Trump’s “Pocahontas” bit while honoring Navajo code talkers wasn’t the end of the world. But it still signals a big problem. Let me tell you why.
Sometimes I feel like I spend a lot of time yelling, “Look behind the curtain.” But a republic needs informed citizens, fully aware of what levers the wizard is frantically pulling while hoping we distractedly keep our eyes on the big floating head of Oz.
LOOKING AT THE MINUTIA
This time, I ask you scrutinize Donald Trump’s recent comments during the ceremony to honor the Navajo code talkers from World War II. The ceremony can be seen here. Here is a transcript from the White House. Warning, I have found on previous occasions the White House sometimes omits some of the President’s unscripted remarks. Still, usually a good place to start.
Yes, I am one more person going off on Trump’s use of the word “Pocahontas”. While I have heard many mention the racism involved, I have not heard that racism analyzed in terms of what I believe Trump was really trying to accomplish.
So yes, I am going to pick on the President again. Look, he’s President. We citizens take up the social cues in his words and deeds. What he says, no matter how inconsequential it may seem, can have deep and lasting impacts. That means, if the President messes up: 1) People notice more than they would for any other citizen; and 2) His errors are worthy of the scrutiny. Which means here comes another analysis of minutia.
To think critically one has to look at the minutia and the big picture all at the same time. Sometimes one gets lost for the other. So, this time, I am going to take a look at the small.
Where does this incident fit in the big picture? Well, I doubt this will cost jobs. Or destroy the economy. Or ruin international relations. Or wipeout healthcare. Nope. None of that.
But it does signal where we have been allowing ourselves to drift socially. Social cues from those in authority affect us, and those around us. Bit by bit, as we drift, they redefine what we deem acceptable. Minutia are tiny, by definition. Thus, we easily overlook them. And they add up. Bit by bit. Brick by brick. Until, before we know it, a pebble becomes a rock, which become a fence, then becomes a wall.
So yep. I am digging into some small stuff. Because that small stuff can really matter. And we won’t see it coming if we dismissively ignore it.
If you have read my blog before, you probably have figured out I am not particularly fond of President Trump. But Trump can still be your guy, if that’s your thing. I just ask that, as with anyone in a position of power, try to be aware of what he is doing behind the curtain. And try to be aware of the social cues he gives and how they impact you.
STARTING OFF SLOW
I am going to approach this by looking at what Trump actually said. So, no diatribe on honoring Native Americans before a portrait of Andrew Jackson. In places I will try to interpret what Trump was trying to achieve. Because, let’s face it, he lacks finesse in public speaking. He sometimes does not come across as he intends. I will also contrast what Trump’s words actually sounded like, despite his intent.
I also want to be clear before we begin. As of this time, to my knowledge, none of the actual code talkers present has said they were offended by the Presidents words. In fact, one has said he doesn’t see what the big deal is. Other Navajo and Native Americans have voiced offense, but not the actual people to whom Trump was speaking.
On November 27, 2017, the White House held a ceremony to honor the contributions to World War II by the Navajo code talkers. Don’t know who they are? Here is a Wikipedia article to get you started. Trust me; they are cool and heroic and very much deserving the honor.
Gathered were 3 of the 13 surviving Navajo code talkers: Peter MacDonald, Thomas Begay and Fleming Begaye, who is a whopping 97 years old. Peter MacDonald explained who the code talkers were and what they did. He also urged the building of a museum to the code talkers. When he finished, President Trump took his turn to speak.
Now, from a public speaking standpoint, this was a layup for most career politicians and even a lot of folks not in politics. But Trump has difficulty sometimes in setting the right tone. To be fair to him, he doesn’t always mean things to come off the way they sound. But sometimes, that reveals things.
The President started by complimenting MacDonald’s remarks. Trump joked that he no longer had to make a speech. Then, because he is who he is, Trump talked about having a beautiful speech all written out and how proud he was of it. And right there he started. He can’t just let it go at complimenting someone else’s speech. He has to talk up his own.
