A review of “The United States in Crisis: Citizenship, Immigration, and the Nation State” by Edward J. Erler (The Claremont Institute, $12.99).

The Book on the Key Issue of 2020

Edward J. Erler has written the most important scholarly book, The United States in Crisis: Citizenship, Immigration, and the Nation State, for understanding the 2020 elections. He establishes President Trump’s claim that this is the most important election in American history: This President is the only leading politician of our time to understand and act on the premise that America is in crisis about its identity due to its failure to deal with immigration and all its consequences. 

Erler’s book, culminating a career of teaching, scholarship, and government service, is the comprehensive defense of America as a sovereign nation. It outlines what most Americans still feel in their guts—that America is a nation to be loved and defended, even to the death. Erler shows how this innate patriotism is somehow missing in our ruling class elite of intellectuals and partisans and how it clouds their academic and political judgment. This elite sneers at the deplorable patriots, chanting “USA, USA,” as retrograde and simple-minded if not shameful.

Throughout the book Erler shows us how the American soul demands both reason and spiritedness against the supercilious sophistication of the elites. Against anti-democratic opposition, “President Trump has tried to restore the Constitution and politics to their proper role in the regime, but his attempts have faced massive resistance from the minions of the administrative state who are fighting to maintain the status quo that existed before the election of 2016.” In practice this has meant that the Marxist Black Lives Matter movement has captured both political parties, major corporations, the universities, professional sports, and the media. Trump is the principal resistance against it and its ideological allies.

Succinctly put, as Trump declared at the United Nations, “A nation that cannot control its borders and distinguish between citizens and aliens is no longer a sovereign nation. A nation that is no longer sovereign will not be free for very long.” 

In a rebuke to supporters of the European Union, UN, and other anti-sovereign bodies, Trump observed, “If you want democracy, hold on to your sovereignty.” Accordingly, “Nations make choices,” and the nation formed on the basis of all men being created equal must be especially careful regarding its choices concerning borders and citizens. Thus, the 2020 election is when America will choose its survival.

Contrast our drift into carelessness with the care the Constitution takes in stating the qualifications for the presidency, the crucial institution for the nation’s preservation in a world of evil empires.  

No Persons except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.” Article II distinguishes between natural born citizens and other citizens and replaces common law standards of eligibility with natural rights standards.

George Washington was not a “natural born citizen” but rather a British subject. Erler explains that “The framers therefore specified that any thirty-five year old citizen at the time of the adoption of the Constitution who had been a resident of the United States for fourteen years was eligible. The fourteen year requirement points to the Declaration.” (Fourteen from the Constitution’s 1788 puts us at 1774, as the revolution was commencing.) 

Born a British subject, Washington was a “citizen of the United States” by virtue of being born a citizen of Virginia. Erler concludes that “natural born citizens were those born in the United States after the Declaration of Independence.” The founders rejected British common law, which never mentioned citizens, only subjects. The loyalty of the social contract replaced allegiance by accident of birth. “The Declaration of Independence was a revolution: it transformed subjects into citizens where citizenship was based on consent, not the accident of birth.” 

When we turn to the meaning of the 14th Amendment’s privileges  or immunities clause, we must keep in mind Article IV, Section 2’s original “privileges and immunities” of state citizenship that “shall” be extended to citizens of other states. But slavery made such recognitions impossible for the founders though essential for Reconstruction. “Schuyler Colfax, Speaker of the House during the thirty-ninth congress, said that the principles of the Declaration had been ‘placed immutably and forever’ in section 1 of the fourteenth amendment.”

Thus, “the Civil War must be understood as the last battle of the Revolutionary War.”

And with the restoration of the Declaration we return to the meaning of “natural born citizen.” The first sentence of the 14th Amendment  reads “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.” Erler convincingly argues that both the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the debates over the 14th Amendment make clear that non-citizens, legal or illegal, are not “subject to the jurisdiction” of the United States. The language consciously rejected the British common-law standard to the children of foreign parents. There is no “birthright” citizenship; there is only the citizenship of the Declaration’s social contract. Thus the disputed citizenship case of Wong Kim Ark (1898) was wrongly reasoned, because the child’s parents, by a Treaty with China, owed continued allegiance to its emperor. 

