Interrogation

“This Was an Own Goal. This Was Ridiculous.”

Why the Elizabeth Warren DNA story has united the right in anger and mockery.

Elizabeth Warren.
Elizabeth Warren.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

On Monday, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren took the remarkable step of releasing a DNA test that found “strong evidence” of Native American ancestry “6-10 generations ago.” As the New York Times put it, “Just as President Trump’s embrace of birtherism led to the remarkable spectacle of President Obama’s birth certificate being distributed in the White House, Mr. Trump’s unrelenting mockery of Senator Elizabeth Warren as ‘Pocahontas’—questioning her claims about having Native American heritage” led to Monday’s events. The president waved off the test results, but Warren’s decision to release them was questioned by some liberals who worried that a finding that she could be as little as 1/1,024 Native American would do nothing to neutralize the question of why, three decades ago, she identified as Native American. Meanwhile, Warren was heavily mocked by conservatives, even those who do not consider themselves supporters of the president. It was only the latest example of the right uniting around perceived political correctness concerning race.

To talk about Warren, race, and the right, I spoke by phone with David French, a senior writer at National Review, who made headlines during the most recent presidential election as a prominent #NeverTrump conservative and alt-right target. More recently, he has defended Brett Kavanaugh, while continuing to express mixed views about the president. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed what it is he finds galling about Warren’s behavior, how he views Trump’s presidency thus far, and whether conservatives should speak out more on the subject of voting rights.

Isaac Chotiner: Why do you think people on the right are angry about Warren’s release of her test results?

David French: I would say there are some voices that are angry. I think it was much more mockery, to be honest. I think that it was mockery on a couple of fronts. One was the idea that Elizabeth Warren had vindicated her decision in any way to hold herself out as Native American by releasing those DNA test results, which demonstrate that her Native American heritage is really far removed, I mean so far removed that the idea that you would tell a legal directory that you’re Native American is just ridiculous.

There was mockery that that would in any way vindicate her, followed by hard-on-heels mockery at media outlets reporting it as vindication. I think that was the dominant strain of it. I don’t think it was fury. Maybe some, but I think the dominant strain was this was an “own goal.” This was ridiculous, and this is something that the media would never fall for if a Republican did the same thing.

Her actions make absolutely no political sense to me, both in the sense of, one, drawing attention to it, and two, drawing attention to it three weeks before the election, not that people are going to make up their minds based on this.

You know, that’s a mystery. I mean, it was so odd to me that it almost felt like the kind of decision people make in a groupthink atmosphere. That, “Oh, look, we’ve found, we’ve proven that there is some Native American ancestry, now we can dunk on Trump on Twitter,” or something along those lines. It should have been, “Look, I was relying on family lore. I’m sorry, let’s move on.” I think that people, all except the folks who are going to hammer it in on the right, who are never going to be her constituency anyway, would have accepted that and moved on, and that would have been that.

Where are you on the Trump presidency right now?

That’s a great question. I would say Trump’s character has in many ways been worse in the presidency than I feared it would be. I thought there was a chance that he might abandon some of the worst habits of the campaign trail.

Oh, David.

I said a chance, I didn’t say a probability. I thought there was a chance, and he hasn’t, obviously. I feel better than I did at the start of the presidency with some of the personnel around him, in the sense that, you know, remember when he came on board, he had Bannon and Flynn, essentially one at each elbow, which was in my view one of the worst possible outcomes of a presidential election, to have people like that so close to the presidency. I think his personnel has improved considerably, although I am concerned about Nikki Haley leaving.

Then his policies, overall a mixed bag, but the bottom line is, as far as my thinking about 2020 goes, I have a pretty ironclad test for a politician. One is they have to have not a perfect character, but a good character, and No. 2 is they have to advance policies that reflect my political values. On Point 1, Trump just completely flops. There’s nothing about his presidency that has led me to change my mind about what kind of person he is. On Point 2, he’s done marginally better than I thought he would, but for me to support a politician, you have to have both criteria met.

Do you not think that there are a lot of policies, like child separation, where the values and character are manifesting themselves?

Well, I mean, child separation while it lasted, 100 percent, yes. That was deeply problematic, vicious, I thought. I was glad to see it end. I’m distressed to see that he may be considering restarting it. I’m going to wait and see if that’s real or not, but I’m very distressed by that.

I’m very distressed by the embrace of Kim Jong-un. I just find that unconscionable. For those who say, “It’s just words, it’s just words”: Diplomacy, international diplomacy, depends on words in many ways, and words really matter. We just spent eight years of the Obama administration … you know, many people on the right spent eight years of the Obama administration deeply concerned about the president’s words, about, for example, whether he had used the term radical Islamic terrorists, whether he could, quote/unquote, name the enemy, and now words don’t matter. When he talks about his affection for Kim Jong-un, that makes no sense to me.

There are also things he’s done that are better than I thought he would. He’s been much better on judges than I thought he would. I didn’t trust him on that point. He’s come through. Some regulatory reform, although that is exaggerated, its effect is exaggerated, it’s been positive in my view. I was pleased with the tax cut, although that tax bill could have been better. It’s not like I’m over the moon about the good parts of his policies, except I am pleased about the judges.

Judges are interesting, because some of us view him as out of control in various ways, which I do think is true, but on the issues where his bread is buttered and where he knows he has to deliver for his political coalition, he doesn’t screw around.

I think on the judges point, he knows that he would not be president but for the Supreme Court.

What does that suggest to you about his character or about the way he is as a politician, or how unstable versus calculating he is?

