Question: Why would Trump make a sneering reference to Senator Elizabeth Warren, calling her "Pocahontas"?
Answer: It is part of a technique that works.
We are watching a battle of brands. Trump: "Her whole life was based on a fraud."
Trump is playing the long game. He is working to diminish and de-legitimize Elizabeth Warren as a worthy head-to-head rival. Politics is branding. Trump is positioning his brand versus the Warren brand. Trump does not want a contest between equals. He wants a contest between the big strong guy on top versus the pipsqueak wanna-be.
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Calling Warren "Pocahontas" is part of the technique. By demonstrating open disrespect and contempt, Trump is solidifying his status. She isn't worthy of respect.
Trump inserts a contemptuous comment on Warren at a White House ceremony, then (under a portrait of Andrew Jackson) turns to the Navaho WW2 veteran code talkers and says he likes them, real Americans who have actually been here a long time and who love their country.
Trump has branded Warren as "Pocahontas."
Trump has branded Warren as "Pocahontas."
The Pocahontas term is an appeal to white resentments over minority affirmative action. The presumption is that minorities get unfair advantage in getting good jobs over "regular white people." Trump's claim is that Warren cheated and claimed privilege she did not deserve. Warren, a native Oklahoman, had understood she has partial Cherokee extraction in her applications to teach at the University of Pennsylvania and at Harvard, and was apparently listed as "Native American" in at least one law directory. She has little, if any, Native American heritage, and in any case is unable to prove she has it. This is an opening for Trump. Trump is de-legitimizing and branding her as a fraud:
"She’s got about as much Indian blood as I have. Her whole life was based on a fraud. She got into Harvard and all that because she said she was a minority.”
Readers who viscerally dislike Trump sometimes have a hard time acknowledging his abilities. Trump is good at branding himself and others. Trump is not just accusing her of fraud. He is branding her as a fraud, making it a substitute for her name. Everyone in America knew who he was referring to when he said "Pocahontas": Elizabeth Warren.
Diminished and possibly lost in the Pocahontas brand is her achievement as a Harvard law school professor, as a champion for consumers vs. bank miscreants, as an articulate spokesperson for progressive causes. Her brand--as promoted by Trump--asserts a fraud and has become her name. It is ugly and cynical. It is genius.
Elizabeth Warren responds.
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In the past 24 hours I have watched Warren in multiple venues. She ignores the real reason Trump uses the term, the personal insult and his branding her as a fraud. She is attempting to re-define what is going on.
1. She calls it a "racial slur" rather than a personal one. It isn't, but she says it is. Make Trump try to argue that, no, he actually likes Indians, it is just Warren and people who cannot prove they are Indians.
2. She transforms the supposed purpose of the insult into one of trying to silence her. "He thinks somehow he going to shut me up with that? It's just not going to happen. It didn't happen the the past and its not going to happen in the future." I have seen her referring to "silencing me" multiple times. She is attempting to drive this point home. By making it an issue of silence, not legitimacy, the proof of Trump's ineffectiveness is in her hands--by continuing to criticize him. Much better for her to argue that the bully didn't win--see, I am still talking--than to argue that, no, I am not really a fraud. This is smart of her.
3. She uses this as a document of Trump's lack of self discipline. "President Trump couldn't even get through a ceremony to honor these men without throwing in a racial slur." Warren emphasized the "couldn't even get through a ceremony", her way of branding Trump as childish and weak.
The Trump brand is vulnerable on this point, and it is a core part of the Trump brand. She is defining Trump as actually weak, not strong. Trump wants his brand to be the dominant, tough bully, fearless defender of "regular people" against the politically correct liberals and their unfair rules that disadvantage "regular people." Trump maintains this brand through insults, twitter wars, tough talk, and choosing enemies that exemplify the battle lines on identity and inclusion. Trump's efforts have always run the risk of looking petty, silly, distracted, juvenile, and risky in a nuclear-armed world.
Warren is emphasizing Trump's negative. "He can't even get through a White House ceremony " without losing attention and going off message. This positions Trump as distractible and weak. It is effective in part because it re-defines what Trump does to build his brand, so Trump's actions boomerang. Those insulting tweets aren't strength, in Warren's view; they are the weakness of immaturity. Warren says to tweet all you want, since it proves how weak and distractible you are. Go ahead and insert insults where they make no sense since it proves you are unable to carry out the simplest of tasks.
This is a good response for Warren. She appears unafraid and utterly unapologetic. It would be better if she actively embraced her Pocahontas brand. "You bet people in our family have thought we were part Cherokee, just like a lot of good, hard working Oklahoma people who don't have family trees, coats of arms, and bone spurs. We are proud of it and proud to tell anyone. I will tell you one thing about my heritage Donald Trump can count on: when a bully tries to push us around we push right back."
Trump is ahead of the game so far. The "Pocahontas" brand has stuck. That is a big advantage for him--so far. But Warren is responding by getting in his face, not backing down, demonstrating that she is a peer rather than an upstart.