We just witnessed the worst political gambit of the 2020 presidential election cycle, and we haven’t even hit the midterms.
Elizabeth Warren, in an attempt to shrug off the Republican attack on her alleged Native American ancestry, managed to alienate the Cherokee Nation, delight the trollish GOP, and transform her heritage from a sideshow into a national issue. She demonstrated the worst possible political instincts by engaging with the party of bad faith, and in doing so she telegraphed how she would run a potential presidential campaign.
Folks, it’s not good. It’s so bad, in fact, that she’s already done enough to disqualify herself from the position she’s clearly targeting—the 2020 challenger to Trump.
For those who need the background, Warren listed herself as “Native American” in a law school directory while she worked at Harvard. Her intentions seemed pretty innocent, but Republicans dug it up in 2012 during her Massachusetts Senate race with Scott Brown. As it turned out, Warren’s claims were pretty dubious, based on family stories and no actual genealogical evidence, and she probably should have shown better judgment. Was it a big deal, in the grand scheme? Absolutely not, and voters didn’t care—she defeated Brown, and she’s going to cruise to another Senate term in November. But last year, Trump went into schoolyard bully mode and began calling her “Pocahontas,” which was quintessential Trump—an act of both negative branding and covert racism.
Warren did her best to ignore the attack until yesterday, when she released the results of a DNA test that showed that yeah, she probably has Native American ancestry somewhere wayyyy up the line. The announcement came with this truly painful five minute video:
So, how did this work out? We'll get to the Republican reaction in a second, but let's start first with the Cherokee Nation. Their chief is a Democrat, and in theory the absolute minimum for deeming Warren's announcement a “success” would be Cherokee support.
Here's the full statement:
“A DNA test is useless to determine tribal citizenship. Current DNA tests do not even distinguish whether a person's ancestors were indigenous to North or South America. Sovereign tribal nations set their own legal requirements for citizenship, and while DNA tests can be used to determine lineage, such as paternity to an individual, it is not evidence for tribal affiliation. Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong. It makes a mockery out of DNA tests and its legitimate uses while also dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven. Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.”
So Warren stepped in it, and she did so of her own volition. She didn't have to do this. If she insisted on moving forward with what amounts to a pointless political gesture, she definitely should have checked in with the Cherokee Nation beforehand to see how the move would be received. That seems like pretty standard political operating procedure, right? Making sure your allies are actually, well, your allies?
Already, we see Warren's tendency to shoot herself in the foot, and even more worrisome is the fact that the people around her couldn't anticipate this reaction, or didn't have the courage to warn her off. It's not hard—implying minority “heritage” on the basis of some DNA test, when you've lived an entire life as a white person with all the privilege it entails, is a terrible look.
The shambling incompetence here is positively Hillary-esque, and the last thing Democrats need is a book like Shattered coming out in the aftermath of another disastrous presidential election in 2021.
It gets worse—we need to talk about the Republicans.
First, watch the video again. To me, it comes off as the worst kind of pandering, and the most frustrating aspect is that she's pandering to a group of people who are not even her base. “Hey, here's a guy with a beard! Doesn't he seem like a Trump supporter? Guess what—he supports me! But wait, look over here: some old Republicans who also want me to win! And folks, you're not going to believe this: HERE'S A GUN.”
At Slate, Jess Zimmerman wrote an excellent piece which essentially argued that Democrats have been cast as the “feminine” party in America, that “feminine” is seen as weak, and that it has defined how men and women on the left are allowed to behave, particularly in terms of anger. (I'm over-simplifying—read the whole piece.) If we accept that paradigm, what Warren is trying to do in this video is to assert her masculine bona fides in an attempt to woo the country's middle-right.
In doing so, she demonstrates a toxic Democratic mindset—one that believes you can Change Minds among moderate Republicans if only you can toe that fine line between “tough” and “civil.” That you can appeal to the better angels of conservative nature, and that, in fact, the masculine center-right is the group most worthy of your attention, rather than the great numbers of non-voters, progressives, and working poor that are yearning for representation from a party that long ago left them behind.
It's a pathetic video, actually, because it's a furtive act of selling out to mainstream wisdom, mainstream culture, and the mythical American middle. Needless to say, adopting this mindset necessarily means adopting centrist policy at the expense of the people, which is how the Democrats forfeited their working class base in the first place. It's the epitome of not learning a damn thing.
Worse, just like every other mealy-mouthed Democratic politician who has tried it, it WILL NOT WORK.
This is the cardinal sin of Warren's whole gambit: She engaged with a group of people who are acting in bad faith. The voters who support them are acting in bad faith. They don't care about the truth of her Native American ancestry—they only want to make her defensive, they only want to rattle her, and they only want power. You cannot “out-fact” them, because the fundamental drive behind their bad faith is not based in logic or reason, but in a visceral urge to abuse, humiliate, and dominate.
There's a great Twitter thread about bad faith political scheming that you can read here, and I'm going to quote A.R. Moxon in brief:
First, what is meant by 'operating in bad faith?' There are a lot of ways that people do this, but I think the underlying idea is, this is somebody who expresses ideas not because they believe them, but to accomplish a bad intention. Which is what abusive people do. But how can you tell a person's intent? Sometimes it's obvious. If somebody demonstrates a commitment to a totally alternate reality, a deliberately impervious ignorance of facts, or downright abusive language, yeah. It's clear.
Bad faith. Don't waste your time.
What Trump and the Republicans are attempting with the “Pocahontas” attack is the same thing Republicans tried with Benghazi. It's not about truth; it's about abuse, and it's about putting the enemies on their back foot so they're always defending, never attacking. To quote Ronald Reagan, “if you're explaining, you're losing.”
There's only one response to this: You ignore it. It's not satisfying, and it may feel like conceding, but anything more than a scoff and a condescending smile for these ghouls is too much. I asked a frustrating question yesterday—why do Republicans control the terms of debate?—and the answer is that their leadership, and the vast majority of their voters, have become trolls in service of the ultra-wealthy. The politicians know it, the voters mostly don't, but it's true across the board: They're a hostile cult.
The explanation I kept hearing from wishful thinkers on the left was that Warren was finally going to put this whole thing to bed. And she was going to do so far ahead of the presidential election! Win-win!
Let's take a look at Republican reactions to see if that's true, or if she actually just made this a much bigger, longer-lasting story.
And here's Trump, exemplifying the exact kind of reaction Warren should have shown in the first place:
Make no mistake: Republicans are gleeful that Warren was dumb enough to engage with them. She just ensured that a marginal story is going to dog her for every step of her national political life.
You can’t inject reason into the collective cult brain. You can’t woo it with civility and desperate appeals to normalcy. They. Don’t. Care. You can only treat it like the enemy, and when the enemy targets you with bad faith, your job is to let everyone know who they are, and trust that they’ll understand who you are. Never, never explain yourself on their terms.
And if you can’t do that? If you made a dicey move in your past, and you don’t have the political instincts or charisma to move beyond it? Even—no, especially—if it was a minor mistake? You’re going to lose.
Elizabeth Warren should know all this by now. Her people should know this. The fact that she doesn’t is staggering, and there’s no way anyone should trust her to run a presidential campaign against Donald Trump. Swaggering meathead that he is, he knows weakness when he sees it, and he knows how to exploit it. This whole episode from Warren is disqualifying—she would be ground into political meat in a one-on-one race with Trump. Democrats should be terrified by the prospect of her carrying the banner.
Good politicians overcome huge mistakes. Bad politicians get tripped up by small ones. On Monday, we learned what kind of politician Elizabeth Warren is.