A Foreign-Born President?

No sooner had Arnold Schwarzenegger been elected Governor of California, than he immediately started agitating on behalf of a constitutional amendment allowing a foreign-born citizen to hold the highest office in the land.

Not that he’s ambitious, or anything….

Right on cue, Senator Orrin Hatch introduced legislation that would make Der Governator’s dream come true, an amendment to the Constitution that would read:

“A person who is a citizen of the United States, who has been for 20 years a citizen of the United States, and who is otherwise eligible to the Office of President, is not ineligible to that Office by reason of not being a native born citizen of the United States.”

Never mind the bad grammar: so why is this a bad idea? Most discussions of the issue describe article II, section 1, clause 5 of the Constitution as derived from outdated fears of foreign subversion, as a recent piece posted on Slate.com avers:

“Though their concerns may now seem archaic, the framers were genuinely afraid of foreign subversion. Among their nightmare scenarios was the prospect of a European noble using his money and influence to sway the Electoral College, take command of the American army, and return the nascent nation to the royalist fold. At the time, several European figures – such as France’s Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the Revolutionary War – were quite popular in the New World, so the idea wasn’t completely far-fetched.”

There is nothing “archaic” about the fear of foreigners working their will upon a pliant executive. If the danger was acute in the 1700s, when the American Republic was young, it is even worse today, in the Age of Empire.

The timing of this proposal could not be more propitious: just as we begin to shed the plain modest garments of a constitutional republic, and take on the purple robes of imperial power, we also cast away all national and cultural distinctions. An empire, especially one with “democratic” pretensions, is necessarily multinational and multicultural. There is no good reason why any of its citizens can’t become emperor.

The Hatch Amendment is nothing new: Rep. Barney Frank introduced a similar bill in 2000. He held some very interesting hearings, in which the egalitarian-universalism energizing his proposal ran smack up against the stony patrician republicanism of Forrest McDonald, the historian and constitutional scholar, who opined:

“All right. I could give what I consider the definitive argument against the proposed amendment in two words: Arnold Schwarzenegger, but I have been allotted 5 minutes, so I will take the 5. I will explain the reference, if it does not follow.”

That prophetic bulls-eye was scored four years ago, mind you, and certainly is one for the record books. Although perhaps he got it from “Demolition Man,” a 1993 movie starring Sylvester Stallone, in which a cryogenically frozen Stallone has been revived and is being given a tour of futuristic Los Angeles by Sandra Bullock, when, as Hendrik Hertzberg reminds us in the New Yorker:

“He does a double take when she mentions the ‘Schwarzenegger Presidential Library.’ Decades before, Bullock explains perkily, Arnold Schwarzenegger became so popular that the American people waived the technicalities and made him their maximum leader.”

In any case, McDonald went on to patiently explain to the assembled worthies that the Founders, in their wisdom, distrusted the power of the executive because they lived in mortal fear of a royalist restoration. A significant minority of Constitutional Convention delegates favored a plural presidency: the division of power, they hoped, would tame ambition and reduce the threat that any one person would attain the stature to reach for a crown. George Washington, having already rejected the royal scepter when it was offered to him early on, was trusted to resist the temptation, but the question of choosing his successor was of great import. The delegates debated the question long and hard, more, McDonald informs us, than on any other subject on account of one major factor:

“The greatest fear was of corrupt influences upon the election, particularly from abroad. Since the time of Louis XIV, every major European power had developed a secret service. The damage that such agencies could do was vivid in the American imagination, and it was not imaginary.

“The horrible example of Poland was commonly cited. Poland had an elected monarch, and only 15 years earlier, in 1772, the secret services of Austria, Prussia and Russia had rigged the election of their own candidate, whereupon Poland was partitioned and divided among those three powers.

“As Charles Pinckney, a delegate from South Carolina, put it, the danger was that ‘we shall soon have the scenes of Polish Diets and elections re-acted here, and in not many years, the fate of Poland may be that of United America.'”

John Jay, in a letter to Washington, urged that the Constitution must “declare expressly that the command in chief of the American Army shall not be given to nor devolved on any but a natural-born citizen.” So great was the fear that partisans of either England or revolutionary France would gain the upper hand, that Elbridge Gerry, a delegate from Massachusetts, spoke against allowing any new immigrants to become citizens, on the grounds that their loyalties would always be divided. Xenophobia? No – a prophylactic measure against a very real threat of domination from abroad, which has not abated, merely taken a different form.

McDonald reminds us that the “no person except a natural-born citizen” proviso was not even debated:

“That language was adopted without a single dissenting voice, nor did anyone speak in its support. Its meaning and rationale went without saying.”

Not anymore. Today it must be explained. That in itself is a sign of decadence almost beyond any hope of revival. McDonald, however, did his best:

“The original Constitution contemplated a relatively weak Presidency, but the office has become the most powerful in the world, and safeguards surrounding it are therefore more indispensable than ever. The one area of Presidential authority that is virtually unchecked and uncheckable is the President’s power as Commander in Chief. Can that power be safely entrusted to a foreign-born citizen?”

But the original Constitution is a dead letter, and the spirit that gave it birth has long since passed from this earth. Or so one could argue, without too much fear of contradiction. Presidential authority has now been extended over the entire planet: at any time, and for any reason, the American chief executive may exercise his imperial prerogative of military preemption. So the question now becomes: Can that power be safely entrusted exclusively to American citizens? As Bill Maher put it in a satiric piece on the subject in the Los Angeles Times recently:

“The job of president is just too important to be left to an American.”

Maher was being facetious, but that’s just how the rest of the world sees it, and our own liberal internationalists concur, with the supposedly “conservative” editors of National Review in full agreement, albeit for somewhat different reasons. Yet an Old Rightist like Professor McDonald cannot reconcile himself to this, and stubbornly argues:

"A person from country X becomes a citizen and lives his life as a loyal American. Nevertheless, in dealing with his original country, he is bound to be influenced by his nativity, whether in the form of hostility or favoritism. Even should he prove able to deal with the old country objectively, he would still be widely regarded as prejudiced, and the media would fan such suspicions."

Today, the ambitions of our rulers – or, as they would have it, their responsibilities – are nothing if not global. The Founders’ admonitions against “passionate attachments” and antipathies are as “archaic” as their powdered wigs and knee-breeches. Globalization, we are told, is what modernity is all about, and to statists of every hue this means the globalization of American military and political power. So why shouldn’t an Austrian, an Australian, or perhaps even an Andalusian aspire to put his feet up on the desk in the Oval Office? What are you, against “openness and inclusion“?

The imperial disease is, in part, an affliction of gigantism: as the American Empire spreads over the Middle East and asserts its hegemony on every continent, it’s only natural for lobbyists the world over to focus their efforts on the seat of power. Their machinations are a huge enough problem already: the passage of the Hatch Amendment would mark their final triumph. In the sense that it also marks our passage, in a formal way, from republic to empire, the Terminator, if he ever wins the White House, will have terminated American history.


In Friday’s column I noted the insidious effort by neocon screamer David Horowitz to abolish academic freedom by creating new regulations governing political speech on college campuses. This is part of a troubling trend among neocons to openly get behind authoritarian measures such as a national identification card, domestic spying, and other police state methods. But it’s worse than I thought. My friend Arthur Silber points out that Horowitz has also come out in favor of the draft. Which just goes to show that, for all his much-vaunted “second thoughts,” Horowitz still believes that our lives belong to the State. An authoritarian commie never really changes his stripes.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].