The following is adapted from a speech delivered on September 18, 2017, in Washington, D.C., at Hillsdale College’s Eighth Annual Constitution Day Celebration.
Last year, for the first time in our nation’s history, the American people elected as president someone with no high government experience—not a senator, not a congressman, not a governor, not a cabinet secretary, not a general. They did this, I believe, because they’ve lost faith in both the competence and the intentions of our governing class—of both parties! Government now takes nearly half of every dollar we earn and bosses us around in every aspect of life, yet can’t deliver basic services well. Our working class—the “forgotten man,” to use the phrase favored by Ronald Reagan and FDR—has seen its wages stagnate, while the four richest counties in America are inside the Washington Beltway. The kids of the working class are those who chiefly fight our seemingly endless wars and police our streets, only to come in for criticism too often from the very elite who sleep under the blanket of security they provide.
Donald Trump understood these things, though I should add he didn’t cause them. His victory was more effect than cause of our present discontents. The multiplying failures and arrogance of our governing class are what created the conditions for his victory.
Immigration is probably the best example of this. President Trump deviated from Republican orthodoxy on several issues, but immigration was thedefining issue in which he broke from the bipartisan conventional wisdom. For years, all Democrats and many Republicans have agreed on the outline of what’s commonly called “comprehensive immigration reform,” which is Washington code for amnesty, mass immigration, and open borders in perpetuity.
This approach was embodied most recently in the so-called Gang of Eight bill in 2013. It passed the Senate, but thankfully we killed it in the House, which I consider among my chief accomplishments in Congress so far. Two members of the Gang of Eight ran for my party’s nomination for president last year. Neither won a single statewide primary. Donald Trump denounced the bill, and he won the nomination.
Likewise, Hillary Clinton campaigned not just for mass immigration, but also on a policy of no deportations of anyone, ever, who is illegally present in our country. She also accused her opponent of racism and xenophobia. Yet Donald Trump beat her by winning states that no Republican had won since the 1980s.
Clearly, immigration was an issue of signal importance in the election. That’s because immigration is more than just another issue. It touches upon fundamental questions of citizenship, community, and identity. For too long, a bipartisan, cosmopolitan elite has dismissed the people’s legitimate concerns about these things and put its own interests above the national interest.
No one captured this sensibility better than President Obama, when he famously called himself “a citizen of the world.” With that phrase, he revealed a deep misunderstanding of citizenship. After all, “citizen” and “city” share the same Greek root word: citizenship by definition means that you belong to a particular political community. Yet many of our elites share Mr. Obama’s sensibility. They believe that American citizenship—real, actual citizenship—is meaningless, ought not be foreclosed to anyone, and ought not be the basis for distinctions between citizens and foreigners. You might say they think American exceptionalism lies in not making exceptions when it comes to citizenship.
This globalist mindset is not only foreign to most Americans. It’s also foreign to the American political tradition.
Take the Declaration of Independence. Our cosmopolitan elites love to cite its stirring passages about the rights of mankind when they talk about immigration or refugees. They’re not wrong to do so. Unlike any other country, America is an idea—but it is not only an idea. America is a real, particular place with real borders and real, flesh-and-blood people. And the Declaration tells us it was so from the very beginning.
Prior to those stirring passages about “unalienable Rights” and “Nature’s God,” in the Declaration’s very first sentence in fact, the Founders say it has become “necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands” that tie them to another—one people, not all people, not citizens of the world, but actual people who make up actual colonies. The Founders frequently use the words we and us throughout the Declaration to describe that people.
Furthermore, on several occasions, the Declaration speaks of “these Colonies” or “these States.” The Founders were concerned about their own circumstances; they owed a duty to their own people who had sent them as representatives to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. They weren’t trying to free South America from Spanish or Portuguese dominion, much as they might have opposed that dominion.
Perhaps most notably, the Founders explain towards the end of the Declaration that they had appealed not only to King George for redress, but also to their fellow British citizens, yet those fellow citizens had been “deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity.” Consanguinity!—blood ties! That’s pretty much the opposite of being a citizen of the world.
So while the Declaration is of course a universal document, it’s also a particular document about one nation and one people. Its signers pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to each other, in English, right here in America—not in Esperanto to mankind in the abstract.
The Constitution affirms this concept of American citizenship. It includes only one reference to immigration, where it empowers Congress to establish a “uniform Rule of Naturalization.” It’s worth pondering a couple points here.
First, what’s that word uniform doing? The Constitution uses the word only three times, when requiring uniform rules for naturalization, bankruptcies, and taxation. These are things that could either knit our Union together or blow it apart—taxation by the central government, the system of credit upon which the free enterprise system depends, and the meaning of citizenship. On these, the Framers insisted upon a uniform, nationwide standard. Diverse habits and laws are suitable for many things in our continental republic, but not for all things. In particular, we can only have “one people” united by a common understanding of citizenship.
Second, the word naturalization implies a process by which foreigners can renounce their former allegiances and become citizens of the United States. They can cast off what accident and force have thrust upon them—race, class, ethnicity—and take on, by reflection and choice, a new title: American. That is a wonderful and beautiful thing, and one of which we are all justly proud. Few Americans love our land so much as the immigrants who’ve escaped the yoke of tyranny.
But our cosmopolitan elites take this to an extreme. They think because anyone can become an American, we’re morally obligated to treat everyone like an American. If you disagree, you’re considered hard-hearted, bigoted, intolerant, xenophobic. So the only policies that aren’t inherently un-American are those that effectively erase our borders and erase the distinction between citizen and foreigner: don’t erect barriers on the border; give sanctuary cities a pass; spare illegal immigrants from deportation; allow American businesses to import as much cheap labor as they want. Anything less, the elites say, is a betrayal of our ideals.
But that’s wrong. Just because you can become an American doesn’t mean you are an American. And it certainly doesn’t mean we must treat you as an American, especially if you don’t play by our rules. After all, in our unique brand of nationalism, which connects our people through our ideas, repudiating our law is kind of like renouncing your blood ties in the monarchical lands of old. And what law is more fundamental to a political community than who gets to become a citizen, under what conditions, and when?
Courtesy Tom Cotton “U.S. Senator from Arkansas” @Imprimis.Hillsdale.edu