Elizabeth Warren

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) made a fundamental error in chasing the coattails of DNA provenance as a response to the jibes of US President Donald J. Trump.  She had been derided by the president as an ordinary “Pocahontas”, and promised at a July 5 rally in Montana a million dollars “to your favourite charity, paid for by Trump, if you take the test and it shows you’re an Indian.”

The very fact that the senator took the test was not merely a concession to the wiles of such rogue, extortionate agencies such as “Ancestry.com” but a nod to the validity of Trump’s characteristic prodding.  He had managed to, as he has so often before, lower the tone of conversation and disfigure it.  Warren had, in other words, done what most Democrats did before and after the election on 2016: grudgingly accept that the man wasn’t barking mad or reactionary in insisting on a course of action reserved for game show gimmicks and the lunatic fringe.

The test-run of this spectacle was already made during the previous presidency, when Trump repeatedly insisted that Barack Obama was born, not in Hawaii but Kenya.  Obama assumed that a world of debate, evidence and tests would matter.  The fact-checkers would gather under the same umbrella; confidence would be restored against ignorance and the ill-informed if the paperwork could be produced.  Against the mind of Trump, facts have no place to land, no means of clutching and holding. They simply slip, awaiting the next grab.  More often than not, they are subtracted.

As if to prove that point, Trump finally conceded during his 2016 presidential campaign that Obama’s paperwork had, in fact, been in order.  “President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period.”  Trump then came with his own unsettling improvement, accusing his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, of having spawned the “birther movement”.  (It has since been reported that the birther fascination remains mother’s milk for Trump, an individual offended by authenticity.)

Given that one of the big problems in current US politics lies in its division between billowy identitarianism and head blowing reaction, wading into a gene pool associated with Native American identity was not necessarily useful. It risked aggravating Native American sensibilities and while failing to convince Trump.  Warren claimed that she would not “sit quietly for @realDonaldTrump’s racism, so I took a test.”

She also had to mention that “a famous geneticist”, Professor Carlos D. Bustamante of Stanford, had examined her DNA in this elaborate exercise of eugenic self-affirmation.  The test revealed a historical whiff of Native American, through the ancestral line stretching back some six to ten generations ago.  “The facts suggest,” concluded Bustamante, “that you absolutely have Native American ancestry in your pedigree.”  Warren duly released a video built on a refutation of Trump’s claims, insisting that such insults were designed “to distract from the kinds of changes I am fighting for.”

Taking such tests, larding counter-claims with weapons of putative fact, simply plays into the pantomime of provocation and mockery that Trumpland inspires; you dignify such shows of provocation further by conceding to your opponent that he might have had something to go on in the first place, the absurd or irrelevant rendered plausible.

When questioned about the findings, Trump adopted his characteristic method of degrading the premises and the evidence.  What was the percentage, for instance, of Warren’s Native American background?  One or one thousand?  Being negligible in the gene tally was as good as not existing at all.  As for the money, he wasn’t going to be parting with any, having, in his own mind at least, never made a promise to part with any.  Having said that, “I’ll only do it if I can test her personally, OK?  That will not be something I enjoy doing either.”

Warren deemed such comments “creepy”, and part of the Trump method of responding to “women who scare him: call us names, attack us personally, shrink us down to feel better about himself.”  Such acts might well “soothe his ego – but it won’t work.”

Unfortunately for Warren, her effort to placate the hounds of scepticism did not only inspire Trump to another round of mockery; it enraged members of the Cherokee Nation.  Warren had issued a modest disclaimer in saying that, “DNA & family history has nothing to do with tribal affiliation or citizenship, which is determined only – only – by Tribal Nations.”  While respecting “the distinction”, she preferred to not list herself as “Native” in the Senate.

In a country sensitive to the opportunism of appropriation and incessant culture wars, Warren did not impress.  Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. was livid.  “Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong.”  Warren had not merely delegitimised the use of DNA tests but dishonoured “legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven.”

The way was left open to Trump to initiate another round of attacks.  “Even they,” chortled Trump, “don’t want her.”  He thanked “the Cherokee Nation for revealing that Elizabeth Warren, sometimes referred to as Pocahontas, is a complete and total Fraud!”  And so it was, back to the misery of square one, Warren checkmated, Trump bullishly ecstatic, and political conversation dumbed into oblivion.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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