The elite, ambitious candidate, saying one thing on the stump but another to wealthy donors, willing to cede big dreams for incremental, pragmatic fixes … You recognize her, right? Of course you do. She’s Massachusetts Senator and progressive firebrand Elizabeth Warren, who in the past few weeks has co-sponsored Bernie Sanders’s new Medicare for All bill, introduced a bill to preempt state right-to-work laws, prepared to take on leaders of Wells Fargo and Equifax on the Senate floor … and been hit with a blast of right-wing messaging and mainstream news coverage that feels positively uncanny.
The playbook that the right is running against Warren — seeding early criticism designed to weaken her from the left — is pretty ballsy, given that Warren has been a standard-bearer, the crusading, righteous politician who by many measures activated the American left in the years before Bernie Sanders mounted his presidential campaign. Warren is the candidate who many cited in 2016 as the anti-Clinton: the outspoken, uncompromisingly progressive woman they would have supported unreservedly had she only run. Yet now, as many hope and speculate that she might run in 2020, the right is investing in a story line about Warren that is practically indistinguishable from the one they peddled for years about Clinton. And even in these early days, some of that narrative is finding its way into mainstream coverage of Warren, and in lefty reactions to it.
It’s a literal investment, one that may mean that conservatives see Warren as among the most dangerous of their future presidential opposition. Last week, Politico reported on efforts by the right to obstruct plenty of potential Trump 2020 challengers, many of them up for reelection in 2018, including Ohio senator Sherrod Brown, New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar. But most notable was the $150,000 sunk by conservative hedge-fund billionaire and Breitbart benefactor Robert Mercer into a super-PAC called Massachusetts First, built specifically to target Warren.
Mercer’s contribution to Massachusetts First is the biggest he’s made to any candidate or political entity in 2017, according to Politico, citing Federal Election Commission records. And despite the fact that Warren is unlikely to face a perilous challenge in her bid for reelection in Massachusetts in 2018, radio ads funded by Mercer have been running all summer, painting the senator and former faculty member at Harvard Law as a “hypocrite professor” who was “raking in hundreds of thousands each year” while her students were “taking on massive debt to listen to Warren lecture them.” As Politico notes, these moves against Warren in the context of a race she’s not likely to be vulnerable in demonstrate that Republicans “are aiming to replicate the pounce-early-and-often model they used against Clinton in 2014 and 2015.”
But in Warren’s case, it’s not just the pace and timing of attacks that recall right-wing anti-Clinton strategy. It’s also the portrayal of her as hypocritical and untrustworthy. The Massachusetts First website describes its mission as providing “the full and real story” of Warren’s failings, a construction that suggests that her self-presentation is inauthentic, as Clinton’s was often presumed to be.
Then of course there is the emphasis on Warren’s personal wealth, here deployed in contrast to those struggling under the burden of student debt, casting as her victims the kinds of young people who were drawn to Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign and its emphasis on free college. Presenting Warren as the wealthy Establishment enemy of needy students is a particularly nifty trick, given that she has made the reduction of student-loan debt one of her political crusades, and that this spring she joined with Sanders on the College for All Act. But even the radio ads’ evocation of Warren’s “lectures” offer a view of a woman who is not an ally of young people, but rather at didactic and disdainful remove from them.
The familiar themes of those radio ads bore fruit on a national scale last week, when right-wing Boston radio host Jeff Kuhner confronted the Massachusetts senator after her appearance at a Boston TV station, posting the video on Twitter on September 18. The video shows Kuhner questioning Warren about the price of her Cambridge home and about her Harvard salary, repeatedly calling her a hypocrite, piggybacking on the narrative of the Mercer-backed radio ads: “You are part of the one percent … You are a multimillionaire and you have a mansion in Cambridge, do you not?” Kuhner presses her. “You’re part of the one percent and yet you rail against the one percent. Do you not see the hypocrisy there?”
After posting the video, Kuhner repeatedly tweeted the clip at Donald Trump and conservative news outlets, alongside descriptions of Warren as a “phony Indian, a phony progressive & a phony senator,” who “made millions shilling for big banks, corporations & insurance giants” and “got rich by flipping homes, taking advantage of old ladies. She embodies crony capitalism.” Again, what was odd about the approach was not the revelation that conservatives hate, fear, and want to defeat Elizabeth Warren; it’s that they’re deploying a populist critique — one that questions, rather than emphasizes and makes a bogeyman of, her left bona fides — to do so.
