Sen. Elizabeth Warren. (Hadley Green/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

Elizabeth Warren is all but certain to run for president in 2020, and if she winds up becoming the Democratic nominee, this day could be one of the key early moments of that campaign.

Today brings two interesting developments regarding Warren’s probable campaign. The first is this article by the Post’s Matt Viser, detailing the impressive operation Warren has already built to lay the groundwork for a 2020 run by distributing money, advice and moral support to Democratic candidates all over the country.  Warren plainly wants discussion of her potential presidential campaign to increase in volume, especially if she can position herself as the chief anti-Trump spokesperson of the Democratic Party.

Which brings us to the other major Warren development of the day. Warren has long said that the story her family told about itself was in part about its Native American ancestry on her mother’s side; such stories are hardly uncommon for people from Oklahoma. Because of that, President Trump refers to her as “Pocahontas,” something he persists in doing no matter how many people tell him it’s racist and offensive to Native Americans in general.

At a rally in July, Trump imagined facing Warren in a debate, then said he would bring a DNA test and toss it 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,” he said.

Just as Barack Obama ultimately produced his birth certificate to debunk Trump’s “birther” lie, Warren did indeed take a DNA test to prove that she has some Native heritage. She released a video not only explaining the DNA results, but including interviews with her brothers (Republicans, by the way) and other relatives talking about their family and condemning Trump:

Warren also informed Trump that he can fulfill his promise by donating $1 million to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center. You don’t have to guess whether he’ll follow through, because on Monday morning he was asked about his promise. “I didn’t say that,” he lied. “Nah, you’d better read it again.”

What he will do, however, is keep calling Warren “Pocahontas.” He doesn’t do it because it’s based in some set of facts. He does it because he’s a racist, and he wants to activate racism in others. It was racist when all we knew was her family lore, it’s racist when we have DNA evidence, and it would have been racist whether she had Indian ancestry or not.

A deeper lie

To understand this in full, we have to look one layer deeper to a lie that has been told about Warren, that she used her Native ancestry to gain some kind of undeserved advantage in her career through affirmative action programs. For instance, last year at a White House event honoring World War II Navajo code talkers, he went on a cringe-inducing riff about Warren (“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'”). It was as though he was asked to honor the Tuskegee Airmen and said, “You know, looking at you I’m reminded of a little guy named Sambo.”

When White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked afterward about Trump’s appalling performance, she said, “I think what most people find offensive is Senator Warren lying about her heritage to advance her career.”

Here are the facts. Warren grew up being told that her family on her mother’s side was part Native American. Though at various times in her career as a law professor she was listed in faculty directories as a minority, she never lied about it and she never used it to get any job. The Boston Globe conducted a comprehensive investigation and found that Warren’s ancestry played no part in her professional advancement. (She was an academic star who could have been hired at pretty much any law school she wanted.)

But this false idea is one of the key reasons, perhaps the key reason, why Trump uses the racist attack against her. There isn’t enough free-floating animus against Native people to be politically potent; it has to be brought together with other strains of racial resentment to really have an impact. What is much more widespread among Trump supporters is the idea that racial minorities are given special advantages that allow them to vault past more deserving white people, making every aspect of their lives a cushy ride in a government-provided limousine while virtuous whites struggle to make it on nothing but their own merit.

This funhouse-mirror picture of America is built on a broad denial of reality propped up by a whole series of more specific lies; to take just one example, large numbers of white people apparently believe that black people get to go to any college they want without paying tuition.

But the fact that it’s untrue doesn’t mean it isn’t extremely powerful. The white working-class voters who are such an important part of Trump’s base are extremely receptive to the idea that not only does their race confer no privilege upon them, but their struggles are happening precisely because racial minorities (and immigrants, and women) are being given unfair advantages at their expense. This idea is drummed constantly into the heads of regular viewers of Fox News or listeners to conservative talk radio.

That racial grievance is what Trump is trying to activate with the “Pocahontas” insult. He’s trying to take that poisonous resentment that has been so assiduously cultivated on the right for so long and just slap it on to Warren. The details aren’t important and the truth isn’t important; what matters is that when a Trump voter sees Warren, all that bile comes bubbling up to the surface. You don’t need to construct a logical argument around it; all you need is to make the association.

We have no idea whether it’s going to work, or how effective Warren’s strategy to deal with it will be. But what we do know, with a 100 percent certainty, is that no matter who the Democratic nominee is in 2020, Donald Trump will run a campaign based on fear and hatred. That’s who he is and how he works. Warren may have the intelligence and charisma to overcome that kind of attack, just as Obama did. One thing’s for sure: She obviously knows it’s coming.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Elizabeth Warren has her act together. Democratic 2020 hopefuls better wake up.

Greg Sargent: Elizabeth Warren’s new, tantalizing claim about Kavanaugh shows what utter madness this is

Jennifer Rubin: Sen. Elizabeth Warren responds to our invitation to discuss policy