Political discussions in the United States usually degenerate—sooner or later—into arguments about who is and who is not an American. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has pointed out: “the concept of being “un-American” is unique to the political culture and national identity of the United States.” Our tiresome, repeated claims of American exceptionalism are an outward expression of a deep insecurity—the product of a sense displacement created by the Stranger’s anxiety when confronted by a Strange land.
The Republican presidential primary campaigns have been rife with the politics of identity recently. Our fears and our confusion have been much in play. The US Constitution specifies that “No person except a natural born Citizen … shall be eligible to the Office of President” (Art. 2, Sec. 1). Since his election in 2008, the legitimacy of the presidency of Barack Obama has been questioned in conservative circles by accusations that he was born in Kenya, not in Hawaii.
Donald Trump has suggested that Ted Cruz, who was born in Canada of an immigrant Cuban father and a mother born in the US, may not be eligible to be president. Cruz has countered that US case law is clear, and that children born abroad of parents who are US citizens are considered “natural born Citizens.” Any argument made in favor of Cruz’s position strengthens the conviction that the birther arguments made against Barack Obama were simply a fraud. Even if—as birthers still claim and Republicans assent with their silence—Obama was born in Kenya, his presidency is still legitimate because his mother was a natural born American citizen.
Cruz extends his argument: at least he does not share “New York values,” as Donald Trump—a native New Yorker—clearly does. He “others” Trump by suggesting that regardless of where he was born, Cruz grew up in solidly conservative Texas, which treasures “American” values much more than liberal New York, which has been a gateway for immigrants since time immemorial.
Trump then counters Cruz by playing Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” in his campaign rallies. Springsteen’s song is about a man who received his “first kick” when he was born and ended up “like a dog that’s been beat too much.” He was drafted and sent overseas “to go and kill the yellow man.” He lost a “brother” at the siege of Khe Sanh, and still carries a photo of his buddy in the arms of a Saigon woman. When he returned from Vietnam he was denied his old job and did not find adequate care at the VA hospital. A decade after his return, he still walks a lonely road “in the shadow of the penitentiary,” and has “nowhere to run” and “nowhere to go.”
Clearly, not exactly the life story of Donald Trump, or that of any of the presumptive presidential nominees. Besides, Springsteen campaigned for Barack Obama (whose legitimacy as president Trump doubts) in both 2008 and 2012, and performed in his inaugural celebrations.
“Born in the USA” is about a generation of young men uprooted from the land by their war experience, but still proclaiming fealty to their country in spite of having been betrayed by its institutions. History has shown that Springsteen’s song belongs to all those who have returned from recent wars—Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan.
In a final irony, the very candidate who now claims authenticity because he was born in the US, was only recently claiming that being born in the USA was no guarantee of citizenship under the Constitution. Donald Trump’s mother was born in Scotland; he is what he previously much maligned—an anchor baby.
What an American is—what America is—has never been clearly defined (please note that Native Americans were not legal citizens of the US until 1924). In violation of all geographical fact, the word that is meant to signify a continent, is customarily used by US citizens to refer to their country.
Only a paraphrase inspired by Ambrose Bierce gets us close to understanding the modern usage of the word: “Nobody is an American except you and I, and I’m beginning to wonder about you.”