Following Erler’s reasoning, would Kamala Harris, the daughter of two immigrants at the time of her U.S. birth, remain an alien? That question is uninteresting legally but her spending the bulk of her teen years in Montreal, French Canada does raise more relevant identity issues. Does such a person (including also the young Obama) regard American patriotism differently?  

The 1960s were a Second Reconstruction, with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Immigration Act of 1965? Unfortunately, this Second Reconstruction did not have the Declaration of Independence as its central and motivating factor. These momentous laws assailed the Declaration’s principle of equality through racial references and violated the founders’ objections to mass immigration of aliens uninstructed in republican self-government. “The country was on its way to multiculturalism without any principles to serve as a guide, to say nothing of a ‘moral principle.’ Assimilation, not multiculturalism, is the strength of a nation,” writes Erler.

We should not be more optimistic than Erler is about the efficacy of his cogent arguments. I would, however, propose the broad use of Lincoln’s definition of slavery to protest the injustices perpetrated by our elites. He identified the tyranny as one demanding that “you work, and I eat.” That is, in its essence, the socialist tyranny that the administrative state, mass immigration, and racial preferences perpetrate today. Even Trump’s reelection would not magically reverse the ills our policies have inflicted on the American way of life. 

Following Churchill, patriotic America may have deserved to win, but on brief reflection maybe it didn’t. The United States in Crisis explains how we got to this situation.  

About Ken Masugi

Ken Masugi, Ph.D., is a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute. He has been a speechwriter for two cabinet members, as well as for Clarence Thomas when he was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Masugi is co-author, editor, or co-editor of seven books on American politics. He has taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he was Olin Distinguished Visiting Professor; James Madison College of Michigan State University; the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University; and Princeton University.

Photo: (Photo by Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images)

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2 responses to “The Book on the Key Issue of 2020”

  1. Congress has established, often without any thought to the long-term consequences, various forms of hard and soft “citizenship”. Of course, the courts have furthered and perverted legislation, too, always expanding the notion of citizenship. Hard citizenship is the type belonging to natural born citizens, of whom I exclude any child born to illegal aliens. Soft citizenship consists of bestowing quasi-rights and entitlements (such as ability to count in any official decennial census) upon illegal aliens, visa “workers” and foreign students or refugees/asylum seekers by the entire federal regime, including ICE and CBP, DHS and State, and the entire redistributive network of agencies. This is an entirely illegitimate government, which tirelessly works to subjugate and subvert the will of citizens – legitimate citizens, not the counterfeit cabal of “New Americans” foisted upon us through incessant amnesties and “adjustments in status”.

    The country is so balkanized and fractious, even radical and immediate reforms would not evidence change for several generations. The U.S. treats naturalization as a “right” or more accurately, an entitlement. It isn’t. Most immigrants I encounter either have no clue about the uniqueness of this country versus their home country except in its ability to bestow material security. That is not the kind of citizen who will lay down his life to preserve anyone’s liberty.

  2. Sadly, I think the author has accurately portrayed our current dilemma as Americans. I suppose there was a time when this condition could have been turned around and slowly reversed. I’m afraid that time is decades gone and now we are faced with few choices as to the needed course of action. The left has taken
    control of much of our government and culture as the commenter above has so ably pointed out. If this
    once great nation is to regain its footing, it will take the physical presence and overt action by Patriotic
    conservative citizens to push back against the left. Are conservatives up to the task? I don’t know. Many
    of us are old and to some degree afflicted by our age related infirmaties. But then, so were many of the
    Patriots during the Revolutionary War. I would argue we must fight anyway, for if we do not, our country
    will be lost not at some amorphous future time, but in a few short years…..