Well, I’ve always thought that Trumpism is … it’s not an ideology, it’s a personal ambition of one man. He’s very clearly focused on his self-interests. He may be undisciplined in other areas, but I think he’s pretty focused on his self-interests, and he has rightly deemed that it is absolutely in his self-interest to be focused on and to deliver on the court, and he’s done that.

I want to circle back to the Warren thing. As someone who has followed Fox News, talk radio, conservatives on Twitter, for a very long time, it seems that there are a variety of issues involving what they perceive to be political correctness regarding race, and all these issues drive them up the wall. How do you understand that?

I think it’s a pretty safe thing to say that there are two things that really ignite the right more broadly. One is the judges that we’ve been talking about, and the other one is that academic brand of identity politics. You’re not going to find somebody on the right, whether they’re a Trump skeptic, if they still identify on the right, you’re not going to find anyone who thinks that that sort of extreme brand of academic identity politics is anything but toxic.

For an Elizabeth Warren, to see somebody who has seemed to have gamed that system to her advantage, or at least attempted or tried to game that system to her advantage, and then to sort of retreat from it as if it was no big deal, when anybody who knows anything about academic identity politics knows these categories are of extraordinary importance, I think that’s one reason why people won’t leave it alone. They know that these designations and these listings in these directories, if you have any knowledge particularly of controversies at the time … I was in law school at Harvard when she was a visiting professor. The idea that having a minority female professor was not an extremely big deal at the time is just … it’s almost ludicrous.

There is also gaming the system like getting hundreds of millions of dollars from your family and finding tax write-arounds or loopholes or illegal maneuvers to keep your business going. There are all kinds of gaming the system.

I’m not going to argue about that.

I know you’re not. I just mean there are all kinds of gaming the system, and it does seem to me that there’s a certain form of it based around race that really unites all the conservatives. I’m just trying to understand culturally what you think that’s about.

I would say there’s a spectrum on this, OK? I would divide it into three categories: good-faith critique, bad-faith critique, and just apathy and indifference. The good-faith critique of this is what I think you’re seeing in a lot of the folks who are opposing Harvard’s treatment of Asian Americans, and the good-faith critique of this is, “Look, we do not deny that there are people who have advantages and disadvantages that are not their faults, or they have advantages that are not due to their virtue, and there are disadvantages that are not due to their vice.” Nobody, I don’t think any human being, could look at this country and look at reality and not see that as true. What is objected to is the notion that the paramount or the principal way of viewing advantage and disadvantage becomes race, and that the prism of advantage and disadvantage is then viewed primarily, or sometimes almost exclusively, through race, and that that is a very, very blunt instrument and often even a quite divisive instrument, and there are other better instruments for dealing with these advantages and disadvantages. That’s the good-faith critique.

The bad-faith critique is … and this is something that we saw just emerge on the right quite honestly and openly during the Trump campaign … is white identity politics. Sort of a fixed pie. “You’re coming for our culture, you’re coming for our economic position, you’re coming for our political power, and we’re just flat out going to resist it.” Then there’s the indifference section, which I think is an underestimated segment, which is kind of like, “Can we just stop obsessing about all this stuff? I don’t really care. It annoys me how much people obsess about this.”

You’ve been following what’s going on with voter purges in Georgia?

Yes.

It seems pretty clear what the intent of that is.

Yeah.

When Trump is the president and when aspects of the Republican Party seem fairly intent on the idea that fewer black people voting is a good thing, I get a lot of the frustrations about PC culture, but I just sort of can’t care that much because this stuff seems so much more important, and I wish more Republicans and sane Republicans would denounce it.

Right. Well, you know, I think there’s a couple of things on the voting issue. One … is the notion of I’m going to gerrymander, say, to maximize Republican votes and maximize Republican power and minimize Democratic power. Is that per se racist? I would say no. I mean, that’s just normal gerrymandering. You would see Democrats do it if, say, for example an ethnic minority was heavily Republican. You would see gerrymandering around political lines, and that would be the primary criteria.

What’s happening in Georgia seems to be an extreme, so extreme that it’s very difficult to analyze that as, “Well, this is just political, this is just, quote/unquote, ballot integrity, or this is simply a political Democratic/Republican kind of maneuver.” It seems to be an order of magnitude beyond that, but the question that I have is, as with many of these issues, it’s very difficult to determine at the end of the day what’s going to be the real-world impact. That’s the thing that I’m having real trouble discerning. A lot of these voter suppression arguments and vote fraud arguments appear to me to be really at the end of the day sort of tinkering along the edges.

I agree with you about the impact being uncertain, but people fought and died for the right to vote in this country, especially in the South, and there are black Americans now who are trying to vote in the South whose ancestors and even themselves lived through segregation, and the government is making it increasingly hard for them to be registered to vote. I don’t know what the impact is going to be, neither do you, but that seems really like something we should be upset about.

Right. I mean, I think I draw a distinction between, say, purging somebody from the rolls unjustly, which that, to me, there’s no excuse for that. That is something that I cannot … I cannot see the excuse for that. The best-case scenario for purging someone from the rolls unjustly, the best case is bureaucratic error, which needs to be and should be corrected immediately. Purging somebody from the rolls as an eligible voter, in my mind that is … I just can’t see any excuse for that under any circumstances.

Now, the thing that I differ from a lot of my progressive friends on is when you impose, say for an example, an ID requirement, and then you call that voter suppression. I find it difficult to believe that requiring all people who go to the polls to have a picture ID, a government-issued picture ID, is in any way any kind of material impairment of the right to vote that people died for.