Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks at a Democratic Party fundraising dinner in Des Moines, Iowa, November 1, 2019. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)Warren’s catchphrase, “I’ve got a plan for that,” has as much cultural resonance with her base as Trump’s “Make America Great Again” does with his.
Culturally, Elizabeth Warren is a lot more like Donald Trump than you might think.
Hold on. I know: Going by their personal lives, their demeanors, and their ideological agendas, they’re apples and oranges. But apples and oranges actually have a lot in common: They’re both fruits, they’re round, and they grow on trees. The most relevant difference boils down to a matter of taste. And that’s what I am getting at.
One of the best things about partisanship is how it sharpens our skepticism about the other side. When Trump gives a speech, liberals are like contestants on Jeopardy!, eager to hit the buzzer the moment they hear anything that pings their radar for hypocrisy, deceit, hyperbole, etc.
But the downside of partisanship is that it blinds us to the fakery of our own side. When the same liberals listen to someone like Warren, the buzzer gathers dust. In the 2000s, for instance, Saturday Night Live rarely let a week go by without skewering George W. Bush. When Barack Obama was president, SNL ignored him almost entirely, save as an excuse to mock the people who didn’t like him.
“If I had to describe Obama as a comedy project, I would say . . . it’s like being a rock climber looking up at a thousand-foot-high face of solid obsidian, polished and oiled,” Jim Downey, the SNL go-to guy for political humor, once said. “There’s not a single thing to grab onto — certainly not a flaw or hook that you can caricature.”
Bush then, like Trump now, was an easy target for SNL writers — and for writers at elite media outlets generally. Warren, however, is the opposite. Which might explain why SNL’s most recent cold open was nearly a campaign ad for Warren.
Warren’s catchphrase, “I’ve got a plan for that,” has as much cultural resonance with her base as Trump’s “Make America Great Again” does with his, and it’s remarkably similar to Trump’s “I alone can fix it.” It tickles the intellectual erogenous zones of a certain type of progressive wildly overrepresented in the upper echelons of the meritocracy. It screams: “We have all the answers!” and “We know what to do!”
Technocratic liberalism isn’t just an ideological worldview dating back to Walter Lippmann’s 1914 Drift and Mastery, it’s a cultural orientation. If you can’t see it, it’s probably because you’re part of it. Fish don’t know they’re wet, after all.
The media loves to point out the craziness and impossibility of many of Trump’s promises. He said fixing health care would be “so easy.” He vowed to eliminate the deficit in eight years. (It’s up nearly 50 percent since he took office). He was going to ban Muslims and make Mexico pay for the wall. Whether his supporters believed him or not, they liked what these promises said about his priorities. “Don’t take him literally,” we were advised, just “take him seriously.”
Warren has played precisely the same game, promising a slew of absurdities, from an illegal fracking ban to an unconstitutional wealth tax to a dead-on-arrival Green New Deal.
The problem for Warren is that you can’t say, “Don’t take her literally.” The whole appeal of her shtick — and it is a shtick, even if she believes it — is that she does her homework. She’s no reality-TV star making it up as she goes, she has a plan!
Because she has to stay on brand, Warren felt compelled to explain how she’d implement single-payer health care without raising taxes on the middle class. It’s a disaster. She’d nationalize health care, eliminating private insurance plans (sorry, union voters!) and cutting funding to hospitals. She’d genie-blink comprehensive immigration reform into existence. The total cost: $52 trillion over a decade, including $20 trillion in new federal spending — all to pretend she wouldn’t raise taxes on the middle class. She would; she just hides it.
Now, our best health-policy wonks are weighing in. It’s an interesting discussion, but it has as much bearing on real life as a debate among leading military strategists over the best way for the Klingons to finally conquer the Romulan Empire.
But let’s say using a lot of policy jargon and accounting gimmickry wins Warren the nomination and the presidency. What then? It’s axiomatic that she will fail to achieve what cannot be achieved. Will she admit that she overpromised, or will the apple lady follow the playbook of the orange man and blame a rigged system and shadowy evil actors working to deny us our heart’s desires? The latter is likely, given that such rhetoric is another thing she has in common with Trump.
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