Earlier this week, President Trump again referred to US Senator Elizabeth Warren by his favorite nickname for her: Pocahontas. It’s a racially tinged insult he’s hurled dozens of times at this point. But some say it might be time to give it up and find a better moniker.
While Trump has managed to gain some degree of traction with his other dismissive names (think “Lyin’ Ted” and “Crooked Hillary”) the Pocahontas meme, they say, is old.
There’s no proof it ever resonated with voters, who may have missed the reference altogether. Words like “lying” or “crooked” are easily interpreted as bad, even with context. But Pocahontas is a more obscure cultural reference, one that voters may have trouble connecting with Warren. Besides, he’s using it as a slur of sorts, defaming the name of a celebrated Native American woman in colonial Jamestown.
So what is the back story on why he calls her that? The nickname dates back to the 2012 US Senate race, in which the now sitting senator ousted incumbent Republican Scott Brown. It references a campaign controversy that began when it came out that Warren had listed herself as “Native American” in faculty directories at the law schools of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania. Warren, who grew up in Oklahoma, said it was always her understanding that she was part Native American. She also said that she didn’t use the background to her advantage since she was actively recruited by both schools to be a professor.
She won the election anyway, by 8 percentage points.
That Trump should now attack Warren and vice versa is not surprising. It is good politics for both of them. In the case of this particular feud, both Trump and Warren can raise money and solidify support from their respective bases when they engage in name-calling.
But those skirmishes have a lot more to do with a potential 2020 presidential match up than with Warren’s 2018 reelection campaign. And it’s hard to explain to voters in Nebraska why an eight-year-old controversy involving two Ivy League schools matters to them. Pocahontas just “requires too much explanation” to be an effective putdown, Gray said.
Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University advertising professor and former Democratic media consultant, said that historically, the best lines of attack are those that display some type of hypocrisy.
Since Warren is best known for her opposition to the political and economic forces of Wall Street, Trump might be smart to find a way to flip that around.
Wall Street Warren maybe?
In that case, Warren might come defend her record against Wall Street. “But as Trump has shown, he will say things even if there is no evidence it is true,” Berkovitz said.
It has been nearly four years since Trump first referred to Warren as Pocahontas on Twitter. But don’t expect him to debut a new schoolyard taunt any time soon.
“Trump really likes to stick with the golden oldies. When he coins a name for someone, he sticks with it,” Berkovitz said. “Does the Pocahontas name have the political punch and stick to it? Nah. Probably not except for his hardcore supporters. Maybe that’s his definition of success.”James Pindell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell. Click here to subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics.