Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s breakout debate performance in Las Vegas on Wednesday night is drawing wide acclaim for her brutal dismantling of Mike Bloomberg, who appeared shaky and unprepared. By repeatedly savaging one “arrogant billionaire,” as Warren put it, she induced many to envision her woman-handling the other “arrogant billionaire,” the one tweeting maniacally from the White House.
But there’s a hidden reason Warren’s performance deserves attention. In her treatment of both arrogant billionaires, you could discern how she’d strike her own version of the balancing act outlined above, by attacking Trump as both symptom and exacerbation, as both the result of deeply ingrained problems in our political economy and a figure of unique depravity and venality in his own right.
“I’d like to talk about who we’re running against: a billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians,” Warren said, right at the outset. “No, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.”
“Democrats are not going to win if we have a nominee who has a history of hiding his tax returns, of harassing women and of supporting racist policies like redlining and stop-and-frisk,” Warren continued, adding: “Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another.”
That, of course, is an indictment not just of Bloomberg (who has his own history of demeaning women) but also of Trump: The president is a disgusting misogynist and a racist in his own right, and he’s engaged in nonstop corrupt self-dealing, facilitated by concealed tax returns — and a corrupted system.
Similarly, in another big exchange, Warren cornered Bloomberg by pressing him to release female employees from nondisclosure agreements. But Warren linked this back to the other arrogant billionaire, insisting Democrats can’t beat Trump with a nominee “who has who knows how many nondisclosure agreements” hidden away somewhere.
The argument isn’t just that a misogynist billionaire can’t beat Trump. It’s that a misogynist billionaire who conceals misconduct through clever gaming of the system can’t beat Trump.
The through line here is an indictment of elite corruption — that is, of elites acting with impunity.
Trump and elite corruption
In other words, Warren’s attack on Trump (via Bloomberg) isn’t merely directed at his bottomless void of personal decency and respect for other human beings (which might appeal to suburban women alienated from Trump) or merely at the degree to which he’s representative of a deeply corrupted system (which could appeal to young voters and working-class whites).
It’s both. In Warren’s telling, these are two sides of the same coin: The same man who boasts of grabbing women’s private parts simply because he can is also representative of financial elites who hide personal and financial misconduct alike behind high-priced lawyers while enriching themselves at the expense of the rest of us. It’s the corrupted and rigged system that allows them to do so, with a sense of impunity that at bottom is very similar to that exhibited by Trump’s boasts about sexual assault.
You could also see this in Warren’s discussion of her economic proposals. After Bloomberg absurdly denounced progressive economic proposals as “communism,” Warren pivoted to her proposed tax on extreme wealth, noting it could fund universal child care, pay teachers fair wages and relieve student debt.
“Do we want to invest in Mr. Bloomberg?” Warren asked. “Or do we want to invest in an entire generation of young students?”
One can easily see Warren on a debate stage next to Trump, asking this question while substituting Trump’s name for Bloomberg’s. She could link this to Trump’s massive corporate tax cut (which has produced huge shortfalls in revenue that could otherwise fund popular progressive proposals), and to Trump’s own history of ballooning his inherited wealth with tax fraud, profiteering off the presidency, and lack of transparency on his finances.
Here again Trump would be both symptom and peculiarly abhorrent aberration. Trump is uniquely corrupt, but his profiteering (and that of financial elites like him) is enabled by a tax system made more deeply regressive by Trump and Republicans, and a political system crying out for reforms (like those proposed by Warren) to constrain self-dealing by imposing transparency requirements on presidential candidates.
A Warren comeback? Maybe.
It’s not clear whether this can rescue Warren’s candidacy. Bloomberg’s massive self-funding could mitigate the damage he sustains. Or, by deflating Bloomberg, Warren may allow another moderate (a revived Joe Biden?) to emerge instead.
Separately, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) also posted a strong performance and emerged largely unscathed, possibly putting him on track to an insurmountable delegate lead after Super Tuesday.
On the other hand, as Dave Karpf points out, Warren doesn’t necessarily need to cut into Sanders’s base (which is unshakably loyal) to come back. Warren is at her strongest when she attacks corruption and inequality, while staking out a posture that’s both progressive and pro-reformed-capitalism, both populist and technocratic, which could allow her to play unifier to constituencies outside Sanders’s base.
Whether this will happen remains to be seen. But Warren also showed a way to bridge the intra-Dem argument over how to attack both Trump and our deeper maladies alike, and whatever happens to her candidacy, the eventual nominee should study her performance closely.