NAME DROPPING IWO JIMA ON CODE TALKERS
Maybe he did not quite mean it that way, but he immediately followed it up by a condescending “And I though you would leave out Iwo Jima, but you got that in the end, too.” It’s clear from the video that Trump means it as a joke. Why do I say it’s condescending? Because the man speaking was a veteran standing with other veterans. You know. The guys who actually lived this. What they want to talk about or think is important from their experiences on this occasion is what is important. That is sufficient.
Then the President, probably trying prove he knows this stuff too, dangnabit, had to name drop Iwo Jima. But, he did it in a way that sounded like he wanted to dictate to Mr. MacDonald what he should have been talking about. Mr. MacDonald does not need some grade-school gold star for mentioning Iwo Jima. Much less in the way Trump put it, “but you got that in the end too.” As if MacDonald almost failed in his speech but pulled it out in the end by mentioning Iwo Jima.
Combine the “beautiful speech” comments with the “Iwo Jima” comments, and, despite trying to sound like jokes, the opening seemed to carry a small undercurrent of resentment on Trump’s part. Resentful of heroes. Resentful of veterans. Because they took away from his speech and his limelight.
Ungenerous of me, I know. If Trump really had been resentful on that front, he would have given his speech anyway. He did not. Instead, he tried to joke and then continued on afterwards in a fairly complimentary way without reservations, although he injected himself again from time. Trump handed his written speech to MacDonald, and said, “So I want to give you this speech because I don’t want to bore them with saying the same thing you just said. And you said it better, believe me, because you said it from here. And I mean it from there too.”
Nothing wrong with that. That’s the layup right there.
NOT KNOWING THE CODE . . .TALKERS
Trump also continued to name drop. That’s actually in keeping with political speechmaking – name dropping and giving credit. No problem.
Except we get a peek behind the curtain of Trump’s resentment when we get to his name drop of General Kelly. Trump has proven that, when the Presidential duties require commentary on historical events, he really has little clue. He has to get educated on the matter. Given his personality, he no doubt finds it difficult to ask for the background. And when he doesn’t understand, he probably finds it hard to ask for clarification. Further, when crunch time comes, he frequently says something publicly that shows just how little he knows on the subject. And being President, he gets called on it.
It has to frustrate him. He brags about how smart he is. And yet, on solemn occasions he often trips over his own ignorance. Cheapening the moment. Proving something important to many Americans is not important to their President. And giving lie to his bragging.
So, this Navajo code talker ceremony gets set up. And once again, Trump doesn’t really know or understand. How do we know? Because this is what he said when he mentioned General Kelly, “I said, how good were these Code Talkers? What was it? He said, sir, you have no idea. You have no idea how great they were — what they’ve done for this country, and the strength and the bravery and the love that they had for the country and that you have for the country.”
There are few things to note there. Trump admitted publicly he did not apparently know much about the code talkers. Why is that a problem? He asked, right? No big. Not everybody knows.
True enough. But Trump is not everybody. He is a self-proclaimed smart guy. He is the President of the United States who has alternatively touted his respect for veterans and military service as a club to beat opponents over the head and disrespected military veterans or their surviving loved ones as another club to beat opponents over the head. Many people I find online who support him have cited his respect for military service and veterans as being one of his more worthy qualities. Yet he was ignorant of the valuable and unique service provide by code talkers.
He is not some teenager. He has over 70 years under his belt. Claims to love the military. Claims to be one of the best educated and smartest people anyone could ever know. But he did not understand the contribution of the code talkers.
Which brings us back to another bit of note. Trump earlier name dropped, “And I thought you would leave out Iwo Jima, but you got that in the end, too”. As I mentioned, it sounds condescending, like Trump knows the story of these men better than they do and can therefore tell them what should be included in their speech. Yet with the Kelly remarks, he admits he did not really understand their service. If he did not understand the worth of their service, I doubt he really had enough knowledge of Iwo Jima to dictate to those men what they should or should not say on the subject.
Which again, proves my point, that earlier there was an undercurrent of resentment. Not just of the limelight stealing. But also of having to preside over yet another historical ceremony about something he did not understand, was forced to learn about, still does not truly comprehend, and will possibly end up showing his ignorance as a result. If the Iwo Jiwa bit was truly meant only as a joke, it fell flat for me. And just rubs the wrong way, especially in light of this admitted ignorance.
