If you take social media at its word, Senator Kamala Harris, the presumptive vice presidential nominee for the Democratic party, is actor Jussie Smollett’s aunt, thinks white lab coats and Joe Biden are racist, would sign an executive order to confiscate your guns, and is Caucasian. None of that is true. Ever since Biden tapped Harris to be his 2020 running mate a little over a week ago, the senator has been dogged by persistent fictions held up to delegitimize her candidacy. On Sunday, Harris had to address President Trump’s quasi-endorsement of the most popular and insidious of these conspiracy theories so far: that she isn’t really a US citizen because her parents are immigrants, and is therefore ineligible to be vice president. It’s baffling and bizarre that Harris, who was born in Oakland, California, would have to defend her citizenship this way. Except that it isn’t at all.
The details almost don’t matter, but here they are regardless: In an arcane legal argument widely criticized by his peers, lawyer John Eastman claimed that Harris might not count as a natural born citizen because her parents weren’t naturalized citizens when she was born. The notion quickly gained traction on social media, and adherents became convinced that the Democrats knew of this alleged ineligibility and were trying to leverage it for some kind of misbegotten gain. (Often, the theory goes that Democrats chose Harris so the presidency would have to fall to the Speaker of the House—and rightwing boogeywoman—Nancy Pelosi if Biden were unable to hold office.) Then Trump joined in.
President Trump casting aspersions on the citizenship of candidates in presidential elections is certainly nothing new. He was the face of the racist anti-Obama birther movement, and claimed that his 2016 opponent Senator Ted Cruz, who was born in Canada, wasn’t a citizen either. In all cases, his claims have been easily disproved, but the truth is not the point. “Obama showed us his long form birth certificate, and people still think he’s not a citizen,” says Therí Pickens, who studies African American cultural theory at Bates College. “[Harris] could show us a home video of her being born and it wouldn’t matter now. Rhetoric doesn’t have to be accurate to be effective.” Particularly not when the rhetorical strategies being used—conspiracy theorizing and appeals to racism—have been handed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years while remaining largely unchanged.
You know how Tolstoy said that in all of great literature there are only two stories: a person goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town? Well, there’s only one conspiracy theory: a shadowy group of people is secretly working toward the undermining or overthrow of something precious. “It’s like a fill-in-the-blank,” says Adam Enders, a political scientist who studies conspiracy theories at the University of Louisville. “We can always mold it to fit any particular set of evidence or scenario or context.” So it’s very simple to spin up a new conspiracy theory any time you want, and if you’re susceptible to the logic of one conspiracy theory, you’re susceptible to any of them. That’s why Harris’ critics have found it so easy to drum up support for their baseless claims. It’s also why it’s not uncommon for politicians to evoke conspiracy theories while criticizing their opponents. “Conspiracy is always a way to cause doubt,” says Stephanie Kelley-Romano, who studies political rhetoric at Bates College. “In contemporary times, there’s no mobilizing a base with doubt. People stay home.”
Given the nature of politics and the internet in 2020, there would have been (and are) conspiracy theories about anyone who found their name on the presidential ticket, but it matters that it’s the ones about Harris that are resonating most strongly with true believers right now. In part that’s because the theories have gotten a presidential endorsement, but it’s also because the way people talk about Black women is remarkably similar to how they construct conspiracy theories. “There are existing templates that always trigger the same response without having to say much. They called Michelle Obama a baby mama. How is a woman who was married for a bit, had a child, and then had a second child with the same man, a baby mama?” says Julia Jordan-Zachery, who studies Black women in politics and public policy at UNC Charlotte. “But people respond to the particular framings and think, ‘That’s exactly what Black women are like.’”