Democratic senator and potential 2020 presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) on Monday released a genetic analysis, with an accompanying video, aimed at proving her Native American heritage and rebutting a frequent attack from President Trump that she lied about her ancestry.
The critique of Warren has been a frequent one since 2012, when the Boston Herald reported that Harvard Law School had listed Warren’s Native American ancestry in touting its diversity. Warren said she did not know the school was doing that. Her critics seized on the idea that Warren touted her heritage to take advantage of the professional opportunities set aside for people of color.
As recently as July, Trump told his supporters at a Montana rally that he would donate $1 million to charity if Elizabeth Warren would take a DNA test to prove her Native American heritage. For years, he has been deriding her as “Pocahontas,” which some in the Native American community have interpreted as a racial slur.
Trump’s disparagement of Warren is not only a response to her continual criticism of him and a recognition that his base is already inclined to dislike a liberal firebrand. It also comes from Trump’s awareness that Warren will likely vie to be his Democratic rival in the 2020 presidential election. A recent CNN poll shows her ranking fourth in its first survey of the 2020 Democratic presidential field.
Making a statement that she won’t back down from Trump was probably top of mind for Warren in Monday morning’s rollout, which is being interpreted as clear evidence that she is ready to run. There were a few key targets for her highly produced video, featuring her former bosses, a genetics doctor and her “Fox News-watching” relatives in Oklahoma.
1. The Democratic base
Early estimates about the list of potential 2020 Democratic candidates suggests that it might be one of the biggest fields in recent history. And while Warren enjoys name recognition and certainly some popularity with many on the left, much of the attention about the future of the Democratic Party is directed at the base, which is largely made up of people of color.
Given the perception by some liberal people of color that the Democratic Party takes voters of color for granted while focusing on winning back white working-class votes, the idea that Warren could have used stories about her past ancestry to take advantage of opportunities reserved for people of color would be met with significant criticism and perhaps doubt that Warren truly could connect with Americans of color -- especially when compared to other prospective 2020 candidates such as Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). This is perhaps why, in addition to proving that she was not being dishonest, Warren is attempting to tackle the issue head-on by providing evidence that she did not use family folklore to get a job as a Harvard professor.
2. Native Americans
The Washington Post’s Joe Heim reported just last week about how 2018 has been a breakout political year for Native American women, with “far more than ever running” for office.
This level of political engagement, combined with concerns from some of the country’s various Native American communities that Trump’s focus on the opioid epidemic, the loss of jobs in many rural areas and other issues popular with his base has often left Native American communities out of the conversation, suggests that the concerns of Native Americans will not be ignored heading into the next presidential election. This is perhaps why Warren spoke to a Native American group earlier this year, arguing that it is not she who is disrespecting America’s indigenous community, but the president himself.
The move does carry some risk of backfiring with Native Americans and other minority groups. Some on the left have criticized Warren’s move as potentially setting a new standard for what presidential candidates may have to prove about ethnicity or race.
3. Trump voters
Just months after Trump told his supporters that he would give $1 million to Warren’s favorite charity “if you take the test and it shows you’re an Indian,” he has denied making the claim.
To be accurate, Warren never claimed she was “an Indian.” She claimed to have Native American ancestry. The genetic analysis she released found “strong evidence" that Warren’s DNA had a Native American ancestor six to 10 generations ago. But it seems like a stretch to think Trump and his supporters will care about the details behind Warren’s ancestry. It’s not likely to settle the issue for many of them. The liberal lawmaker embraces a worldview that is arguably the diametrical opposite of Trumpism, though she did make a point in the video to highlight her Republican relatives and roots in Oklahoma, solid Trump country.