The photos were all over the internet on election night of 2016. They went viral in the bad way, and they all looked something like this: Women, standing in a crowd of other women, hands over their mouths, tears on their cheeks, as they realized that Hillary Clinton had lost to Donald Trump, the man who bragged about treating women like garbage. Those photos had come immediately on the heels of the other photos, also inescapable, taken earlier that day: Women posed outside of public schools, and churches, and rec centers, wearing pantsuits and beaming into the camera with elated looks that said, I just voted for the first woman to be president of the United States! That whiplash? That immense distance between the two sets of photos, between the historic, thrilling high of the morning and the gut punch of the night that followed? It’s a feeling millions of women have been processing ever since.
In all the soul searching that came in the months after November 2016, it didn’t take long for that feeling to turn into a question: Would it be insane to run a woman—any woman—against Donald Trump in 2020? As my friend Michelle Goldberg put it six months after Trump had won, “many American women want to break the male lock on the presidency, but they also want to save the republic, and it’s all too possible that those two goals are at odds.” We had all just witnessed a highly qualified woman lose the presidency to a carnival barker. Why, with the stakes growing ever higher, would we even consider trying it again?
Which brings me to Elizabeth Warren and the women who love her.
Warren seems to be surging in the polls this month. It is certainly true that a lot of men are proving to be stalwart fans and a lot of women are lining up behind other candidates, for once having the option to pick between other women running for president, including Kamala Harris, who is neck and neck with Warren in several polls. But a few months ago I started to notice a boomlet of sorts, women who were willing to fall in love with Warren, just as they had with Clinton, and women who feel that Warren alone can redeem the insult Clinton sustained. To be clear, Elizabeth Warren is not Hillary Clinton. Comparing them distorts and diminishes their unique accomplishments and formidable skills. And yet: Even taking into account the late-breaking Comey effect and the years of Clinton family baggage, it has always been utterly obvious that part of Clinton’s loss was due to misogyny—a misogyny that, if anything, has only become more apparent in the years since.
America, it seems, suffers an enduring baked-in disdain for women that we somehow continue to feign surprise at, even through the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, and the unhealthy fixation on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the state abortion crackdowns. Which is why I’ve been struck by the number of women I encounter who are attempting to reframe the swirling questions of “electability” and let go of the trauma of 2016 so they can fall hard for another qualified, competent female candidate. Do they really believe that the woman Trump has already nicknamed, insulted, and lured into an unforced error could win this thing?
I wanted to see for myself, to understand the allure of Warren, and to figure out how women are thinking about her. Plus, it would make this whole infuriating question of whether a woman is ever going to be “electable” much simpler, I thought, if she happened to be a natural at this campaigning thing. She isn’t, as it turns out, a natural at the kind of straw-boater-and-bunting idea of campaigning we’ve internalized over a century of watching white male candidates eat steaks in Iowa. She is something rather different.
At a mid-May campaign event in Fairfax, Virginia, I watched as Warren jogged out onto the stage and wheezed through the first few moments of her remarks. She has a big, forced window-washer wave, and as she launched into her prepared autobiography she referred to her father, over and over again, as “Daddy.” (I am not quite sure how we are supposed to be throwing off the patriarchy if we are still referring to our fathers as “daddies” into our late 60s.) But here is the part that is striking: Warren absolutely came alive when she started taking questions from her audience. Explaining incredibly complex policy problems in a perfectly coherent way turns out to be Warren’s superpower. And while I went in dubious that Warren’s policy-minded campaign could ever compete with the charisma-driven, Father-Knows-Best performances of presidential candidates from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton, let alone the supercharged persona of Donald Trump, I realized that I was completely confused about the nature of political charisma itself.
Two articles of faith must be addressed here: One is that watching and scoring and fighting about the Democratic primary this early in the season is silly and quite possibly futile, particularly considering the almost-hilarious number of candidates (perhaps not such a bad thing when you recognize how much this field has broken out of the white male monopoly). The other is that Warren has had a very good couple of weeks. Her polling numbers show her narrowing the gap behind Joe Biden and—perhaps more importantly—catching up with Bernie Sanders. Warren has been generating a constant stream of news, thanks to her capacity for releasing a detailed new policy initiative nearly every week and her willingness to, for instance, call Fox News “a hate-for-profit racket.” She took a strikingly strong stand on Trump and impeachment, linking him to the same systemwide corruption with which she had cudgeled Fox. And as one state after another passed abortion bans that were retrograde and cruel, Warren rolled out comprehensive abortion reforms that would bolster reproductive rights nationwide, even if Roe v. Wade were overturned by the Supreme Court.
Warren is, in brief, almost painfully serious precisely because she is banking on public seriousness, running on the notion that bread and circus have had their day, and it is time now to save the republic. Warren is hoping voters are willing to engage with a persona that is competent and sober, qualities they persistently say they value when speaking to pollsters but tend to reject in favor of charisma at the ballot box. But she is proof that competent and sober does not have to mean cold and impersonal on the trail.
