Elizabeth Warren's big mistake

One thing's for sure about President Donald Trump: He likes a fighter. Remember what they said about (now) S...

Posted: Oct 17, 2018 9:13 AM
Updated: Oct 17, 2018 9:13 AM

One thing's for sure about President Donald Trump: He likes a fighter. Remember what they said about (now) Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh's response to his critics? "Talking to lots of people inside WH about how he likes how Kavanaugh is fighting back," tweeted one journalist, a reporter for the Washington Post. "Admires the defiance." But how will Trump react when defiance is turned on him? And when the fighter who takes on her critics is a left-wing, Ivy League woman?

On Monday, Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren kicks off a barely veiled campaign for the 2020 presidential nomination, with a video that takes the fight straight to Donald Trump. Trump's voice is the first thing any of us hear in the video, riling up a crowd with a jibe at Warren's claim to Native American ancestry. "She said she's Native American. And I said: 'Pocahontas!'" This might be a video about Warren's vision of her family's struggles, "on the ragged edge of the middle class," but really this is a video about Donald Trump.

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Warren frames her video as a direct response to a Trump challenge. In July of this year, the sitting President promised a million dollars to a charity of Warren's choice if a DNA test "shows you're an Indian." By the end of the video, Warren has unveiled DNA tests from a highly qualified geneticist that seem to prove she has a native ancestor "between six and 10 generations" back.

Warren has already tweeted a challenge back to Trump. "I took this test and released the results for anyone who cares to see because I've got nothing to hide. What are YOU hiding, @realDonaldTrump? Release your tax returns -- or the Democratic-led House will do it for you soon enough. Tick-tock, Mr President." She also requested that Trump pay up on his bet -- $1 million to her chosen charity, the National Indigenous Women's Resource Center. This is fighting talk.

You can see the point Warren is trying to make. It's harder to see whether she's achieving anything. A donation of $1 million to the NIWRC might be a nice goal, but will Trump honor it? If not, it won't be news to his critics that Donald Trump fails to honor his debts; ask any of the hundreds of employees or subcontractors who have alleged that Trump failed to pay them for their work. And not one of those stories has cut through to convince Trump's support base that their man is not to be trusted when it comes to signing checks.

If working-class white Americans could convince themselves to back an inheritance billionaire against a group of small-time construction subcontractors, they'll have no problem coming up with reasons a female Ivy League professor doesn't deserve his money either.

Meanwhile, it's understandable why Warren would want to set the record straight on her ethnic heritage. She's been accused of using a small drop of Native American blood to take advantage of affirmative action hiring programs at Harvard: As even Fox News has reported, she didn't.

She's been accused of inventing a Native American heritage entirely; instead interviews with family members make clear that the rumored native blood of Warren's mother led Warren's father's family to reject her. Many of us have complicated relationships with different elements of our family's roots. No one would enjoy seeing our mother's heritage become the butt of Donald Trump's jokes.

Yet none of this is likely to help Warren win over Trump voters either. The problem with Warren's video is that it requires voters to engage with a sophisticated idea of what mixed racial identity can mean. And it's not at all clear that Warren's own politics -- or that of her left-wing faction in the Democratic Party -- have ever been exemplars of that level of nuance in identity politics.

According to the Pew Research Center, the number of multiracial Americans is growing three times faster than the population as a whole. While the largest subset consists of people like Elizabeth Warren who have both white and Native American ancestry, there's a wide range of perspectives in this group as to how much that ancestry affects day to day life. Sixty-one percent say they have a lot in common with whites, compared to just 22% who say they identify with Native Americans.

Many people with mixed heritages aren't even aware of their full ancestry: I've written before about the complexity of discovering a suppressed Jewish ancestry. Did my sense of self change after this discovery at 11? Should it? Does Elizabeth Warren's identity change because of a DNA text at 69? The answer isn't yes and it isn't no. Warren's video makes eloquently clear that a single, distant, native ancestor hasn't defined her monolithically, but it informs who she is, in small part.

How absurd, then, that Warren was ever faced with an option to define herself as anything so simple as either "Native American" or "white." A number of the forms Warren has filled in over the course of her career appear to have had very limited options -- in one case in 1978, Warren rightly described herself as "other" when the only other possibilities available were "black," "Oriental" and "Mexican-American." Demographic forms are getting better at recognizing mixed identities as a range of possible options, but slowly.

Yet to many voters, all this highlights is the absurdity of monolithic declarations of identity that fail to address more complicated mixtures of class and race privilege. (After all, Warren makes clear that her white family had plenty of financial struggles.)

If Warren is running for president, perhaps she doesn't have to win over the whole of Trump's base, but she will have to make inroads into the much broader segment of the swing population who see the left as hypocritical or simply confusing on issues of race.

