Elizabeth Warren Discovers the Pitchfork

The candidate has learned to kill the professor within, by going after billionaires.

Elizabeth Warren
Jonathan Drake / Reuters

My colleague Megan Garber spoke up on Wednesday in defense of anger, a quality whose presence in a female presidential candidate gets her branded as hysterical and shrill, and whose absence, paradoxically, marks her as frosty and robotic. (Angry men are just “fired up”; angerless ones are “cerebral.” There are exceptions: Critics penalized Howard Dean for being a rage-monster and Michael Dukakis for being a passionless wuss.) The angry woman in this round is Elizabeth Warren, whose anger—mainly directed at billionaires—is becoming a signature quality.

I have been pessimistic about Warren’s chances, not because of her anger, but because of her apparent lack of a crucial quality that distinguishes successful presidential candidates, namely that they should be completely insane. The stresses of a campaign would be enough to make a normal person quit. Warren is scrutinized literally down to her genome, and the worst people in the world are scheming to defame her. The prize in this contest is the most burdensome job ever devised, one self-evidently worse than that of a tenured law professor at Harvard University. As a Richard North Patterson character put it:

If all your friends came to you with a red box and told you that you had to hold it for four years and never drop it, because if you dropped it the whole goddamned world would blow up, you and every other normal person we know would hand the box back in a heartbeat. But every four years there are ten guys who come forward and say, Give me the fucking box. And the guy who wins is the one who’ll kill all the other guys just for the chance to hold it.

I suppose it is some kind of victory for equality that this passage from 1998 sounds dated, and that sociopaths of both genders now enjoy the opportunity to kneecap one another in a bid to lead the world (and possibly obliterate it). This quality, conspicuous in Donald Trump but present in most other candidates, would be considered a defect in ordinary people, but may in fact be necessary to perform the job of president without cracking.

Warren’s career has heretofore shown that she has the intensity and drive of a type common among people who have reached the pinnacle of their profession. That is not enough to advance in presidential politics. Witness the candidacy of John Hickenlooper of Colorado, a much-admired governor whose personality was so thoroughly decent and well balanced that he won the endorsement of the philosopher and law professor Martha Nussbaum, and perhaps seven other citizens nationwide, before suspending his campaign.

But I may have misjudged Warren. Warren is, as Barack Obama once insisted, “a politician like everybody else,” just as power-mad and capable of dishonesty and triangulation as her more obviously impure rivals. What began as a campaign that felt technocratic in spirit, with the best-developed and best-articulated policy positions of any candidate, seems to be pivoting toward a useful savagery. The strategic vilification of individual billionaires has been a masterstroke, an opportunity seized with unprincipled abandon. When the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (net worth: $72 billion) vowed to fight Warren’s plan to break up his company, she responded adroitly with false political ads claiming that Zuckerberg supports Donald Trump. This is the trollish spirit of someone who knows a heel when she sees one, and knows not to engage him on substance but to smack him down with a folding chair, to the delight of the crowd.

Then there is Bill Gates (net worth: $107 billion), who dared to state publicly that he would reconsider—not necessarily curtail—his charitable plans if Warren’s wealth tax skimmed away a large portion of his fortune. He first said he would gladly double his tax burden. “But, you know, when you say I should pay $100 billion, okay, then I’m starting to do a little math about what I have left over,” he said. (“Sorry,” he added, “I’m just kidding.”) The backlash, some of it crassly misleading, was predictable from those of us with checking balances below $7 billion. Warren rapidly picked up the pitchfork and went after Gates and other billionaires.

Let me admit some affection for Gates: His goal of eradicating infectious diseases in the developing world strikes me as the best possible philanthropic use of an imperial treasury, and I trust him when he says he intends to give away nearly everything he owns. (I believe this in part because many very rich people conclude that the only way to keep their money from screwing up the lives of their children is to give away most of it.) And he’s right (with caveats) about the $100 billion tax bill he’d get under the Warren plan. Hillary Clinton raised similar concerns, calling the wealth taxes of Warren and Bernie Sanders “incredibly disruptive.” One reason they are disruptive is that billionaires will use all legal means to restructure their wealth, in ways advantageous to them but not to the IRS or to society as a whole.

The Warren I thought I knew would have reacted to these concerns wonkishly, with an explanation of how the ill-paid bureaucrats charged with drafting and implementing her tax plan will outsmart the best-paid lawyers and accountants in the history of planet Earth. But that is the professorial reaction of the Elizabeth Warren whom Candidate Warren is trying, with great success, to bury. The wonks will grow curious about the answers to these and other substantive questions, but the wonks already like Warren and seem unlikely to abandon her just because she is neglecting them in favor of giving wedgies to Lloyd Blankfein in the public square.

The candidates who have tried to be as smart in public as they are in private have not fared well: There were no hidden depths to George H. W. Bush, Al Gore, Hillary Clinton, or Mitt Romney, though there were to George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Clinton was a wonk, but he won election through pure sociopathic performance of empathy. Remember that “I feel your pain” was a line delivered to a man dying of AIDS, whose pain a normal person would never dare claim to feel. (Barack Obama is an idiosyncratic case, best left for discussion elsewhere.) The extreme example is, of course, Donald Trump, whose entire presidency has been a series of vilifications that distract from an extreme political program.

Warren rightly sees that politics and technocracy are separable, and that in some cases the technocratic solutions presuppose political ones. And politics rewards not the seminar leader but a certain type of cold-blooded manipulator who can find enemies and beat them up publicly, to the applause of a growing throng. As long as the issues of substance are being worked out in private, this is a form of demagoguery Democrats might be wise to accept.