Every U.S. Presidential election is a debate about the character of the American people. We elect the candidate who tells us, to our greatest satisfaction, what the American people stand for. We vote for a vision of ourselves. This election cycle, though, the debate has been less about who the American people are than about who the American people are not.
Among the not-Americans are immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. Presidential candidates have proposed building walls along the nation’s borders, applying religious tests at immigration centers, and deporting as many as eleven million undocumented immigrants. The not-American people even include citizens who might seek to hold elective office. Ben Carson has said that he “would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.” He was speaking in defiance of Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution, which establishes only these requirements for that office:
No Person 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.
The attention that Donald Trump has lately been paying to Ted Cruz’s eligibility for the Presidency defies the Constitution, too, at least in spirit. That spirit was captured by James Madison in Federalist No. 52, where, regarding the qualifications for members of Congress (you’ve got to be twenty-five, have been a U.S. citizen for seven years, and live in the state you propose to represent), he wrote, “Under these reasonable limitations, the door of this part of the federal government is open to merit of every description, whether native or adoptive, whether young or old, and without regard to poverty or wealth, or to any particular profession of religious faith.” The requirements for the Presidency are suffused with this same spirit; the residency period is longer, and “natural born” was added at the last minute. But the door is meant to be open. Still, while questioning Cruz’s eligibility is constitutionally ill-considered, it isn’t a wayward Trump stunt, like his demand for Barack Obama’s birth certificate. It is, instead, wholly consistent with the message of the leading G.O.P. candidates in 2016: America is closed. ...