One of the innumerable ways in which Donald Trump has degraded American politics is his habit of relentlessly using belittling nicknames for his political opponents. Seizing on a superficial or imagined characteristic — “Liddle Marco,” “Low-Energy” Jeb Bush, etc. — he repeats it, like a middle-school bully, recruiting his sycophants to circulate the meme.
Axios reports that Trump is especially pleased with his insulting of Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, a contender for the 2020 Democratic nomination. Axios brings us word that behind the scenes the bully-in-chief and his lackeys are chortling about their success. “Trump’s nicknames slyly capitalize on and exacerbate a real or perceived weakness: A former aide said: ‘You hear them and laugh, and then they say: ‘You know what? He’s kinda right!’,’” it reports, adding in the news outlet’s signature “Be Smart” coda: “Be smart … Trump’s ‘Pocahontas’ nickname, as offensive as it may be, has been wickedly effective from his point of view.”
One of the preconditions for the success of Trump’s method is a news media that will devote far more attention to grading the effectiveness of Trump’s bullying than its truth. Even on those amoral terms, this story is especially credulous. It gives Trump credit for inventing a nickname that he did not actually devise. In fact, the theme and the term were used against Warren when she ran for Senate in 2012. “The term Pocahontas” was “near ubiquitous in conservative media,” complained one critic.
The far more common term of abuse at the time was “Fauxcahontas,” which at least involves some wordplay. So to the extent Trump can claim any contribution here, it is nudging Republicans away from a somewhat clever bullying nickname and toward the adoption of a dumber version.
The accusation implied by the nickname is that Warren falsified Native American heritage to advance her career in academia. Warren has said she has been told by her family that she has part Cherokee descent, and has listed that designation at times. This week, she released the result of a DNA test trying to ascertain whether that family lore is correct. The test suggested she probably did have a Cherokee ancestor six to ten generations ago. Conservatives claimed this proved she had less Native American ancestry than the average person, and the conclusion spread virally through conservative media, although it was false.
In any case, the DNA test had no bearing on either of the relevant facts. We don’t usually expect people to scientifically verify claims of ancestry when they check boxes on forms. Was Warren told she had Cherokee ancestry? Nobody has produced any evidence to the contrary.
More to the point, did she benefit from affirmative action as an alleged Native American? The Boston Globe’s Annie Linskey conducted an exhaustive investigation of this question last month, digging through personnel records and interviewing former colleagues and supervisors. The result of her reporting was unambiguous. “The Globe found clear evidence, in documents and interviews, that her claim to Native American ethnicity was never considered by the Harvard Law faculty, which voted resoundingly to hire her, or by those who hired her to four prior positions at other law schools,” it found. “At every step of her remarkable rise in the legal profession, the people responsible for hiring her saw her as a white woman.”
Perhaps because this report came out on Labor Day, or perhaps because the news media is too shallow to care, its findings have failed to make much impact. Instead we are left with lots of admiring commentary about Trump’s bullying game being on point. “It clearly got in Warren’s head: The fact that she got a DNA test, let alone is doing a massive rollout of the results, shows how much it’s on her mind,” reports Axios. “It now becomes a symbol of whether she’s honest. Did she lie to advance her academic career?”
Well, she didn’t — a fact the story declines to mention. But who cares about the truth when we can describe the effectiveness of the lie?