As predicted, the Trump campaign has wheeled out the birther charge against Kamala Harris. The playbook for such things is very familiar. Someone publishes an article pushing a lie or a dubious theory and then Trump points to the article as ‘raising concerns’ while not explicitly endorsing the idea. This enables his spokespersons to deny that he is promoting birtherism while promoting birtherism. The strategy is utterly transparent.
The birtherism case against Barack Obama was based on the preposterous idea that he was not born in the US. In Harris’s case, her birth in California is not being challenged. This latest incarnation of birtherism as published in a Newsweek op-ed by John Eastman, a professor of law at Chapman University, suggests that Harris may not meet the constitutional requirement for eligibility since her parents may have been in the US on student visas at the time she was born. This argument has been dismissed out of hand by other law experts and staff at Newsweek were so outraged that this was published that they publicly protested and after three days the magazine kinda, sorta apologized but did not withdraw the article.
But surely an article published by a law professor in a reputable magazine should be taken seriously?
The answer is no. For one thing, the current Newsweek is not the same mainstream, centrist publication that it once was. I recall growing up in Sri Lanka when Time and Newsweek were the premier US news magazines. But back in 2018, Will Oremus chronicled its decline that started when the company was bought in 2006 by IBT Media, a privately held firm founded by evangelical Christian friends Etienne Uzac and Johnathan Davis. Over time, it adopted as a business model paying journalist low base salaries that were supplemented depending on the number of clicks their articles got. That scheme naturally led to the production of low-quality, agenda-driven, sensationalistic output of the type produced by Eastman.
Though Newsweek has had more than its share of instability over the past decade, the rapidity and sensationalism of the magazine’s latest implosion is, in ways, exceptional.
But much of the story, as insiders tell it, will ring disconcertingly familiar to anyone involved in the modern news industry. It’s a tale of a precarious business model, a roller coaster of explosive growth and cruel contraction, mercurial corporate ownership, and journalists forced to produce work so shoddy and craven that they were embarrassed to attach their name to it, all in the name of “saving the company”—and their jobs.
In a public resignation letter on Feb. 5, veteran political journalist Matthew Cooper said he had “never seen more reckless leadership.” He spoke of a “demoralizing” newsroom culture that relentlessly prioritized clicks over journalistic ethics and led to a litany of embarrassing editorial missteps.
It is even worse because there are hidden links between Eastman and the magazine. We can call this the Claremont connection. It turns out that Eastman has been pushing this line for years as part of a program promoted by an outfit called the Claremont Institute whose goal is to deport as many immigrants as possible, including those born here, as Mark Joseph Stern writes.
[Eastman] is a fabulist whose toxic views have grown like a cancer on the right, forming the pseudo-intellectual foundation for birtherism 2.0.
A coterie of racists based at the Claremont Institute hope that if they repeat it enough, they can leave the door open for a mass expatriation of second-generation Americans, most of them minorities. Indeed, there are few if any supporters of this falsehood who lack connections to the Claremont Institute. Eastman is a senior fellow at Claremont and the founding director of its Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence. Josh Hammer, the Newsweek editor who commissioned the piece, is a former fellow at the institute. Michael Anton, who manipulated the text of a quote from the Senate debate over the 14thAmendment in a Washington Post op-ed to make this lie seem more credible, is a senior fellow there. (Anton may be best known as the author of “The Flight 93 Election,” published in the Claremont Review of Books, which condemned “ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners.”) Claremont “scholar” Edward J. Erler wrote a book arguing that the American-born children of Mexican immigrants have no right to U.S. citizenship, giving the idea greater exposure.
The Claremont Institute masquerades as an intellectual salon of the right, but it is really just a racist fever swamp with deep connections to the conspiratorial alt-right.
Claremont contributors also defend Trump’s most overtly racist comments, praising the president as “our most important truth teller.” And yet, despite the institute’s commitment to white supremacy, its “scholars” and “fellows” remain welcome in the conservative legal movement.
As University of Southern California Gould School of Law professor Franita Tolson has pointed out, white supremacists have rejected the citizenship of Black officeholders since the first Black Americans were elected to Congress during Reconstruction.
This kind of symbiotic relationship between agenda-driven propaganda outfits with academic-sounding names that call themselves intellectual ‘think tanks’, and friendly media outlets to circulate those views, is becoming increasingly common.