From the moment he began running for president in 2015, it was apparent that Donald Trump was a kind of political idiot savant, even if the idiot part blinded so many people to the savant part. He seemed to know nothing about anything, yet he had an intuitive sense of what would get certain voters angry and excited. And he was nearly alone in believing there was almost nothing he couldn't get away with; his off-the-cuff assertion that "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters, OK? It's like incredible" will stand as one of the most profound insights of the entire Trump era.
Trump could also take the preferred tactic of the fourth-grade bully—mocking nicknames for those he seeks to dominate—and turn it into a potent political weapon. Liddle Marco, Lyin' Ted, Crooked Hillary—in every case, Trump found a point of weakness, then jabbed at it with the bluntest instrument he could find, which turned out to be an excellent way to persuade the American electorate, or at least portions thereof.
He hasn't stopped with the nicknames since he became president, even if all of them don't have the effect he wants (to take just one example, I'm pretty sure Kim Jong-Un is only too happy to be called "Little Rocket Man," since he is quite proud of his missiles). And he will, I can promise you, bestow a nickname on whoever turns out to be his Democratic opponent in 2020.
One potential candidate, Senator Elizabeth Warren, already has her nickname, one Trump uses as often as he can, no matter how many people tell him it's racist and insulting, not to Warren but to Native Americans. On Saturday at a rally in Pennsylvania he somehow found occasion to yet again refer to Warren as "Pocahontas," and on Sunday, Warren was on multiple morning shows talking about 2020 and her family history.
It's worth considering, because if Warren does run (at the moment she puts off the question by speaking only in the present tense, i.e., "I am not running for president"), Trump will be throwing the nickname around constantly, and Warren will have to answer questions about it just as often.
This is not the first time Warren has dealt with these questions (they came up in her first run for Senate in 2012), but she now has what is obviously a well-thought-out plan to deal with it. In case you aren't familiar, the issue came up because Warren's family lore has it that her mother was part Native American. During her time as a law professor at Harvard, she was listed in a director of minority faculty and the university included her in materials about faculty diversity. But there's no evidence that she ever used that heritage for any kind of professional advancement, and the people who hired her at the University of Pennsylvania and then at Harvard have publicly stated that it had no role in her hiring (Warren was an academic superstar who needed no extra help in getting jobs).
But the truth of the story doesn't really matter. If Warren does run for president, and if she does then become one of the strongest contenders, and if she does then become the Democratic nominee, Trump and his allies will construct a detailed and thoroughly false narrative about this issue. It will say that Warren has been proven to have no Native ancestry. It will say that she used a fraudulent claim of such ancestry to get jobs, exploiting a system set up to give unearned benefits to minorities and discriminate against white people. It will say that she's a symbol of everything we should hate about the America that existed before Donald Trump came along and began setting things right.
The attack will function as a vehicle for white resentment about affirmative action in particular and race in general, operating on the belief that whites are the only real oppressed racial group in America today, a situation created not only by ungrateful racial minorities but by the liberal elitists who use them to subvert traditional social arrangements, degrade our communities, and ultimately destroy the country. In short, Trump will use Warren to stir up the dregs of the racial animus that got him to the White House in the first place.
We know that Trump will lie about what Warren has said and done on the question of her family history because he already has, and has sent out his underlings to do the same. To take just one example, in November, after Trump appallingly tossed out a reference to Warren as "Pocahontas" at an event honoring Navajo "code talkers," Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders justified it by saying, "I think what most people find offensive is Senator Warren lying about her heritage to advance her career," which managed to be three lies in one: There's no evidence Warren has ever lied about her heritage, she didn't use it to advance her career, and most people are certainly not offended by it.
At least not yet. I imagine that right now most Republican voters have only the vaguest idea how they're supposed to feel about Warren and her possibly Native American heritage—they've heard about it here or there, they've seen Trump make the joke, it's something about her claiming to be part Cherokee—but how this is supposed to fill them with rage at Warren has not yet been fully fleshed out for them. Don't worry: It will be.
It will be elevated to something huge, into the single most important thing everyone is supposed to know about Elizabeth Warren. Fox News will do endless segments on it filled with inaccuracies, right-wing talk radio hosts will talk about it constantly, Republican members of Congress will hammer away at it, until the message is brought home. They'll search the country until they find a Cherokee Republican to go on TV and condemn her. Liberals will decry the "Pocahontas" slur as racist, which it most certainly is, which conservatives will take as proof that they're on exactly the right track.
And how does Warren respond? We saw her lay it out in a speech last month to the National Congress of American Indians, in which she told the real story of Pocahontas and contrasted it with "the fable ... used to bleach away the stain of genocide." She said that despite what her family told her about their history, "I understand that tribal membership is determined by tribes—and only by tribes." And she promised that "Every time someone brings up my family's story, I'm going to use it to lift up the story of your families and your communities."
She also told her family's story, which has become the answer she gives when asked about her heritage. Here's the version she told to Chuck Todd on Meet the Press this Sunday:
So let me tell you the story of my family. My mother and daddy were born and raised in Oklahoma. My daddy first saw my mother when they were both teenagers. He fell in love with this tall, quiet girl who played the piano. Head over heels. But his family was bitterly opposed to their relationship because she was part Native American. They eventually eloped. They survived the Great Depression. The Dust Bowl. A lot of knocks. They raised my three brothers, all of whom headed off to the military, and me. And they fought. They loved each other. And most of all they hung together for 63 years. And that's the story that my brothers and I all learned from our mom and our dad, from our grandparents, from all of our aunts and uncles. It's a part of me, and nobody's going to take that part of me away.
As a piece of political rhetoric, it's undeniably well-crafted (which isn't to say it's not perfectly sincere). It takes the idea of her Native heritage and places it firmly inside her family and its struggles, explaining that while she may have wound up a Harvard professor, she came from poor Oklahoma stock. It reminds you that her family has a tradition of military service. And it attempts to render the question of whether she really has Native blood irrelevant, because even if you could prove it one way or another, it wouldn't make much of a difference.
That won't change Donald Trump's strategy, and his attacks on Warren will certainly resonate with his core supporters, who'll believe just about anything he says. But Warren is a skilled and charismatic politician, so she might be able to convince the broader electorate that Trump's insulting nickname says more about him than it does about her.