At their best, affirmative action programs were set up to tackle the deep and genuine institutional racism that prevents many nonwhite students from equality of educational opportunity. But much right-wing scorn at such programs comes not from a blindness to racial injustice, but a skepticism of tick-box culture as a means of accurately assessing institutional inclusivity. Elizabeth Warren did not use her ethnic background to engage in deceitful virtue signaling, but we're having this conversation because at some point, Harvard did.

And if Harvard used a box-ticking approach to race to pretend it had a senior Native American woman on its law faculty, what does that tell the average American voter about the integrity of institutions, like Harvard, which have long been associated with the liberal intelligentsia?

Elizabeth Warren's claims to achievement outside politics are predicated on success in the world of academic law. To many of us, they are indeed impressive. But to have faith in those credentials, voters must have faith in the institutions that uphold them.

It may not be fair, but it won't matter much in a 2020 ad campaign if Harvard, instead of Warren, exaggerated her racial background. To many voters, Elizabeth Warren IS Harvard. And in an era of fake news, if you've never liked Elizabeth Warren particularly, news of a DNA test demonstrating the truth of that distant native ancestry claim is just going to demonstrate that a white-looking woman with the right East Coast connections is always capable of finding an excuse for special pleading. The anti-Warren media will no doubt find great sport in the seeming irrelevance of her "1/32 -- 1/1024" fraction of Native American blood. Look out for "I'm 1/64th vampire" jokes in dubious taste this Halloween.

And there are plenty of people who don't like Elizabeth Warren, for good and bad reasons. Her proposed "Accountable Capitalism Act" is as close to Soviet-style workers' control of private enterprise as anything ever proposed in mainstream American politics. Certainly, it's populist: Warren's economic populism even overlaps with Trump's when it comes to their shared skepticism of international free trade agreements like NAFTA. But while populism sells today in America, it might not be as popular when it's touted by a woman from Harvard.

As an over-educated, #MeToo-affiliated woman myself it gives me no pleasure to write it, but the tide of male resentment ridden by Donald Trump will not be checked by a female Ivy League professor.

If Elizabeth Warren wants to point out to the American people that she's never lied about her Native American ancestry, she is well within her rights to do so. And she has been grievously provoked. But she's mistaken if she thinks Trump's America is a place where an emotively scored promo video can change the tenor of a racial debate. If she thinks she's the best Democratic candidate to take on Donald Trump in 2020, she's even more mistaken.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

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Cases: 268672

Reported Deaths: 5917
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto17928195
Hinds17030337
Harrison14510212
Rankin11315223
Jackson11054193
Lee9109147
Madison8663171
Jones6853120
Forrest6260125
Lauderdale6161196
Lowndes5582123
Lafayette5269101
Lamar508765
Washington4965125
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Monroe3727111
Warren3716103
Marshall360172
Union360165
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Hancock300963
Sunflower294277
Tate281862
Alcorn274055
Pike272984
Itawamba271263
Scott264055
Yazoo258456
Prentiss255454
Coahoma252455
Copiah251549
Tippah251551
Simpson244872
Leake238967
Marion228274
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Grenada224673
Wayne216336
Adams216271
Winston208271
George206440
Newton201447
Attala197465
Tishomingo196361
Chickasaw190245
Jasper183138
Holmes172568
Clay168637
Tallahatchie158035
Stone153625
Clarke148762
Calhoun142022
Smith131926
Yalobusha124935
Walthall115438
Greene114929
Noxubee114526
Montgomery112936
Lawrence107917
Carroll106922
Perry105931
Amite102727
Webster98024
Claiborne90125
Tunica89621
Jefferson Davis89330
Benton86923
Humphreys85625
Kemper81220
Quitman7169
Franklin71017
Choctaw64013
Wilkinson60125
Jefferson57321
Sharkey45717
Issaquena1616
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 445909

Reported Deaths: 6896
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson651891049
Mobile32138590
Madison28596223
Tuscaloosa21703276
Montgomery20220336
Shelby19584138
Baldwin17496216
Lee13378109
Morgan12741145
Etowah12196189
Calhoun11626228
Marshall10513126
Houston9097168
Limestone842481
Cullman8363125
Elmore8283112
Lauderdale7986112
DeKalb7935112
St. Clair7915139
Talladega6552112
Walker6068184
Jackson605649
Colbert560194
Blount551794
Autauga544065
Coffee470569
Dale415186
Franklin378150
Russell362816
Chilton348079
Covington344681
Escambia342244
Tallapoosa3184109
Dallas314197
Chambers308575
Clarke307339
Pike267735
Lawrence256958
Marion255763
Winston235243
Bibb224751
Geneva214747
Marengo212031
Pickens201831
Barbour188240
Hale187444
Fayette181230
Butler175960
Cherokee167433
Henry161325
Monroe153521
Randolph148236
Washington144027
Clay131050
Crenshaw126245
Macon124337
Cleburne123627
Lamar121324
Lowndes117636
Wilcox109422
Bullock105829
Perry100518
Conecuh98222
Sumter90828
Greene78323
Coosa64619
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