Donald Trump had been talking in vague terms about someday running for president for decades, but for all intents and purposes his political career began in March 17, 2011, with an appearance on ABC's Good Morning America.
From aboard his own personal plane, Trump Force One, the business mogul again floated the idea of running for president and, for the first time in public, voiced his support for a conspiracy theory alleging that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States—adding that those who believed the discredited idea should not be regarded as "idiots."
"Growing up no one knew him," Trump said of Obama. "The whole thing is very strange."
But no stranger than what's happened since then. Validating the goofy beliefs of one of the darkest corners of American conservatism was the first step for Trump on his road to the presidency. The residents of those dark corners took notice. Within months, Trump became the most vocal supporter of "birtherism," making multiple media appearances to openly question Obama's citizenship status. The facts weren't important—in fact, every attempt by the media to discredit Trump seemed to backfire, earning him a greater platform and more attention in conservative circles.
It's worth remembering that Trump dropped the charade after securing the Republican nomination. "President Barack Obama was born in the United States. Period," Trump said in September 2016.
I don't know whether Trump ever seriously believed that Obama was not born in the United States. But from the perspective of 2018, it is difficult to view Trump's embrace of birtherism as anything other than a cynical move that provided him an entree into Republican Party politics and taught the would-be president a valuable lesson about how to impress GOP voters.
In the run-up to this year's midterms, Trump is putting those lessons into action. Tuesday's announcement that he would sign an executive order doing away with so-called "birthright citizenship" (the 14th Amendment's guarantee of American citizenship to any child born in the United States, with very limited exceptions) is the latest example.
Guess what? You do. Birthright citizenship is enshrined in the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. As both Reason's Elizabeth Nolan Brown and Damon Root have already covered, Trump doesn't have much of a legal foothold here—and the very judges that Trump has appointed to federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court are likely to disagree with Trump's notion that he can rewrite portions of the constitution with the stroke of a presidential pen (something that conservatives should be glad about).
But trying to game out whether courts would look favorably on Trump's executive order is giving the maneuver too much credit. This isn't a clever attempt at rewriting America's immigration laws. It's another charade meant to appeal to the most extreme anti-immigrant corner of the Republican electoral base—a faction that's much more mainstream than it was in 2011, in no small part because of the symbiotic relationship it has with Trump.
In some ways, Trump's attack on birthright citizenship actually goes farther than his embrace of birtherism. At least his skepticism toward the location of Obama's birth was a claim that, at its core, acknowledged the legitimacy of birthright citizenship. If Obama was born here, he was an American. Not even Trump disputes this any longer. But others born here, he now says, maybe aren't Americans, or shouldn't be allowed to be.
To be sure, Republicans have been talking about ending birthright citizenship since before Trump's presidency. Heck, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has been talking about this since at least 2010. The minor difference is that Trump now provides the appearance of "doing" something about it—and Graham now says he plans to introduce a bill that would codify the Trump executive order.
The whole charade is ridiculous. It's exactly the same as Trump's oft-repeated claim that Congress would cut taxes by 10 percent before the midterms. As Reason's Peter Suderman explained last week, that is literally impossible because Congress won't be back in session until after the election (nevermind the fact that literally no one except Trump seems to be aware of any such plan).
Trump's no politician, but he's spent enough time around politics to know the importance of motivating voters—or at least of earning their applause at a rally, which is in some ways the same thing. His executive order about birthright citizenship will certainly provide fresh applause lines at a series of campaign rallies planned for key congressional and senatorial races over the next week. Those rallies might turn out more Republican voters and might help keep Republicans in control of Congress. The fact that this approach is likely to appeal to some Republican voters provides a convenient condemnation of contemporary conservativism.
Trump's executive order will likely be laughed out of court at some future date. Congress won't take up Graham's bill anytime soon. That doesn't matter right now. Like birtherism and phantom tax cuts, this is a political manuever—and it only needs to hold water for seven days.