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Donald Trump wants to revoke the citizenship of flag-burners. What?


People across this proud nation are waking up. The worst among them are checking their phones immediately and the worst among that bad subset are opening Twitter, which means they are getting their just desserts: an encounter with this very bizarre tweet, which was sent by our president-elect early Tuesday morning:

So what is going on here? The most common interpretation of Trump’s Twitter outbursts is that they are provocations intended to distract from more damaging stories. But, while one could argue that Trump’s transition has been characterized by bad press, the last twelve hours or so have been characterized by relative calm. The biggest news is that Trump picked Tom Price to head Health and Human Services, a move that is being cheered by the right wing, particularly the conservative corner of it.

But as I wrote yesterday, I don’t think this interpretation is quite right. Instead, Trump is more likely trying to push the media and political elite into a frenzy, pandering to his populist base with his ability to make their enemies mad online. And there’s no bigger pander than opposing flag-burning.

Despite the fact that laws against flag-burning have been declared unconstitutional, amendments banning the practice appear perennially. Hillary Clinton co-sponsored such a bill in 2005, though hers did not declare that flag-burners should have their citizenship revoked. (Interestingly, Mitch McConnell, arguably the most important person in Washington from Trump’s perspective, was instrumental in killing that bill, though only because he wanted to protect his First Amendment right to raise boatloads of cash.) Flag-burning is protected speech under the Constitution but attempting to criminalize it pays political dividends.

Of course, Trump’s tweet is still important insofar as it includes the tyrannical possibility (“perhaps” is one of Trump’s underrated tics) of removing the citizenship of those who burn the flag. This is pernicious, because it points to a playbook for the future—one in which Trump proposes loss of citizenship for the families of suspected terrorists, for instance, or for criticizing the president.