Standing before the faithful of the National Rifle Association in Atlanta on Friday, the president predicted a surfeit of candidates. “You’ll have plenty of those Democrats coming over and you’re going to say, ‘No, sir, no thank you – no, ma’am,’” the president said. “Perhaps ma’am. It may be Pocahontas, remember that.”
Pocahontas is the racially charged term that Trump used on the campaign trail to dismiss Warren, who has claimed Native American heritage. Clearly, she had got under his skin. The Massachusetts senator was a self-declared “nasty woman” with a message for Trump: “Women have had it with guys like you.” She went toe to toe with him on his favourite medium, Twitter, hammering him for delivering a “one-two punch of bigotry and economic lies”.
It is small wonder that, if asked who now personifies the anti-Trump resistance, Warren would come top of many people’s lists. At 67, the former Harvard law professor is a formidable figure with a reputation for reticence bordering on aloofness when approached by reporters in the corridors of Capitol Hill. But the woman who walks into Senate Democratic offices in Washington for this interview, wearing a blue jacket and dark trousers, is the opposite of aloof.
“Elizabeth Warren,” she says, despite being instantly recognisable to anyone following US politics, offering a handshake and warm smile.
She reminisces about her first visit to this room, when she was on her way to becoming a senator in 2012, and jokes about the Guardian’s voice recorder resembling a Taser. But when she turns to business, she is characteristically forthright and makes clear that Barack Obama’s grace period – a presidential afterglow in which he is beyond criticism in the Democratic party – is over.
“I think President Obama, like many others in both parties, talks about a set of big national statistics that look shiny and great but increasingly have giant blind spots,” she says. “That GDP, unemployment, no longer reflect the lived experiences of most Americans. And the lived experiences of most Americans is that they are being left behind in this economy.
“Worse than being left behind, they’re getting kicked in the teeth.”
In the topsy-turvy election, both Trump and the leftwing candidate for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders, spoke of a rigged economy. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, has articulated the view that Obama did not get the credit he deserved from rescuing America from the financial crisis of 2007-08. That, it transpired, was small comfort to voters in decaying industrial towns who felt the globalisation train had left the station without them.
With Sanders still a leading voice and energy coming from the progressive base, and centrist politics around the world in retreat, it might be tempting for the Democrats to turn left. Warren – who grew up in deep red Oklahoma but now lives in Massachusetts, the state of the Kennedys – frames the question in a different way. Again, she demonstrates a willingness to criticise her own party.
“I think left-right is less and less an accurate description of the political landscape,” she says. “Now, having said that, I think there are real differences between the Republicans and the Democrats here in the United States. The Republicans have clearly thrown their lot in with the rich and the powerful, but so have a lot of Democrats. You know, it’s a question of walking the walk on working people, on fighting for working people. I think that was the real point.”
Warren did not not name any individuals. Some commentators have criticised Bill and Hillary Clinton for becoming too close to wealthy elites.
Much has been written in the electoral postmortems over the definition of a Democrat: whether economic populism was neglected during the election in favour of identity politics relating to gender, race and sexuality. For progressives, it might be argued that Warren represents the best of Clinton and Sanders rolled into one: strong on issues such as equal pay and reproductive rights but equally strong on class inequality and economic opportunity. This is also what makes her such a tempting target for Trump and the Republicans.
“I think it’s a false choice,” she says. “To talk about the economics of survival in the 21st century is also to include a woman’s right to make decisions over her own body, a woman’s meaningful access to birth control. That is as deeply woven into the economic stability of that woman individually, her family, her community, this entire nation. I think those are deeply tied to each other. Not either-ors.”
The senator’s choice of abortion as an example is timely. Sanders triggered fierce soul searching in the party last week by rallying in Omaha, Nebraska for a mayoral candidate who opposes abortion rights but promises economic justice. Pro-choice activists described it as a betrayal of the women who have been in the vanguard of the resistance to Trump.
Would Warren endorse a Democratic candidate who was anti-abortion? “Probably not,” she says. “But let me be clear. Look, I’m pro-choice, I’m strongly pro-choice, I’ve been in these fights forever and forever and forever and at the federal level this is powerfully important to me … I get that not everyone in the Democratic party agrees with me but I am in this fight all the way.”
‘Democracy changed in America’
Trump has energised and galvanised the apathetic and apolitical. He made politics great again in the sense of getting people to care instead of allowing it to hum softly in the background. Suddenly, it is no longer a tepid struggle within the grey managerial class. Suddenly it matters. Newspaper readership and news channel viewership have revived after years of decline; late-night TV comedians are thriving. What Trump Did Next is a constant topic of conversation at dinner tables. It may yet prove to be his legacy.