Another thing to note for clarification purposes. According to Trump, Kelly’s praise of the code talkers’ service included the line “…the love that they had for the country and that you have for the country.” The “you” seems like it refers to Trump on paper. If you view the video though, it is apparent Trump is speaking directly to the code talkers at that moment. It refers to the code talkers, not Trump.
TRUMP’S “SPECIAL” CODE WORD
Trump then went on to say, “And I just want to thank you because you’re very, very special people.” I’m going to stop right there for a moment. “Special”. That’s a very special word for Trump.
He likes to trot it out. He uses it as empty filler. Trump also deploys “special” as a deflection. A figleaf. A distraction. He uses it for people he often seems to see more as nuisances. Thorns in his side. Or just not very important. But he has to be nice. To be all “political.” So he uses the word “special” as a one size fits all figleaf to reframe earlier conduct as “Nope. I don’t have a problem with them. See? I think they’re special. I just said it. Special. Don’t you hear me using my word!” The more “specials” he uses, the more it signals the word being used as a figleaf, or meaningless filler.
For those not familiar, “figleaf” in this instance is a specific term developed by Professor Jennifer Saul. I explain it and Trump’s use of figleaves here.
Here’s another example. Recently, Trump said that, in the face of the sexual misconduct accusations against Roy Moore – and the reminder of the sexual misconduct specter still hovering over the President himself –, Mr. Moore’s denials were good enough for Trump. Since his statement essentially said, “Ignore the women,” reporters pressed him on what he thought about this pivotal moment for women in our society. His first words were to say he thought “women were special”. Right after arguing that all that mattered was what the man had to say. Again, a figleaf for what he first said, by calling women “special.” “See I wasn’t disrespectful. I called them ‘special’ too.”
I also suspect that to Trump the word “special” doesn’t really mean something nice. Rather, in his mind, and for those who speak Trump code, it may be a dog whistle. “We all know what ‘special’ means, amiright?” “Special” as in “Well, aren’t you special.” As in “special needs.” Am I sure of this? No. But it would not surprise me.
Regardless, “special” is Trump’s go to, got all my boxes checked, get out of hot water word. He uses it as cover when he talks about a person or people he does not particularly respect. So anytime he uses it in a speech to the degree he did with the Navajo code talkers, I take notice.
STEPPING IN DOGGIE DOO
Good thing this time. Because immediately after he said, “you’re very, very special people”, he made the misstep into doo-doo everyone is talking about.
“You were here long before any of us were here, although we have a representative in Congress who, they say, was here a long time ago. They call her ‘Pocahontas.’”
Why on earth would you go there? In this setting? Why?
Well, let me give it a shot. Here’s what I think the President was going for. He was trying to set up a couple of things. He wanted to tell what he thought would be a joke. He wanted to prove he was respectful to Native Americans and really does think they are “special” people. He wanted to sound like he was with them, and, they were with him. And he wanted to make one of his favorite jabs at Elizabeth Warren, with an audience he thought would be sympathetic.
But in the process he revealed that underneath all the “specials” and other figleaves, he really does not respect Native Americans. And he is a racist.
Let’s break this down.
“You were here long before any of us were here.” This is Trump trying to sell the code talkers, and the audience on a few things. First of all, that Trump knows stuff. He knows that Native Americans populated what would become this country before Europeans did. Second, he does it as if to say, “See? I get you. I respect you and your heritage.” It’s a nod and a wink and a nudge-nudge as well, to set up the second part. Trump is saying, “I’m in your corner.” Which, in Trump’s mind, means all of them are together nudging and winking conspiratorially for what follows.
“[A]lthough we have a representative in Congress, who, they say, was here a long time ago.” This is a jab at Elizabeth Warren, who claims Native American heritage, based on tales told by her parents. Now, you may or may not take issue with Elizabeth Warren’s claims and how she may or may not have used that throughout her career. I just ask that any assessment you make be based on facts, not talking points or memes. And the facts in this regard are a bit murky. For example, here is a Snopes article discussing one meme on the subject.
