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.”