I’ve met Elizabeth Warren. And let me tell you, she’s likable. She doesn’t send me Christmas cards, and she doesn’t remember me. But I’ve spoken to her and had my picture taken with her at a rally hosted by my friend and state senator Eric Lesser.
It was the first time, however, I saw Elizabeth Warren in person at a Massachusetts Teacher Association training that I experienced her energy and sincerity and decided to support her 2012 bid for the Senate. Warren had just been interviewed by the endorsement committee, which allowed her and the other candidates to stop by and say hello. She wasn’t just likable–she was electric. Sincere and energetic. It was clear she wanted to work for us.
As a presidential candidate, Warren is well-qualified. She has more experience as a senator than Obama did when he was elected presiden. She’s infinitely more qualified than the last two Republican presidents. So what’s the problem? She was excoriated by liberals for using DNA to confirm her Native American heritage. Now she’s being criticized for drinking a beer. The theme of the current news cycle is whether Warren is likable. What’s going on? She’s caught in an inauthenticity trap.
If you ever saw a bully operate, you’ve witnessed this kind of trap. The goal is to make the victim not only appear wrong but to feel wrong. When I was in high school, there was a kid associated with and bullied by the pot-smoking clique. They had named him “Narc.” (In our rural, late 1970s, Western Massachusetts community, “narc” was the term for “rat” or “snitch”). The kid had never “narced” or told on anyone, but it didn’t matter. He’d been saddled with an identity that wasn’t truly his.
Bullying this kid wasn’t about whether he actually had ever told on anyone. It was about his authenticity and whether the group would allow him to maintain his sense of self. The name was a way to make him feel self-conscious, a way to separate him from his sense of himself. I didn’t know the kid personally and how things played out, but the inauthenticity trap he was caught in has some predictable patterns. He would have tried to reassert his sense of self, to prove he is who he believes himself to be, and found his efforts only tightened the trap. His efforts to prove his authenticity would have served to prove his perceived inauthenticity. He was in a Catch-22, a double-bind.
Elizabeth Warren, to be clear, is not the victim of a bully. She’s a political player who put herself forward as a candidate, and that means facing fair and unfair attacks from opponents. She is, however, caught in an inauthenticity trap and attempts to defend herself have tended to backfire.
Consider the Native American non-issue. The evil genius of that attack is that it almost completely lacks substance. At one point decades ago, Elizabeth Warren listed herself as having Indian heritage. Her claim was based on family lore. Such claims were not uncommon once upon a time. (My mother’s family still makes the same claim). Conservatives and Scott Brown allies prompted media investigations into whether Warren had received special privileges from her claim, but the enduring, strategic advantage came with the laying of the inauthenticity trap.
In her runup to announcing her exploratory committee, Warren released the results of her DNA test and publishing the results. The political consensus was she had made a mistake. But what was Warren supposed to do? The (non-)issue will not go away. It’s an impediment to her presidential candidacy. She needs to address it, yet so far, defending herself against it just made her look worse. Even people politically aligned with Warren were critical of her. Another facet of the inauthenticity trap: even your allies tend to turn against you. It almost goes without saying that all of this attention distracts from Elizabeth Warren’s ideas and campaign.
The inauthenticity trap is a dilemma, and as my Holyoke Community College philosophy professor once taught, dilemmas have no solutions. The situation itself has to change. No single action will rectify things. In and of themselves, DNA tests and beer won’t help. What Warren needs to do to escape the trap is to transcend the dilemma, cast the inauthenticity trap as the bullshit game it is and rise above it by challenging the assumptions of the game itself.
Responding to allegations and questions about her Indian heritage, she must challenge the validity of the (non-)issue itself and answer with facts and the truth. What do I mean? When questioned, she should 1) challenge the question, and 2) provide the truth: for better or worse, based on my family stories, I once listed myself as a Native American. I did this because–like many Americans–my heritage is important to me, and I wanted to meet people who shared that heritage. I had no idea that I would someday run for the U.S. Senate and be the target of opposition research. I don’t know if I would have done anything differently. I never benefited from the listing.
In addition to an honest, factual narrative providing the truth, Warren should challenge the assumptions of those who bring up the (non-)issue itself and force them to identify and defend those assumptions. Her question to them should be, in essence, “So what?”