Editor’s Note: Kate Maltby is a regular broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics, and a theater critic for The Times of London. She is also completing a doctorate in Renaissance literature, having been awarded a collaborative doctoral degree between Yale University and University College London. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
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.
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.
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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.