On 21 January, for example, more than 400,000 protesters took part in a women’s march in Washington, with millions more marching across America and around the world. For Warren, it was an awakening: “I think that when the history of this time period is written it will be about Donald Trump’s election, no doubt, but it will be about the Women’s March the day after Donald Trump was inaugurated. Democracy changed in America on that day.
“We are no longer a country that believes we can do politics only once every four years, or even once every two years, no longer a country that says that democracy is only about elections and that it will tend to itself in the time periods between elections. People are deeply engaged in issues right now. The healthcare fight. Immigration.”
Warren advocates marches and rallies, online protests, viral videos, collective action and running for office. “Let me give a giant hug to the resistance. Resistance, persistence, insistence – every part of it – and how to bring more people into the fight. Look, Democrats are in the minority in the House, in the Senate, our tools are very limited to block Trump’s actions but democracy is working in an entirely new way.
“This is one of the things I now talk about everywhere we go, about how to get more engaged and how people can make their voices more effective, and how they can make sure they get heard in Washington, and it is changing the United States Congress. Not fast enough, but it’s changing it.”
Warren, a mother of two and grandmother of three, is at the tip of that particular spear. She has never met Trump – the closest she came was at the inauguration – but she clashed with him on Twitter last year. “Thumbs at 30 paces,” she jokes, miming the typing action in mid-air. On 21 March 2016, she posted: “Many of history’s worst authoritarians started out as losers – and @realDonaldTrump is a serious threat.” In her new book, This Fight is Our Fight, she recalls on inauguration day seeing protesters carrying a giant banner that said just one word: “FASCIST.”
Asked if she considers Trump an authoritarian, a fascist, she replies forcefully: “Look at what he has done. He has expressed his admiration for Mussolini, for Vladimir Putin. He has tried to undermine a free press. He’s shown no respect for the courts. Those are the steps that authoritarians take.”
Can America withstand it? “That’s ultimately what the book is about. It’s the narrative arc of how America built a middle class and then corporate CEOs and billionaires took the legs out from underneath the middle class, how their tool was money, and the final chapter, whether or not we can withstand the punch that Donald Trump delivers to our working families and to our democracy. And yet, I would say, this book ends on a note of optimism.”
Trump may be a one-off but the conditions that produced him are not. The disillusionment in towns across America that felt forgotten by flashy big cities, that felt they had nothing to lose by voting for Trump, rhymed with what led to the Brexit vote in the UK. America had Reagan and trickle-down economics; Britain had Thatcher and the invisible hand of the market.
“There are certainly parallels,” Warren says. “Billionaires and corporate CEOs have figured out that for an investment of millions of dollars – they can get returns of billions of dollars. So if they can get their snout to the trough of government money, government handouts, government gifts, government loopholes, they can get richer and richer and richer. It’s not a secret that was developed here in the United States alone. It’s a point that’s spread all around the globe.”
‘I’m in this fight, there’s no pause’
In This Fight is Our Fight, Warren recalls a conversation with her husband, Bruce Mann, over whether to run for president in 2016. He pointed out how difficult the first Senate race was. “It was hard for him to see me ridiculed and called names, hard to see our children dragged into political attacks, hard to see both his sister and my brothers worry,” she writes. He gave her his blessing but talking it through with him decided her against.
Will this deter her again in 2020? Clinton recently said she believes misogyny played a part in her own defeat. Reviewing Warren’s book for the New York Times, economist Paul Krugman wrote: “Let’s be honest: Republicans have gone after Warren herself, in a way they haven’t gone after Sanders, in part because of her gender.”
Warren does not say no. But first, she reminds us, she has a Senate race to run in 2018 – a midterm election that should provide a clue as to the durability of the resistance at the ballot box. “I said I’m in this fight, there’s no pause about that,” she says. “I can take whatever somebody wants to throw at me. It’s harder when things get thrown at your family but that’s become the reality of 21st-century politics.”
She recalls her own journey, from janitor’s daughter to Harvard academic to senator, thanks to opportunities she believes were lost to today’s children when Washington decided it was more important to give tax breaks to billionaires and giant corporations.
“So that’s what drives me,” she says, passionately. “And if you told me that what it would take for me to make a difference would be to get up every day and walk across broken glass but that I have a chance to open some doors for the next kid who comes along, I’d do it.”
This article was amended on 1 and 2 May 2017. An earlier version said “Pro-life activists” where “Pro-choice activists” was meant, and quoted Senator Warren was as saying “foreign investment of millions of dollars” where she had in fact said “for an investment of millions of dollars”.
Author: David Smith