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Opinion Trump’s racist ‘Pocahontas’ reference really has nothing to do with Elizabeth Warren

President Trump revived his nickname for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on Nov. 27, calling her "Pocahontas" at an event for Native American code talkers. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Susan Walsh/The Washington Post)

President Trump name-called Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) “Pocahontas” at an event honoring Navajo code talkers, all under a portrait of Trail of Tears orchestrator Andrew Jackson. It reads like a case study in offensiveness, and still some people don’t seem to get it.

Eric Trump’s Tuesday tweet sums up the stupidity best. “The irony of an ABC reporter (whose parent company Disney has profited nearly half a billion dollars on the movie ‘Pocahontas’) inferring that the name is ‘offensive,’” he wrote, “is truly staggering.”

What’s really staggering is Eric Trump’s inability to tell the difference between a movie depicting a historical figure and his father transforming that figure’s name into a put-down of a political opponent. Neither the president nor his son may know Pocahontas as anything but a cartoon, but as Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye put it, “Pocahontas is a real person. It’s not a caricature.” She was the daughter of a Powhatan chief in colonial Virginia who allegedly rescued one English captain and was later held hostage by another.

Trump’s repeated reference to “Pocahontas” is racist first of all because it’s intended as a pejorative. Trump does not like Warren. It’s also racist because it seizes on a stereotypical Native American name to refer to an entire race — like calling an Asian man “Jackie Chan” or a black man “Frederick Douglass” (one of the president’s favorites). Worse yet, Trump is mushing together his tribes: At an event to honor Navajo heroes, he used the name of a Powhatan woman to disparage a senator who claimed Cherokee ancestry.

And that cuts to the argument that has taken over conservative Twitter in the past two days. Never mind what Trump did, defenders say. What Warren did was worse.

“I think what most people find offensive is Senator Warren lying about her heritage to advance her career,” said Sarah Huckabee Sanders in a White House news conference on Monday, sparking the relitigation of a so-called scandal during Warren’s 2012 Senate run. Warren had listed herself as a minority in an Association of American Law Schools directory, and Harvard Law School had offered her as an example of a Native American member of an otherwise non-diverse faculty.

Was it true? Warren said yes. A progressive advocate said maybe, and just 1/32nd. The tribe Warren pointed to as her ancestors would probably have said no: She was not a member of the Cherokee Nation, or the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians or the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee. That teeny, tiny bit of unsubstantiated ancestry wouldn’t have qualified her to join.

Warren comes from Oklahoma, where many white Americans reportedly believe they have Cherokee blood. She could never identify a specific ancestor and talked about the “high cheekbones” of some family members instead. She also noted that, though she takes pride in her “heritage,” she never used it to get ahead. This, too, was tough to fact-check.

But there’s no fact-checking necessary to know that two things can be bad at the same time. If Warren lied or even exaggerated, that’s wrong. Trump insulted the indigenous population by throwing around “Pocahontas” as a derogatory term for an imagined generic American Indian. That’s wrong, too.

A better question than whether Warren is actually Native American is whether it matters in this debate — and it doesn’t. Warren could be all Cherokee, or 1/32nd Cherokee, or not Cherokee at all, and Trump would still be using the name of one Native American woman as a slur against all Native American people. The worst of Trump’s latest dust-up with Elizabeth Warren, in other words, has nothing to do with Elizabeth Warren at all.