At the final presidential debate on Wednesday night, the moment that stood out the most was when Republican nominee Donald Trump refused to say he would accept the results of the election, no matter the outcome, and ensure a peaceful transition of power. It was an attack on one of the bedrock foundations of American democracy.
But embedded in his continuing claim that the system is rigged against him, he rolled out a new line of assault: that rival Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is itself illegitimate.
“I’ll tell you one other thing: she shouldn’t be allowed to run,” he said. “She’s guilty of a very, very serious crime. She should not be allowed to run. And just in that respect, I say it’s rigged, because she should never have been allowed to run for the presidency based on what she did with e-mails and so many other things.”
This new line of attack — that the election might not just be tilted by bad press coverage or the extremely rare phenomenon of voter fraud, but that Trump also never faced a legitimate rival — mirrors his years-long fight to undermine Barack Obama’s presidency.
Starting in 2011, Trump became the public face of the idea that Obama was born in Kenya and therefore should be blocked from serving as president due to the natural born citizen clause in the Constitution. He started a public campaign to get President Obama to make his birth certificate public, even vowing to send private investigators to Obama’s birthplace of Hawaii to look into it.
He kept up the pressure for so long that Obama eventually released his long-form birth certificate to try to move past the controversy. But Trump still wasn’t satisfied. He continued to contend that Obama might have been born outside the U.S. and that the birth certificate was a fake or a fraud. He repeated that line of attack into 2016 during his own bid for the presidency.
Now he’s moving on to preempt a potential Clinton presidency before it even begins with a similar argument: that her presidency wouldn’t be legitimate either.
Hillary Clinton hasn’t been found guilty of any crime. FBI Director James Comey dropped his agency’s investigation into Clinton over her use of a private email server while Secretary of State by recommending against criminal charges, saying, “no reasonable prosecutor” could say they are warranted given that the FBI couldn’t “find a case that would support bringing criminal charges.”
None of that matters to Trump, however, just as Obama’s production of his long-form birth certificate didn’t sway him.
As Rebecca Traister has written, questioning the legitimacy or women or persons of color is a rhetorical thread woven into the very fabric of our country’s history. In 1662, Virginia changed birthright laws so the children of white men and enslaved women couldn’t become free based on their fathers, ensuring they would be excluded from citizenship.
The Founding Fathers kept up that exclusion and defined citizens as free white men — leaving out women, who once they married were legally subsumed to their husbands; slaves, who were literal property; and Native Americans, who were dehumanized and labelled savages.
Slaves and their descendants would continue to be denied citizenship thanks to the infamous Dred Scott decision in 1857, which held that all people of African ancestry, enslaved and free alike, could never become citizens, even if they were born here. (It was repudiated by the addition of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees birthright citizenship.)
The idea that a natural order would be upset if women or African Americans rose to positions of power continued on after that.
During the fight for women’s suffrage, those opposed to it warned that granting women the right to vote would be against their natural character. One of the leading groups against it, the National Association OPPOSED to Woman Suffrage, published a pamphlet warning that women’s suffrage would mean “competition of women with men instead of co-operation” and that “more voting women than voting men will place Government under petticoat rule.” As another critic put it, “Woman is woman. She can not unsex herself or change her sphere,” and hoped that the country would decide to “keep woman where she belongs.” Yet another put it more plainly: “Because women are not capable of full citizenship.”
Even once they had the right to vote, women weren’t allowed to serve on juries in many states because having a woman decide a male plaintiff’s fate was seen as upsetting the natural order.
Meanwhile, African Americans continue to be the target of measures designed to reduce their civic involvement, especially concerning the right to vote. Voting laws, even in recent years, have been enacted in many states with the explicit purpose of keeping black people away from the ballot box.
The notion that women and people of color aren’t “real” citizens, and therefore should be kept out of power, is the fertile ground from which Trump draws his arguments against Obama and Clinton. As Traister puts it, Trump’s questioning of Clinton’s legitimacy “channels a conviction that has deep roots in our culture: A woman could never really win, not over a man. Her purported victory must, on some level, be inauthentic — whether because she cheated or because she shouldn’t have been allowed to compete in the first place.”
If Trump loses the election, he will have already laid the groundwork to undermine the first woman to assume the presidency in the history of our country.