Why Is Trump So Obsessed With Elizabeth Warren?

He can’t stop talking about her, even when he refuses to say her name. Like a jilted lover or bitter divorcee who works “my ex” into every conversation, Donald Trump can’t stop talking about Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Trump v. Warren
At left, President Donald Trump. At right, Senator Elizabeth Warren

Yesterday, at a White House event honoring World War 2’s Navajo Code Talkers, the severely unpopular president uttered an odd series of words:

“I just want to thank you because you’re very, very special people… You were here long before any of us were here, although we have a representative in Congress who, they say, was here a long time ago. They call her ‘Pocahontas’.”

— 45th President Of The United States

(Perhaps with intentional extra offense, he was standing under a portrait of President Andrew Jackson, who is most infamous for his enthusiastic support of racism.)

Every person who heard or read these remarks — with the possible exception of Sean Hannity fans, who aren’t known to be aware of facts — recognized immediately that not only was it a sideways slur at the Native Americans standing all around him, but that he was yet again slamming political foe Warren — at an event entirely unrelated to her.

Always one to ask “why?”, I very quickly asked “why?”

Here’s some background, in case a Hannity fan wonders in, characteristically unmoored to context and facts:

In 2012, when Warren was first running for her U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts, the Boston Herald reported that Warren had once claimed to be Native American. It turns out that Harvard’s law school had done the touting — in the 1990s — in order to claim more ethnic diversity among its tenured professors. Born and raised in Oklahoma, Warren had been told in childhood that her family had Native American roots and had never doubted it. I can confirm that this is a common phenomenon in Oklahoma; it happened to me too. (Eventually, genealogical research turned up no credible Native American ancestry in my family.) Naturally, Warren’s then-opponent Scott Brown (since appointed into the Trump administration) ran with the story, claiming she’d lied about her heritage as an advantage in the job market. Which is a weird claim to make, since ethnic minorities — especially Native Americans — are known to struggle in the job market. Notably, Harvard officials who played a part in hiring Warren in the early 1990s said that her heritage never came up. And she never brought it up either until Republicans made it a part of the campaign.

Skip to 2016, when Warren publicly opposed Trump’s candidacy for president. He began calling her “Pocahontas” — apparently in reference to the 2012 non-story. He was told then that it was offensive, but he kept going. As far back as 1993, Trump has had public issues with Native Americans. Where most of us have learned to button our lips before uttering obviously offensive phrases, Trump has never suffered any consequences for his actions and thus continues to repeat them.

Back to my question though. Why Warren? What is it about her that he can’t ignore?

I saw several theories over the past day.

1. A Secret Attraction

Several people likened it to the elementary-school boy who can’t stop being mean to a particular girl — the situations that are usually defused by an older person commenting: “Oh, he probably just likes you.”

First, this is a horrible thing to say to a little girl. Because people who like you aren’t mean to you. Bullies and assholes are mean to you. Secondly, I should think it obvious that Trump isn’t attracted to Warren. Regardless of whether you or I think she’s attractive, clearly Trump has a type, and she’s not it.

2. He Hates Smart, Independent, Powerful Women

This charge was also levied during Trump’s campaign against presidential popular vote winner Hillary Clinton. “He can’t stand powerful women”, I saw repeatedly. While it might be somewhat true, I believe this one needs a qualifier. I think he’s okay with women who are powerful and/or smart, but only if they’re loyal to him. He regularly compliments his wife and one of his daughters. He has appointed several intelligent women to positions of power, though they are almost entirely donors to his campaign (like DeVos), related to him (like his daughter), or otherwise entangled in nepotism-like structures (like Mitch McConnell’s wife).

It’s the independent (not dependent on him) part that he doesn’t like. But even that can’t explain all of it, because there are a thousand other independent, powerful women in the country who don’t like Trump — and doesn’t take shots at them nearly as often as he does at Warren.

3. He Fears Her Politically

I saw this morning: “Pay attention: Trump is telling you what he’s most afraid of. Notice he’s not talking about Sanders or Biden like this.”

The implication is that Trump worries about a 2020 presidential run by Warren. That he thinks he can easily beat Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders — should they run — but that he’s worried of losing to Warren. This could very well be true. Of the three, I would be vastly more likely to vote for Warren.

But again, I don’t think this is the reason Trump keeps repeating the “Pocahontas” jibe. Because she hasn’t announced a campaign, the 2020 election is still (remarkably) three years away, and I don’t think he’s smart enough to think that far ahead (if he is, then why all the bankruptcies and divorces?)

4. He’s Just A Racist

Someone said it’s simple; he’s just a racist, and this is an opportunity to trot out his racial slurs. This also could be part of it, like his fondness for Andrew Jackson posters or his determination to make America less brown again.

But I think he actually believes “Pocahontas” isn’t a racial slur. I think the racism here is accidental, because of his stupefying ability to not realize what’s going on.

5. My Theory

My theory: You know how some people repeat the same half-funny jokes and sayings because they once got a laugh out of them and so believe they’re still funny? Yeah, I think that’s what’s happening here.

We’ve all known that person — or maybe we’ve been that person. It was profound or funny or startling or insightful the first time we said it. Our brains latch onto the social reward from the first instance and try to repeat the feeling.

That’s why there are still people who comment: “You know, both parties are the same”, as if it’s never been claimed before, as if it hasn’t been asserted daily, for decades. Because the first time they heard it or said it, the response was rewarding to them. Either it brought on a rich discussion of political parties’ histories, or no one challenged them, or someone complimented them for being insightful. So they kept saying it, despite it not being factual and despite the pushback they now receive. I think it’s also why half the racist or misogynist jokes still make the rounds — not necessarily because the joke-teller intends any particular harm to those demographics, but because of Pavlovian reward conditioning.

At some point in his presidential campaign, our country’s most famous dotard used “Pocahontas” as a derogatory nickname for one of his political enemies. The crowd went wild! What a feeling, right? How many of us have stood on a stage before thousands and had them erupt into joyous cheering over a single word we said? It has to be rewarding in a chemical way.

So yes, I think the real answer here is less attention-grabbing than we want it to be. While we love to cry “Racism!” or “Sexism!” or “Warren in 2020!” — and we have plenty of opportunities for all three — it’s entirely more likely that Trump’s repeated slams on Warren are simply the result of conditioning.

  1. I love your turns of phrases… “severely unpopular” … “enthusiastic support of racism” … “stupefying ability to not realize what’s going on” … Adjectives and adverbs for the win! :-)

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      Thanks! I once observed of my own writing that I am an expert at hiding literary gems inside otherwise laborious and stultifying prose. :-)

  2. Dana says:

    Your theory only really explains the “Pochantas” as an insult part of it. It doesn’t explain his particular fixation with slamming Elizabeth Warren.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      Perhaps not. But his supporters can’t stand women with power, education, or intelligence. So they cheer for him when he bashes “Pocahontas” or “crooked Hillary”. I’m positing that he really isn’t fascinated with either of them, but has been conditioned to keep talking about them.

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