By the end of the week, the Kuhner clip began to gain traction, and was posted at bigger and bigger conservative sites, including The Gateway Pundi, The Daily Caller, The Washington Times , Fox News, and The American Mirror, which was finally linked on Twitter by Drudge.
Most of the right’s coverage of Kuhner’s interaction with Warren described her as “frazzled” or “triggered,” claiming that she “scrambles” when confronted. None of that is true; the video shows her answering his charges cogently, pointing out that the kinds of economic policy she believes in — low college costs and higher wages — permitted her the degree of economic mobility she’s enjoyed. Nevertheless, the descriptive and highly gendered language used to frame the clip by the right closely echoes the popular portrayal of Hillary Clinton as spasmodic, easily rattled and high-strung, paving the way for fake news about Clinton’s ill health and mental fragility. “Fake Indian Elizabeth Warren is so easy to frazzle; all one has to do is call her out on her lies and hypocrisy and she loses her cool,” read the Gateway Pundit.
All this frothing might have stayed confined to the dark reaches of the right — in fact, Shareblue, the site whose 2016 purpose was the defense of Hillary Clinton but which David Brock has since described as “the Breitbart of the Left,” reframed the Kuhner clip as an example of Warren “destroy[ing]” a conservative radio host — had it not been for a mainstream media confluence.
Last Tuesday, the New York Times published a comparatively benign story, tracking what it presented as the two very different paths of two progressive heroes, Warren and Bernie Sanders, toward their possible future bids for the presidency.
Warren, in the estimation of the Times, has begun taking “a traditional and practical course,” like joining the Armed Services Committee and “hosting monthly dinner seminars with policy experts to expand her command of the issues.” Despite her co-sponsorship of Sanders’s single-payer bill, reporter Jonathan Martin writes, Warren is “also looking for other incremental ways” to lower health-care costs. The story, citing Democratic strategist Anita Dunn, suggests that Warren’s emergence as a feminist icon in the wake of her silencing by Mitch McConnell would be a marketable “advantage”: “I bought hand-quilted ‘She Persisted’ pillows” at an upstate New York gift shop,” Dunn says. (There is no acknowledgment that so far, even the wide availability of girl-power pillows hasn’t made the critical difference for women working to gain the Oval Office.) Especially striking, writes Martin, is that Warren, who made her reputation by going after the big banks and last year accused Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf of “gutless leadership,” has been “spending some time with bankers.” Martin cites a July fundraiser Warren attended at the summer home of a UBS executive, and a private meeting she had with longtime bête noir, JPMorgan Chase head Jamie Dimon.
All this is set in contrast to Sanders, whose possible angling toward another presidential bid, according to the paper, does not involve listening to policy experts or talking to bankers or capitalizing on his own compelling brand. “Bernie is a great American story, but have enough people heard it? Probably not,” laments his former campaign manager Jeff Weaver, while Martin describes Sanders as having “shown no willingness to veer from his social justice catechism to tell voters the personal details of his life’s journey.” These are odd claims about Sanders, who in November published a best-selling book which begins, “I grew up in a three-and-a-half-room rent-controlled apartment,” and includes anecdotes and photos of him as a child, running track, and getting arrested at a civil-rights demonstration.
The Times piece was not officially evaluative of either Warren’s or Sanders’s approaches, but the template it presented — of one candidate, Warren, as the hard-studying, ambitious comer, taking a safer path, willing to talk to bankers and consider incremental change and market the historic nature of her imagined quest as a highly feminized brand, contrasted with the more casual, less strained, and therefore more authentic approach to power exhibited by a competing politician — could have been ripped from the mainstream narrative about Hillary Clinton and any number of her former opponents. At a moment at which Clinton’s name remains bitterly tainted in some quarters of the left, the Clintonian echoes of the story felt especially damning.
