Among President Donald Trump’s indisputable accomplishments in his mere two years in office is that he has made overt racism acceptable once again in political discourse for Republicans and conservatives.
The latest example came from Trump himself on Saturday, within hours of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s announcement of her presidential candidacy.
Everyone expected Trump to engage soberly and frankly with the Massachusetts senator’s core message of income inequality and the rigging of the American economy in favor of the rich.
Just kidding! Everyone expected Trump to respond with the utmost crudeness and crassness. He didn’t disappoint.
Trump tweeted: “Today Elizabeth Warren, sometimes referred to by me as Pocahontas, joined the race for President. Will she run as our first Native American presidential candidate, or has she decided that after 32 years, this is not playing so well anymore? See you on the campaign TRAIL, Liz!”
A number of points need to be made here. One is that Trump appears actually to be proud of his infantile “Pocahontas” taunt, which he’s been wielding against Warren for a couple of years. The insult refers to family lore of Native American heritage that Warren has cited.
Second, the voices of Republican officeholders, who should be shouting condemnations of this racist tirade from the rooftops, are silent. Why is that?
Mitt Romney, the former GOP candidate for president and a newly minted U.S. senator from Utah, has tried to position himself as the grown-up under the Republican tent, notably with a Jan. 1 op-ed in which he promised to “speak out against significant statements or actions that are divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions.” As far as I can tell, he hasn’t spoken out about the Pocahontas slur since his swearing-in, and thus far he seems to have said nothing about Trump’s latest tweet.
Third, Trump’s reference to the “TRAIL” in all-capital letters looks like a reference to the Trail of Tears, the genocidal removal of Indian tribes from their Eastern homelands during the presidencies of Andrew Jackson and Martin van Buren in the 1830s. As many as 4,000 tribal members died during the forced removal, undertaken so that their lands could be turned over to white farmers and gold prospectors. More on that in a moment.
Remarkably, one defense being raised to Trump’s allusion to the Trail of Tears is that he’s too ignorant to be aware of the Trail of Tears. That’s the tack taken by Brit Hume of Fox News, responding to a tweet from Rolling Stone’s Jamil Smith slamming Trump for having “used the murders of Indigenous people as a punchline.”
Hume replied, also by tweet: “Yes, because Trump is noted for his knowledge of 19th century American history vis a vis the native population. Jeez.” Perhaps Hume believes that Trump is much more cognizant of American history vis a vis the native population in the 16th and 17th century, the era when the real Pocahontas lived. Or maybe he’s implying that Trump was thinking of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans singing “Happy Trails to You.” Jeez, indeed.
If Hume is right, by the way, shouldn’t we expect Trump to issue an apology for a statement he now knows could be misinterpreted? We should expect that, but no one is holding their breath.
Does Hume’s defense of Trump’s racist references to Native Americans extend to the Republican Party as a whole and to its sedulous followers?
Here’s how the Republican National Committee headlined its response to Warren’s candidacy on Saturday: “Fauxcahontas’ Failure To Launch.” GOP Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel, Mitt Romney’s niece, thought this gibe was sufficiently hilarious to tweet out the article under her name. Jacob Wohl, a right-wing pro-Trump blogger, tweeted a photograph of Warren altered to give her a quiver of arrows and an Indian headband, over the text: “If you’re like me, you CAN’T WAIT to see Trump turn the campaign trail into the ‘Trail of Tears’ in 2020.” Obviously, the Republican leadership’s indulgence of racist mockery gives people like Wohl the green light to run with it.
Does Brit Hume not understand that Trump’s and the RNC’s association of Warren’s ethnicity with “Pocahontas” or “Fauxcahontas” is a racist insult to all Native Americans by its reduction of all Native American women to a Disneyfied stereotype? (According to historians, Pocahontas was the daughter of an Algonquian chief; the story of her rescue of the English colonialist John Smith in 1607, now part of our cultural legacy, is often treated by historians as at least partly mythical.)
The scariest aspect of all this is that it places the intellectual bankruptcy of American campaign reporting on display once again. The campaign press’ fixation on Warren’s ethnicity is, as Matthew Yglesias of Vox puts it succinctly, not an error but a choice. The issue has been dressed up by newspapers and cable chatterers as an argument not over whether Warren does or doesn’t have Cherokee blood, but whether she used her purported Native American heritage to win appointment and promotion at a series of law schools, ultimately Harvard.
That’s an effort to make the attention paid to this fake issue look serious and profound, but it’s a transparent dodge. In September, The Boston Globe, Warren’s hometown newspaper, published a thorough examination of this claim of preferential treatment. Here’s its conclusion:
“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. At every step of her remarkable rise in the legal profession, the people responsible for hiring her saw her as a white woman.”
Perhaps crestfallen by this conclusive debunking of the original justification for masticating the ethnicity issue into a slurry, the campaign press has now reformulated the issue. Now it’s supposed about how maladroitly Warren has “handled” the issue and what that says about her ability to govern as president.
This will encourage roundtables on CNN and the other cable channels to continue gnawing on the bone — and avoiding the issue of economic fairness that really matter to Americans that Warren has placed at the center of her campaign. Whatever Warren has said about being part Native American, Trump’s overtly racist jeer is immeasurably worse, and hasn’t been receiving a nanogram’s worth of the attention it deserves.
If you’re concerned that coverage of the presidential race in 2020 will be as inane as the coverage in 2016, or worse, here’s proof that you should be terrified.
Let’s return to the question of the exploitation of the Trail of Tears by Trump and his minions. There’s some disagreement among historians whether the term should apply to the general policy of forced migration imposed on Southeastern tribes after enactment of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, or only to the relocation of an estimated 17,000 members of the Cherokee Nation in 1838, as well as Choctaws and three other Southeastern tribes.
As the Appalachian writer John Ehle related in his 1988 book “Trail of Tears,” the uprooting of the five tribes disrupted their social and family cohesion. “Deaths were numerous, suffering was intense, and … the government of the Cherokees, once promising, was destroyed.”
The Indians had been confined in prison camps before they were transported. Fed an unfamiliar diet of meal and pork, the misery and sickness started there. “The diet, the filth of the camps, the flies feeding at the slit trenches and visiting the food and hands of the people” were deadly. They marched in freezing weather, often barefooted. There was malaria in the summer; smallpox “struck the Choctaws and became an epidemic among them,” Ehle wrote.
“Many of the deaths were of infants whose nursing mothers were ill with intestinal diseases. The sick infants bawled until too weak to cry. One mother carried the corpse of her infant for two days, keeping it company.” The ultimate toll is uncertain, but is generally placed at 4,000, including 2,000 thought to have died in the camps.
This act of genocide is the moment of American history that Trump and his followers choose to turn into a joke. No reporter interviewing a Republican leader or officeholder should let the interview end without getting that politician’s reaction to this level of racism on the record. No journalist should overlook the rank racism of the Republican campaign theme. Racism, whether wielded against black, Hispanic or Native American individuals or groups is the American sickness, and to avoid calling it out is shameful.
Michael Hiltzik wrote this piece for the Los Angeles Times.