With Elon Musk as an example, should we change eligibility for president?
When SpaceX founder and Tesla CEO Elon Musk spoke recently at the United States Air Force Academy, thousands of cadets in attendance jumped to their feet as one when he was introduced, breaking into thunderous applause and cheers as they whipped out their smartphones to film him.
Now, I have argued that Donald Trump’s election as president in 2016 was akin to catching lightning in a bottle. After his election, we witnessed the predictable ego-driven thought pattern among some in the billionaire class — Starbucks’s Howard Schutz, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Disney CEO Bob Iger, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and JPMorgan chairman Jamie Dimon — whose inner voices seemed to be telling them: “Well, if that clown can get himself elected as president of the United States, surely I can.”
Except, they couldn’t — not if they spent millions of dollars of their own money. Not one of them has that ultra-elusive “it” factor. Like him or hate him, Trump has that factor in spades, at least in the minds of more than 74 million voting Americans.
Many voters have soured on America’s career politicians from both political parties, and Trump’s election made that a shocking reality. But it still was an election that would not have been possible without the candidate’s special “It” factor.
Today it can be argued that two people well outside of the career politician bubble probably have enough of that same personality factor to at least shake the foundation of an election cycle. One is Joe Rogan, host of “The Joe Rogan Experience,” who signed a $200 million deal with Spotify to broadcast his massively popular program exclusively. Rogan’s influence among some Republicans, conservatives and libertarians appears to be growing by the day.
The other person is Elon Musk. Unlike Rogan, however, Musk is not a native-born American citizen; born in South Africa, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2002. That’s a citizenship category that the Constitution prohibits from becoming U.S. president or vice president.
As the world’s wealthiest person, there is no doubt that Musk walks to the beat of his own drum. He is a disruptor of the status quo, unafraid to speak his mind. His latest flirtation with Twitter, which could involve a hostile takeover of the company, has caused many on the left to attack him and many on the right to champion him.
Because of this, some of my friends have asked my opinion about a “what if” Elon Musk presidency. When I explained that the Constitution makes such a scenario impossible, they responded: “Change it.”
This begs the question: Should the Constitution be amended to allow naturalized American citizens to run for president and vice president? I think so. All U.S. citizens should have the same rights and opportunities. But I don’t get to override the Constitution, and neither do the rest of us. Article II, Section 1 declares:
“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.”
Ironically, an accurate reading of that clause tells us that there was an exception. If you were an immigrant American citizen at the time the Constitution was ratified in 1788, you were eligible to run for president. So, why should it be any different 234 years later?
To add to the unfairness, our current system does allow naturalized U.S. citizens to become members of Congress, governors, flag officers in our military and justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Amending the Constitution is a daunting task in the best of times. In today’s politically polarized time, it’s hard to imagine that an amendment to allow naturalized citizens to run for president or vice president would get the two-thirds majority needed in the House and Senate and the necessary ratification from three-fourths of our state legislatures. But it should.
Could Elon Musk get elected to the White House? Maybe, but we’ll never know. And perhaps we are all the poorer for that discriminatory constitutional clause.
Douglas MacKinnon, a political and communications consultant, was a writer in the White House for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and former special assistant for policy and communications at the Pentagon during the last three years of the Bush administration. His latest book is “The 56: Liberty Lessons From Those Who Risked All to Sign the Declaration of Independence.”
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