But regardless of whether you think Elizabeth Warren has acted inappropriately, Trump was following through on the set up from the previous line. He was trying to point in Warren’s direction to say, “Unlike me, who totally just proved that I respect you, pale Elizabeth Warren is trying to appropriate your heritage for her own ends. I respected you. I say you were here long before the Europeans. She has the gall to say she is one of you, even though she has not suffered as you have.” It was him standing in a corner with the three Native Americans and pointing a finger to show how bad a political opponent was toward Native Americans. Especially in contrast to himself.
Now, personally, I find “who, they say, was here a long time ago” to be very poorly worded. It implies not that Warren claims to be a Native American, but more that she is really, really old. Since, while Native Americans occupied this land before Europeans did, no living Native American personally claims to have been alive at that time.
But I understand, I believe, the intent. Which was to allege cultural misappropriation by Elizabeth Warren. And he might have gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for his meddling subconscious.
Because then he said, “They call her ‘Pocahontas.’”
My guess? Trump thought, since he was standing in the corner with his three new Native American bros, they could talk like bros. So, he trotted his racist nickname like he would if he was hanging with his regular bros. Without a second thought about it being racist. Because he does not see it as racist. Which is, quite frankly, racist.
Now he also used “they say” and “they call her”. Those are more of his figleaf techniques, to make it sound like it’s not really him who says any of this. He uses “they say” or “people say” a lot to cover his judgements. “I am not saying it. ‘They’ are.” “I don’t call her that. Didn’t you just hear me. ‘They’ call her that. I didn’t say I do.” He uses it to give himself the ability to deny his own words and sentiments. But they serve merely as a poor disguise for his own thoughts.
The only person I know who uses the nickname “Pocahontas” for Elizabeth Warren is Trump. If others use it, it is because they got it from Trump. Now a comparison to Pocahontas should not be derisive, given her place in history. But it has also been crystal clear that the name, as applied to Elizabeth Warren, is derogatory. It is used as a racial slur.
And again, the word choice is weird. He uses the name of a well thought of Native American to deride a woman whom he believes is falsely claiming to be a Native American. I am not sure how that is actually supposed to be insulting, but for Trump it absolutely is. I don’t know how a man trying to seduce a married woman is “moving on her like a bitch” either (from the Access Hollywood tape). Let’s just say, Trump keeps using words. And I don’t think they mean what he thinks they mean.
Anyway, Trump used the term when speaking to Native Americans about a woman he was trying to show was guilty of misappropriation of Native American culture. By using the name of famous Native American woman in a derogatory manner.
He thought the bros in his corner, and the audience too, would get his little joke. Here were real Native Americans. Let’s all of us poke fun of the false one in the Senate. Hence, they should laugh at his “Pocahontas” nickname. It’s a proven crowd pleaser.
TRUMP’S CODE INCLUDED CASUAL RACISM
Trump drops names to cover his ignorance. He starting using the “Pocahontas” nickname because that’s one of the only, if not the only, name of a Native American female he knows. He uses it not only to make fun of Warren’s allegedly false claims to being a Native American but also to make fun of her for actually being one too.
And that’s the problem. The dirty, not-so-secret he revealed in his words to the code talkers. He revealed his casual racism. The stuff that comes out without thinking because it is what the subconscious was thinking all along.
It was as if he stood in front of 3 African-Americans and poked fun of a pale Congressperson who claimed to have African-American heritage and then said, in a conspiratorial fashion, “they (and you know that means me) call her ‘nappy-headed ho.” Or if he stood in front of 3 Muslim refugees, and said, “We have a representative in Congress, who, they say, is a Muslim who fled oppression. (Although, wink-wink, we know she’s not, don’t we?) ‘They’ call her ‘sand-nigger.’”
Instead of having a conspiratorial moment of understanding with his new bros, Trump instead revealed his casual racism against them. He chose a hurtful term to get a point across because that hurtful term speaks to him, so he assumed it would speak to them.
And as if that was not enough sign of Trump’s inner thoughts, he followed the horrid moment with, “But you know what, I like you because you are special. You are special people. You are really incredible people.”
Check that again. Right after using the name of Pocahontas as a racial slur, Trump goes with the “But I like you” line. That serves two purposes. To reassert that their bros now, which he would not have to do if he had not just used a racial slur. Which emphasizes that Trump knew he used one, casually, without thought, and followed up just as causally. Second, to again set up figleaves covering the racism. “See, he likes Native Americans.”
