How many times during my childhood did my father tell me that when his grandmother and her sister had sailed to America, they had traveled “a class above steerage”? I was a Hula-Hooping child of the atomic age, growing strong on USDA beef and Cocoa Puffs. What did I know about steerage? But I knew my father in the complete and inchoate way that a child knows her parent, and I knew he wanted me to understand something important to him and—somehow—to me. I understood the lesson to be: The Flanagans have been down, but they have not been out.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion once wrote. And we tell them inside our families so that something can live within them, some idea or value, some complicated honoring of an elder. Elizabeth Warren’s family—the Herrings—had a story, of course. A central and important one: Her parents’ love had been so strong that they had defied their elders and eloped. Her mother had been rejected by the Herrings because she was “Cherokee and Delaware,” Warren has said many times, which heightened the family romance and gave it mythic dimensions. It’s one of the central American stories; it’s The Searchers.
All of this is too ephemeral, too emotionally resonant, and too personally sacred for Donald Trump to leave it alone. For years he has told the world that Warren is a liar, meaning that her parents were liars and that her entire life has been a kind of lie. “I’ve got more Indian blood in me than Pocahontas,” he once said, adding the perfectly Trumpian coda: “And I have none.”
Imagine what it would be like to be the subject of one of Trump’s bullying campaigns, to have the most powerful man in the world ridicule you day after day, in his crude, below-the-belt way. What would you do about it? Ignore it, and you look weak. Handle it in some principled way, and he will only increase the pressure. Respond to it in kind, hurling equally harsh insults at him, and your energies will be turned back upon you.
Warren has already dealt with one of the potent ramifications of Trump’s taunts: his assertion of the old calumny that she used her claim to American Indian ancestry to gain the advantages of affirmative action from various educational institutions and employers. To combat this, she has created a section on her website that displays the PDFs of 10 personnel records, each with a red box drawn around the part of the form where she entered her race: “White”; “White”; “White.”
Here we must pause to give grudging admiration to the wicked effectiveness of Trump’s methods. His bullying seems so crude and impulsive when it’s belching through the news cycle. But what other Republican politician could force a progressive senator with presidential ambitions to produce a fat dossier attesting to her own whiteness? Is she leading the resistance or trying to join the Savannah Junior League, circa 1952? The PDFs are intended, of course, as an ironclad rebuke to Trump’s claims about affirmative action, but given the way the left interprets race, might they just as easily be regarded as a testament to her own successful claim on white privilege? Becky goes to Harvard.
None of this decreased the pressure from Trump, who continued his campaign of contempt and belittlement. We can understand Warren’s immense personal desire to clear her name, to rescue the idea of herself that she has held since her earliest years. And we can fully appreciate the political problems that would have ensued if she had never dispelled the idea that she was a faker; she may not have checked the American Indian box on job and school applications, but she had indicated her minority status in a variety of other advantageous ways.
And at some point she decided that the thing to do was to have a DNA test and make the results public, which has only proved that Trump can push sensible people past the point of madness. Putting one’s genetic information into the public conversation about one’s fitness for office is a bizarre idea. Moreover, her insistence that it would offer definitive proof of something her supporters believe in was tone-deaf. Doesn’t Warren realize that race is a social construct and whiteness is an idea? Doesn’t she know that the science of genetics is often used as a tool of the oppressor, that you cannot destroy the master’s house with the master’s tools?
The ruinous plan began Monday morning, when she posted a video explaining that we were going to witness her receiving the results of her DNA test. We see her getting a phone call from the geneticist: “You absolutely have a Native American ancestor,” he tells her, and she smiles—the most natural and human moment of the entire drama. It is a smile of relief, a smile that tells her that her parents had not plied her with fiction. “Then it was all true,” Nick Carraway decides after Gatsby has shown him the medal from Montenegro and the photograph from Oxford. The desire to believe in a dream is a powerful thing.
But nothing gold can stay, and by mid-morning people were starting to take a closer look at the exculpatory DNA result and noticing that the geneticist had concluded that the ancestor or ancestors in question had lived six to 10 generations in the past, meaning that, in the portion of Warren’s genome that was sequenced, 1.6 percent to 0.1 percent of the DNA suggested American Indian origins.
The reduction of identity to percentages of a genome reminded me of another American who pledged to put his DNA results on the line as proof of his right place in the culture: Richard Spencer. He had expected a report of “white,” “white,” “white,” but ended up with something that has remained the subject of anxious jokes—of the kind that would require the combined talents of William Faulkner and Sigmund Freud to interpret—among Spencer and his fellow travelers. His DNA is only 99.5 percent of European origin. The other 0.5 percent includes African heritage and—to the tune of 0.1 percent—“Broadly East Asian and Native American” heritage, according to the report from 23andMe, which uses a methodology not directly comparable to Warren’s test.
When you follow an impulse that puts you in league with Richard Spencer, you have lost your way, and birds have eaten all the bread crumbs that could have led you back home. Only disaster can follow. Thank God the Cherokee Nation’s secretary of state made a statement about the test: Warren was guilty of “undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage,” and a “DNA test is useless to determine tribal citizenship.”
The United States of America is like the Cherokee Nation: DNA tests are irrelevant to our conception of citizenship. The poison that has been trying to seep into our groundwater these past few years would tell us something different: that race is everything, the only thing. Genetic tests are filled with truths that are irrefutable and oftentimes terrible—how many people have learned from one of these reports that the man who raised them is not their father? That is their right place: the private sphere of the individual life. Allowing Donald Trump to so inspire you, like Spencer, or so unnerve you, like Warren, that you try to justify yourself by making them public is something we should resist at every turn.