When it comes to attacking his opponents, President Trump obeys Henry David Thoreau’s advice: “Simplify, simplify.” For each enemy, Trump homes in with a schoolyard bully’s intuition for weakness and settles on a single word, usually (but not always) twinned to the target’s first name: Crooked Hillary, Little Marco, Lyin’ Ted, Crazy Bernie. But for Elizabeth Warren, whom he could well face in the 2020 presidential election, Trump long ago settled on “Pocahontas,” a reference to Warren’s family having told her they had Native American ancestors.
Presuming Warren runs for president, and given that she could be one of the strongest Democratic contenders if she does, this “issue” will come up — again and again. At a rally earlier this year, the president said that if he found himself on a debate stage with Warren he’d say to her, “I will give you a million dollars to your favorite charity, paid for by Trump, if you take the test and it shows you’re an Indian.” For the record, there is no “Are You An Indian?” test; DNA testing on someone such as Warren, who may be 1/32 Cherokee, would probably be inconclusive.
But why is it an issue at all? Why should anyone care what Warren’s grammy told her about her family heritage? The reason is that Republicans, as they have since she first ran for office, will try to claim that Warren exploited her possible Native American heritage to advance her career. In 2012, the attack got so intense that she felt compelled to air an ad answering the charge.
This is an accusation that goes far deeper than “she’s dishonest” or “she got something she didn’t deserve.” It is, like so much of our politics, about race. Which is why Trump is attracted to it like a moth to a flame.
The idea Warren got some special advantage from her ancestry has always been ridiculous on its face — long before she became a political figure, Warren was an academic star who could have gotten a job at pretty much any law school she wanted. But now the Boston Globe has set out to answer the question definitively, reviewing hundreds of documents and conducting interviews with dozens of her former colleagues. Here’s what they found:
In the most exhaustive review undertaken of Elizabeth Warren’s professional history, the Globe found clear evidence, in documents and interviews, that her claim to Native American ethnicity was never considered by the Harvard Law faculty, which voted resoundingly to hire her, or by those who hired her to four prior positions at other law schools. At every step of her remarkable rise in the legal profession, the people responsible for hiring her saw her as a white woman.
To summarize: Warren was told by her older relatives that their family had some Native American heritage, which she’s always been proud of. But she never brought it up when getting a job, and it never gave her any advantage.
So of all the things Trump could attack Warren for, why something so trivial? It isn’t a mystery. First, we’re long past the point where we have to beat around the bush about this: Donald Trump is a racist who says racist things, and his use of “Pocahontas” as an insult is certainly racist in and of itself. In the words of Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican who is a member of the Chickasaw tribe, “He needs to quit using language like that. . . . It’s neither appropriate personally toward her, and frankly, it offends a much larger group of people.”
“Pocahontas” isn’t just what Trump thinks when he sees Warren; it’s what he thinks when he sees any Native American person. At an event honoring Native American “code talkers” last year, he took time out from paying tribute to these World War II heroes to say, “I just want to thank you because you’re very, very special people. You were here long before any of us were here, although we have a representative in Congress who, they say, was here a long time ago. They call her ‘Pocahontas.’ But you know what, I like you because you are special.” When reporters asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders about this appallingly offensive performance, the White House press secretary responded, “I think what most people find offensive is Senator Warren lying about her heritage to advance her career.”
Sanders wasn’t telling the truth, but she did put her finger on the strategic purpose of the attack: It’s intended to make Warren the target of white racial resentment.
The idea is to remind conservative white voters of affirmative-action policies they’ve been told for years take opportunities away from deserving white people and deliver them to undeserving minorities. The fact that that isn’t what affirmative action does, and the fact that Warren never got a job because of affirmative action, even if it did, are utterly irrelevant. As we know well by now, Trump will not stop saying something he wants to say no matter how many times people point out it isn’t true.
Republican voters are primed and ready to hear that message, because the rhetoric of race on the right — particularly as propagated by Fox News and conservative talk radio — says that white people are the only racially oppressed group in America, and one key manifestation of that oppression comes in the form of snooty liberals such as Warren showering benefits on “ungrateful” minorities. The fact that, in the false story Trump tells, it is Warren herself who was supposedly the beneficiary is an unimportant detail; all Trump has to do is shout “Affirmative action!” and all the right buttons will be pushed. As we should well understand by now, the chances Trump will run a vicious negative campaign based on feeding and encouraging white racial resentment when he runs for reelection — no matter who the Democratic nominee turns out to be — are approximately 99.99 percent.
If Warren turns out to be a strong candidate, Trump will ramp up this attack on her. When he does, we have to remember something important: It is utterly insane for the question of whether Elizabeth Warren is 1/32 Cherokee to weigh one way or another into Warren’s fitness for her current job as a senator, or for the presidency. Seriously, try to articulate an argument for why it would be substantively meaningful and see how stupid you sound. It doesn’t tell us anything important about her, or about what sort of president she might be. Taking it seriously is ludicrous. It would be even more ridiculous to obsess over that than it was to devote thousands of column inches and hours of television time to Hillary Clinton’s emails; at least that had some relationship to the performance of official duties.
But we will. Trump will talk about it, reporters will dutifully repeat his comments no matter how many lies they contain, we will hear that “Questions are being raised,” Fox News will hammer on it day after day, and people who ought to know better will act as though it’s a legitimate “issue.”
I wish I could say getting the facts out now and understanding the race-baiting purpose behind the attack will better prepare us to grant this controversy no more time and attention than it deserves. But given our recent history, there is no reason to think so.