At the Fairfax campaign stop, Warren tells some thousand people who have shown up to hear her, a crowd visibly dominated by women, that her lifelong dream was to be a teacher—a dream she lived up to as a special education teacher and a law professor before becoming a United States senator and, now, a candidate for president. This is something some of the Warren think pieces tend to miss: Warren is an extraordinary educator. We misread her as a detached wonk when she’s actually a brilliant translator of complex ideas. Watching her on the stump, you come to realize that it’s not so much the fact that she knows a lot of technical and complicated things that truly excites her fans, it’s that she can explain them to you.
Warren shines in her unscripted Q&As precisely because she isn’t trying to please the Unknowable American Electorate of 2020. She is just trying to answer whatever the questioner is asking in the moment. She knows how to subordinate her own narrative to that of the interlocutor, but she also knows how to use her narrative to empathize with a questioner’s individual concerns. Warren knows what it’s like to be poor. She knows what it’s like to be a paycheck away from insolvency. She knows what it’s like to have family members serve in the military. She knows what it’s like to love someone addicted to opioids. She understands how it feels to almost lose your house to foreclosure. This isn’t “I alone can fix it” stuff. It’s “let me help you fix it.” In the most tender exchange at the Fairfax rally, she tells a young man that she also knows how it feels to lose faith in government. And then she goes on to explain how we got here and what she’d do to get us out.
People think Warren is a wonk because it’s apparent that she spends plenty of time elbow-deep in policy. But really, she’s the polar opposite of a wonk. She’s not a political ambassador of policy for policy’s sake. She’s a politician who is hoping to bridge the gap between policy arcana and citizens who keep falling behind. And every time she releases a new policy, millions of people learn something new about how government works.
Talking to people who attended Warren rallies in Fairfax and Cincinnati, one theme that kept coming up is how nobody should have been fooled by Donald Trump. In the eyes of these voters, it’s all perfectly clear: He isn’t rich, he isn’t smart, he doesn’t care, and he doesn’t even like us much. For so many of the women I talked to, one of the main reasons Trump is frightening is because he can’t seem to see or imagine anything beyond his own limited experience. Time and again, they told me that they don’t need charm (even as they insist that Warren is likable). What they need is information, and an ally, and a plan. A recent college graduate at the Fairfax rally told me she couldn’t imagine a life untethered from debt. But she had just been online checking Warren’s calculator to determine what sort of loan relief she’d be eligible for under the candidate’s plan.
Do I worry that Elizabeth Warren isn’t fantastic on the stump? I do. But Warren doesn’t seem to care much about being loved. She cares a lot about explaining where things fell apart. So her campaign goes to tiny blue-collar towns in tiny red states she cannot hope to win, and she talks about opioid addiction with Trump supporters who have never met a presidential hopeful and may never meet one again. The labor here is about connecting the dots more than lighting crowds on fire.
Watching this play out on the trail, I couldn’t help but think of an idea Rebecca Solnit recently explored in a piece about our possible newfound resistance to “great men” theories of governance. Solnit suggests that we may be finally tiring of:
the hero as an attention-getter, a party-crasher, a fame-seeker, and at least implicitly a troublemaker in the guise of a problem-solver. And maybe we as a society are getting tired of heroes, and a lot of us are certainly getting tired of overconfident white men. Even the idea that the solution will be singular and dramatic and in the hands of one person erases that the solutions to problems are often complex and many faceted and arrived at via negotiations.
What Solnit is holding out as the new ideal of leadership is not, by any stretch, exclusively female. But it is an idea less tethered to goose bump–y speeches, or the kind of charisma that leaves an audience thrilled yet unable to recall any idea actually expressed. We’ve now elected two “charismatics” in a row to the presidency, and the model Warren is building, while not lacking in surface polish, surely doesn’t coast on it. Her campaign is less TED talk than graduate seminar. And her “students” become evangelists of her big ideas more than evangelists of her.
I don’t know whether Elizabeth Warren can win the Democratic primary. I’m not yet certain a woman can win at all. A country that is OK prosecuting women who miscarry isn’t really a country I recognize, much less one I can believe in. Worse, I shudder at the implication that Warren, the woman, will do all the grueling legwork of educating voters about corruption, and banking, and unions, and debt, so that some man in a glittering cape might swoop in and charm our socks off next summer.
Women are often told they react emotionally to candidates, while men are meant to admire and appreciate complex policy. Warren is disrupting that paradigm. She leans less on charisma or charm, or even emotion, than on that elaborate PowerPoint she keeps stowed in her head. It’s a different approach from the men out in front of her. A warm and effusive Joe Biden has been coronated the favorite without having to break a sweat. Bernie Sanders has long had some of the most loyal supporters around, in part because he is so unabashedly “himself.”
But the women who come to these early Warren rallies like being addressed by an adult as adults. At a time when America has devalued teachers, empathy, expertise, and planning for the future, Elizabeth Warren serves as one reminder of what we have lost. It doesn’t mean the voters will necessarily throng to her side. It just means that the women I spoke to, and more and more of the women I know, don’t mind being educated about how everything went so terribly wrong in their political lifetimes. Elizabeth Warren can explain it, and has a plan for it, and believes she can fix it. It’s not glittery, and it may not make your heart beat faster in a stadium. But in a world of noise and bluster, her clarity has its own sort of charm.