For my money there is no greater political spectacle today than President Trump’s constantly referring to Senator Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas.” There is, I think, no jest in contemporary politics more richly deserved than this. For years Warren, the whitest white person who ever whited, a woman whiter than a wedding dress in a Yukon snowdrift, identified herself as Native American, a claim that is as self-evidently false as it is utterly unsubstantiated. As Dana Loesch points out, Warren’s claim wasn’t simply that she had Native American heritage, it was that she is actually Native American. (“When actual Cherokee activists travelled to confront Warren over her claims,” Loesch writes, “Warren refused to meet with them.” Wouldn’t you?)
It is interesting to see liberals go to the mat for Warren. I cannot imagine a scenario more primed to stoke the fires of contemporary progressive anger: a rich, privileged white person impersonated an ethnic minority—an ethnicity that has been an historical victim of genocide and industrial-scale land theft, no less—for decades, very possibly earning favorable treatment from minority-obsessed academia in the process. If a lily-white Republican man had somehow claimed to be a minority of some stripe, and had likely benefited from his false claims, the media and political response would be unprecedented, a tornado of savage, gleeful fury. Elizabeth Warren, however, is opposed to big banks or Wal Mart or something, so she gets a pass. This is tribalism at its finest—er, uh, well, you get the point.
Whether or not she reaped the rewards of being a white Indian a few decades ago, Warren is definitely doing it now. In a fundraising email, she called Trump’s Pocahontas insult an example of the “very worst of gutter politics.” (Worse than a white person impersonating a Native American?) She refers to his usage of “Pocahontas” as a “racial slur,” an assertion that is making the rounds: Joy Reid, Jim Acosta, HuffPo, and numerous others claim that the name of an historical Native American somehow constitutes a “racial slur.” This is a nonsensical evasion, of course; how could a name constitute a “slur?” Yet even at its worst—as an offensive repurposing of an historical figure’s name—it is hard to imagine how deploying the word “Pocahontas” as an insult is somehow more scandalous than pretending to be a Native American. Put another way: how deeply perverted do your priorities have to be to get angry at the guy making fun of the opportunistic Indian-imperonsating white woman instead of the opportunistic Indian-impersonating white woman herself?
The politics of “identity” may provide something of an escape hatch for Warren: in an age where one of the chief progressive political planks is that a man can “identify” as a woman and consequently be a woman, I suppose it is not so far a stretch for a very white person with a very white heritage to “identify” as a non-white. Though one rather suspects that the politics of the identifier in question are important: if Elizabeth Warren’s name were Michelle Bachmann or Martha Roby, you can imagine she wouldn’t get off so easy. In any case, at this point it seems clear that Warren would like for everyone to forget about the fact that she once called herself an Indian. It is a mark of Trump’s scattershot sagacity that he won’t let her, or any of us, do so. Warren may have a long and fruitful political career ahead of her—she may even be president one day—but, if things continue as they are, her unscrupulous and deceitful past will likely follow her even unto retirement. As well it should.