But in the process, both on paper and in the video, it serves not to distract from, but instead emphasizes Trump’s casual racism. “But …I like you” comes across as “But not all Native Americans are bad. You I can like.” Embedded in that is a blanket judgement that Native Americans are bad in general. That is racism.
Trump followed the “But … I like you” with his word ‘special’. And given what he just said before, it’s clear that ‘special’ here is just what I said. A cover he uses to mask his underlying disrespect.
Now he continued on to talk about bravery and promises to help with the code talker museum. He had General Kelly say a few words. Those moments were all right. As they should have been. Like I said. Layup. Easy all around. Hard to mess up.
Not everything Trump said was a disaster. But he said enough. And created a fiasco out of a layup.
WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL?
Now I can hear some folks saying, “So what? I mean, yes that was not really great. But so what? It’s not the end of the world? Why is the press blowing this out of proportion? Why are you?”
The press is blowing it out of proportion for two reasons. The first is that November 27 was kind of a slow news day. “Don’t mess up on a slow news day.” Because your mistakes will be reported more heavily on such a day then they would on a day like the one after the ceremony, on November 28, when North Korea fired another missile. Second, because it was inflammatory. And the news is a business. It has to sell. Inflammatory sells.
As for me, what the President does and says gives social cues to the rest of country. What he did on November 27 was give us the cue that casual racism was okay. Don’t think that’s a big deal? Listen to the hate lately. The divisiveness. The angry rhetoric. The “you” and “me” but not “we”. Social cues that racism is alright to casually toss around, from the President no less, throws gas on those fires.
We can agree that this divisiveness, anger, and hate is harmful, can’t we? That things work better if we try to solve problems rather than ignore them? If we try to come together to get stuff done?
Isn’t that what happened in World War II, after all? Didn’t a diverse nation come together to get things done?
And among them, didn’t a group of people who had been, and continue to be, discriminated against, and treated horribly by this nation, come together to use skills only their people had to save American lives and win battles in the Pacific? To join with people who previously wanted nothing to do with them to work together to make things better? Isn’t that exactly what the code talkers did?
Aren’t we better off taking the social cues from that, than ones that serve to keep us divided?
So pull back the curtain. Take a long look at the words of Trump, and anyone else in authority. Be aware of the effect they can have you and others around you.
Be on the lookout for the small moments, because they combine with others to become big ones. Tear down the walls they erect while they are still fences, or mere rocks. We don’t have to agree with each other to agree that this nation does better when it can come together than when it pulls itself apart.
The morning of November 29, President Trump retweeted three videos put out by a far-right, “ban all Muslims” extremist from Great Britain. A lady who, last year, was convicted of religiously based aggravated harassment of someone she assumed was Muslim. The videos allegedly show Muslims doing horrible acts. None of the videos were verified. And let me be clear, a lot of inflammatory videos like this have proven to be false in the past. In fact, Snopes has already revealed that the person in one of the videos was neither Muslim nor an immigrant. The person from whom Trump retweeted gave thanks that Trump used his influence to spread her message.
The White House Press Secretary defended Trump, indicating the President was showing how he was concerned about American safety. Problem. If Trump had truly only been tweeting because he was concerned about forwarding policies to make Americans safer, he should have forwarded facts or verified information. He instead relied on an extremist source. Policy? He just wants to rile people up. Because he knew what he retweeted was inflammatory.
This is not even like when Trump retweeted the video of him punching out “CNN”. Everyone knew that was not a real video. Even if they did not appreciate it, everyone knew he was trying to make a joke. This time, Trump retweeted video not as a joke, but to scare people about another group of people. Sourced from a convicted bigot.
The President has used the platform of the Presidency to casually forward as fact unverified, questionably-sourced videos, designed to fan the flames of bigotry and religious intolerance. He sent clear social clues that such things are acceptable, even desirable. Yet another pebble.
That’s why, even if you think the President is doing a great job on the “serious stuff”, you have to pay attention to the little things he does that send harmful social cues. You have to sweat the small stuff. To be aware and refuse to drift in that direction. History tells us this kind of thing does not make America great. It rips it apart.