Trump’s sneering “Pocahontas” nickname for Elizabeth Warren is more than just a mind-bendingly racist accusation of dishonesty with regard to her claim of Native American heritage. It’s another expression of Trump’s fundamental misogyny. In Trumpworld logic, Warren—like Stormy Daniels and Hillary Clinton and Christine Blasey Ford and any other woman who opposes Trumpism instead of making like The Handmaid’s Tale’s Aunt Lydia and working for it—is running a “con.” She’s projecting a false self in order to extract something from the honest people around her. (In this frame, Warren’s now widely-denounced decision to take a DNA test in the name of transparency can only serve to enhance her aura of duplicity.) It’s unbelievable that this argument would work, when Trump himself lies so often and with so few consequences. But the logic of patriarchy ensures that it does.
In their new book Why Does Patriarchy Persist?, Carol Gilligan and Naomi Snider argue that patriarchy, which they call “an age-old structure that has been near universal,” makes men responsible for their selves, while women are responsible for relationships. This, they argue, leads to misery all around; it harms men and women “by forcing men to act as if they don’t have or need relationships, and women to act as if they don’t have or need a self.”
Within this paradigm, the ideal of personal authenticity must be the sole province of men. Women who rise in the public sphere, necessarily promoting themselves, must always be doing it by manipulative or unnatural means. This concept helped me understand why men like Trump, speaking to those who believe what he believes, can always successfully represent women who oppose them as fakers and cheats. “Men lie, too, of course,” Megan Garber wrote last year in a short history of the idea that all women are dishonest. “Yet in general, their lies have been treated as exceptions while women’s have been treated as a rule.”
In Trump’s worldview, and that of his base, men like Brett Kavanaugh are the “straight talkers,” the righteously outraged, the most authentic, because they are the only ones who are supposed to have selves to defend. Those “real,” honorable men are not ever Democrats. As Jess Zimmerman argued on Slate recently, misogyny punishes Democrats, the party that’s feminized in our culture due to its ostensible concern for the group over the individual, just as it does women. This is why personal authenticity is currently defined in partisan terms.
Gilligan and Snider write that patriarchy “elevates some men over other men, and all men over women.” When Trump accuses men of inauthenticity, they are people like Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, whose exaggerations of his record during the war in Vietnam became a favorite Trump trope in speeches he made during the Kavanaugh hearings (Trump’s Blumenthal nickname: “Da Nang Dick”). On Monday, Donald Trump, Jr. called Beto O’Rourke “an Irish guy pretending to be Hispanic.” And of course, Trump first made his name on the right back in 2010 by accusing Barack Obama of inauthenticity. It didn’t matter that Obama eventually released his long-form birth certificate; to Trump’s base, Trump, the white man, just felt more honest than Dem-femme Obama.
As with so many Trump pathologies, this kind of misogyny isn’t particular to him and his true believers. Media perpetuates the “authenticity is for men” myth by falling into the hardhat trap, representing coal miners eating in midwestern diners as the “real Americans.” In mainstream popular culture, as Sam Adams argued recently in Slate, A Star is Born is built on the idea that rock and roll—male, brash, and unadorned—is “real” music, while pop is the artifice that women artists fall into when they aren’t being properly steered by men.
To call a grown woman “Pocahontas” adds an extra twist. Americans have long ago erased the history of the 17th-century child named Amonute in favor of the legend of the tragically beautiful Indian “princess,” a story that (as historian Honor Sachs argued on Tuesday in the Washington Post) they have long used to advance the cause of white supremacy. By picking this nickname, Trump reminds us of a true and objectionable thing—the fact that white Americans have long loved to “play Indian,” and have taught their children to do the same—to pad an accusation of phoniness with an extra soupçon of mockery.
He doesn’t know he’s doing it, of course. He probably just likes the fact that the name makes Warren sound like a little girl obsessed with Disney, who demands a plastic feather headdress for Halloween. Per usual, Trump manages to put his finger on every bit of our culture’s rottenness, without even trying.
Support our journalism
Help us continue covering the news and issues important to you—and get ad-free podcasts and bonus segments, members-only content, and other great benefits.Join Slate Plus