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The Two-Faced Elizabeth Warren

She's a Harvard elite yet her economic ideas land well in a populist age. Which image will stick?
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Whatever you think of Fox News and talk radio, they do have a knack for epithets. And after Elizabeth Warren was discovered to have claimed Native American ancestry before being hired by Harvard Law School, they went straight to work. Warren was dubbed “Fauxcahontas,” “Lieawatha,” “Spewing Bull,” and “Fraudazuma.” She was “on the warpath” sending up “smoke signals”; her Senate campaign was a “Trail of Tears.” The Boston Globe was said to be “carrying her fire water.” So relentless did the jabs become that the most visible insult comedian of all, President Trump, got in on the act, calling Warren “Pocahontas” during—naturally—a ceremony honoring Native American veterans.

To the cast of Morning Joe, this is all horrifically racist, while to most normal people, it’s something at least a little less than that, because the entire point is that the blonde-haired Warren is only a comedian’s idea of a Native American. Either way, seven years after Boston radio host Howie Carr coined the “Fauxcahontas” sobriquet, the issue of Warren’s ancestry still threatens to clash with her cultivated image. Today Warren is running for president. Her platform is a populist one. It calls for action against big corporations, big banks, big millionaires, big health insurers—all of which she wants to bring low using the power of another big, big government.

It’s worth noting, if only as an aside, the contradiction there. This was best illustrated in a piece Warren wrote for Medium in which she (rightly) warned of “a precarious economy that is built on debt—both household debt and corporate debt.” Notably missing was the national debt, which amounts to around $182,900 per taxpayer and which Warren’s policies would only steepen. How exactly is a government flailing in red ink supposed to make the country solvent? And what of the fact that some of the economy’s woes—student loan debt, for example—were themselves at least in part caused by federal interventions?

Those objections aside, it would be wrong to dismiss Warren as just another statist liberal. She’s deeper than that, first of all, having written extensively about economics, including her book The Two-Income Trap. But more importantly, she’s put her finger on something very important in the American electorate. It’s the same force that helped propel Donald Trump to victory in 2016: a seething anger against goliath institutions that seem to prize profit and power over the greater welfare. This is firmly in the tradition of most American populisms, which have worried less about the size of government and more about gilded influence rendering it inert.

Warren thus has a real claim to the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party, which is deeply skeptical of corporate power. She could even try to out-populist Donald Trump. She’s already released more detailed policy proposals than any of her Democratic rivals, everything from sledgehammering the rich with new taxes to canceling student debt to wielding antitrust against big tech companies to subsidizing childcare. All this is chum to at least some of the Democratic base (old-school sorts rather than the SJWs obsessed with race and gender), and as a result, she’s surged to either second or third place in the primary, depending on what poll you check. She’s even elicited praise from some conservative intellectuals, who view her as an economic nationalist friendly to the family against the blackhearted forces of big.

America has been in a populist mood since the crash of 2008, yet in every presidential election since then, there’s been at least one distinctly plutocratic candidate in the race. In 2008, it was perennial Washingtonian John McCain. In 2012, it was former Bain Capital magnate Mitt Romney. (The stupidest explanation for why Romney lost was always that tea party activists dragged him down. Romney lost because he sounded like an imposter and looked like the guy who fired your brother from that firm back in 1982.) And in 2016, it was, of course, Hillary Clinton, whose candidacy is what happens when you feed a stock portfolio and a government security clearance into a concentrate machine.

If Elizabeth Warren wins the Democratic nomination next year, it will be the first time since Bear Stearns exploded that both parties’ candidates seem to reflect back the national temperament. It will also pose a test for Warren herself. On one hand, her economic policies, bad though they might be, stand a real chance of attracting voters, given their digestibility and focus on relieving high costs of living. On the other hand—this is where Fauxcahontas comes back in—a white woman claiming Indian status in order to teach at Harvard Law is pretty much everything Americans hate about politically correct identity politics.

The question, then, is which image of Warren will stick: one is a balm to the country’s economic anxiety; the other is unacceptable to its cultural grievances. Right now we can only speculate, though it seems certain that Trump will try to define her as the latter while much of the media will intervene in the other direction. Regardless, what we can conclude is that Democrats are underestimating how much Fauxcahontas could damage Warren while Republicans are underestimating how much traction she could get from her “socialist” policies. Remember, the political spectrum these days is less drawn between left and right as between perceived classes, people and elites. Warren, politically Janus-faced, could come off as either one.

There’s also the matter of what will happen to the right if Warren is elected. Voters tend to support muscular government when their guy is in charge and distrust it when the other side wins. Thus in retrospect was it the “Obama” in “Obamacare” that was the primary driver of opposition from conservatives, only for their concerns over federal intrusion to mostly disappear once Trump was at the controls. Under a President Warren, it would flip back the other way. Deficits would suddenly matter again. The feds would be bankrupting our children. “Make America great” would make at least a little room for “leave me alone.”

Pro-Trump intellectuals might thus want to pause before gloating too much over the death of the “Reagan consensus.” A president like Warren could cause many Republicans to remember why they turned to small-government Reaganism in the first place. And if all this seems like reckless speculation, then Warren is a candidate worth recklessly speculating about. A race between her and Trump, populist versus populist, would be genuinely interesting, unlike anything in recent memory. So no surprise that earlier this week, Warren once again apologized for her detour into Cherokee territory. She understands it’s a serious liability—and that Trump has a very big bullhorn.

Matt Purple is the managing editor of The American Conservative.



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