And while the Times piece was not built on partisan rancor, its subtler renderings of these two candidates dovetailed fairly neatly with the blaring right-wing messaging working to depict Warren as a duplicitous member of the Establishment elite, especially its quote about Warren from the UBS banker whose home she visited: “I think she is very different in conversation than when she’s on the stump.” There it is, the Hillary-esque suggestion of duplicity, of one public face at odds with private exchanges in wealthy worlds.
The mainstreaming of this caricature of a woman, which appeals to America’s lizard-brain disdain for the hand-in-the-air Tracy Flicks of the world — the kind who take doggedly pragmatic paths to advancement, who’ll say anything to get ahead, who invite policy experts for dinners to learn what they don’t know in a manner that comes across as striving — manages to gently but efficiently discredit Warren both with a right wing that regards ambitious women as threatening and ugly, and a left who might view her reported approach as fake, compromised and emblematic of reviled Establishment mores. It’s a limber exertion.
But it’s worked before.
By midweek, right-wing super-PAC America Rising was pushing details from the Times piece, in a post that gloried in the perception that Warren was caught “saying one thing to [Wall Street] at fundraisers, and something else on the campaign stump,” referred to her as “Wall Street’s new biggest friend” and called the Times’ report “one of the most damning examples of hypocrisy from her yet.” America Rising has long been clear about its mission regarding Warren. “She channels the energy of the emerging and aggressive … wing of the Democratic Party better than anyone [else] and needs to be aggressively targeted,” America Rising’s Colin Reed told the Boston Globe in February.
But the organization’s strategy here is especially clear in the wake of a story Terry Gross told just last week in her interview with Hillary Clinton around the publication of her memoir What Happened. On the Clinton episode of “Fresh Air,” Gross recalled how a portion of their 2015 conversation — about Clinton’s evolving position on gay rights — had gone viral, becoming a building block of the argument that Clinton has been insufficiently progressive throughout her career when it came to LGBTQ rights. As Gross pointed out to Clinton last week, that edited clip had exploded not because of LGBTQ activist reaction to it, but because America Rising had flagged it and pushed it out. The group “had it up before we even had it up on our website,” Gross told Clinton, marveling at how, “you were definitely going to be stronger on LGBTQ rights than anyone American Rising would likely support for president. So here was the right trying to turn your base against you, the right attacking you from the left.”
That conservative funders would try to work the same multi-tentacled magic on Warren, digging in years before a presidential threat even becomes flesh — Warren has so far said she will not run in 2020 — makes perfect sense, especially since portions of the left remain stuck in an acrid battle in the wake of the Clinton-Sanders fight of 2016. Warren had already become vulnerable with segments of the left by refusing to endorse Sanders over Clinton during that primary, and got into further trouble when she finally backed Clinton after she had secured the nomination. Back then, Warren’s Facebook page was flooded with vitriol from former admirers; graffiti reading “JudasWarrenSellout” was painted on a highway in Northampton, Massachusetts. As recently as January, the Young Turks journalist Jordan Chariton wrote that Warren will have to explain her 2016 choices to the left or continue as “a one-trick pony that steals the show by yelling at bankers during congressional hearings, but isn’t trusted by the movement to do much more.”
Nor was this the first time that the mainstream press and the right wing have, perhaps unconsciously, mutually fed off of, and fed readers, similar and often gendered messages about Warren. Last year, the New York Times published a story about Warren, describing her as “imperious” and a “scold,” the latter of which would be echoed by Mike Huckabee in a February tweet. MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski described her in 2017 as “shrill” and “almost unhinged,” prefiguring the scrambling, frazzled, freaking-out headlines coming from the right this week.
“The irony is striking,” Jon Keller wrote in the Boston Globe back in February. “The leading female critic of the political Establishment is cast as a somewhat unhinged hypocrite by the right, a meme now being channeled by the left.”
And last week, as a few left-wing pundits, longtime critics of Clinton, weighed in in response to the Times — Chapo Trap House’s Felix Biederman tweeting on the subject of Warren’s meeting with the UBS banker and Dimon, “lol like the one thing she was supposed to be good on”; the politics reporter Libby Watson replying “she’s learning all the right lessons from Clinton 2016 I see” — it was hard not to feel like the marionettes were all playing their parts on the stage in Robert Mercer’s mind, and that it wasn’t just Warren who hadn’t learned any lessons from 2016.
*A version of this article appears in the October 2, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.