet the constitutional requirements, but making birth location the key argument against a politician who legally fits the criteria of the presidency is demeaning, and drives the focal point away from policy issues of much greater importance.

The Constitution does not bar candidates born outside of the U.S. to an American parent from seeking the presidency. If voters do not want to vote for an individual who was not born in the States, that is their prerogative, but it should not delegitimize a candidate.

The only activity less productive than arguing about where a politician was born is doing so long after the dust has settled on the issue.