Election 2020

Warren's Presidential Bid Aims to Blame 'the Rich' for America's Problems

It's an inversion of the formula Trump used to get elected by scapegoating illegal immigrants. She's just targeting a different minority group.


Senator Elizabeth Warren, announcing her campaign for president here over the weekend, used the word "rich" or a variation on it—"richer," "richest"—at least nine times in a single 45-minute stump speech.

She called President Donald Trump "the product of a rigged system that props up the rich and powerful and kicks dirt on everyone else."

She said "America's middle class has been deliberately hollowed out" by "the richest families in America." Warren said those richest families, "wanted to be even richer, and they didn't care who got hurt."

She spoke of "too little accountability for the rich, too little opportunity for everyone else."

She said "the rich and powerful use fear to divide us."

And that's not even counting the other words the Massachusetts Democrat used to talk about rich people—"wealthy," "ultramillionaires," "Wall Street banks and hedge funds," and, at a campaign appearance in Dover, N.H., later on the same day, "billionaires."

One of the innovations of Donald Trump's winning 2016 campaign was that a candidate could get pretty far by blaming a lot of America's problems on a group without enough votes to influence the outcome. In Trump's case, the scapegoats were illegal immigrants. Warren appears determined to follow in Trump's footsteps by providing a single visible villainous category of people to blame for our nation's problems. She is betting that these wealthy people, for all her talk about their supposed influence, are a small enough minority that they lack the votes in a one-person, one-vote system to protect themselves.

The more traction Warren's campaign gains, though, the more it undermines her claim that "the rich and powerful have rigged our political system."

The evidence for that claim isn't particularly strong to begin with. Plenty of rich people would have preferred a Mitt Romney presidency to a second term of Barack Obama. Plenty of rich people would have preferred a Jeb Bush presidency to the Trump administration. Tariffs to protect American manufacturing jobs and a border wall to keep out illegal immigrants don't tend to be top concerns for rich people, with rare exceptions.

Warren's rich-bashing also risks getting a bit awkward in a Democratic Party where the governor of Illinois is Hyatt hotel heir J.B. Pritzker and the governor of Connecticut is J.P. Morgan banking heir Ned Lamont. Warren was introduced in Lawrence as "the next president of the United States of America" by Joseph Kennedy III, a congressman from Massachusetts. His disclosed wealth of about $42 million derives primarily not from the Hyannis Port and Palm Beach Kennedy side of his family but rather from his mother Sheila Brewster Rauch's status as an heir to the Standard Oil fortune.

Can Warren beat Trump?

Voters I spoke to in both Lawrence and Dover seemed open, but not entirely sold.

Bob Regan, 77, a retired stockbroker from Medford, Mass., who was in the crowd standing outside in the cold at the Warren announcement event, said he was planning to start monthly donations to her campaign, but that he preferred both a senator from Ohio, Sherrod Brown, and a former congressman from Texas, Beto O'Rourke. "My biggest fear is that the Democrats become too special interest and left wing," he said.

Ralph Galen, 71, a Unitarian Universalist minister and community activist from Lawrence, shrugged when I asked if he thought Warren could beat Trump. "Vaguely," he replied.

The past three incumbent presidents—Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama—have won re-election.

Warren chose to stage her event before the backdrop of a factory building. She intended it to be inspiring, the site of a 1912 strike by textile workers. "The women said enough was enough. They shut down those mills and they walked out," Warren said.

The strikers won "fair wages," "overtime pay," and "the right to join a union," Warren said. She described it as "a story about power—our power when we fight."

But when she concluded, triumphantly, that in Lawrence "today there are no children working in factories!" the line was not greeted with the kind of wild applause that Warren apparently expected.

There aren't many grownups working in factories in Lawrence, either. There aren't many factories left in the city, period. Manufacturing has fled, either to right-to-work states in the South or to countries overseas where labor costs are cheaper and where unions not controlled by the government are illegal, nonexistent, or rare.

Today's Lawrence has a serious illegal drug problem, unemployment nearly twice the statewide average, and a public school system that was so chronically bad that it went into state receivership. An Associated Press article in advance of Warren's appearance described the place as "a faded mill city that's one of New England's poorest and most heavily Latino…a hub for the lethal heroin and fentanyl trade."

Blaming all those problems on "rich people" may be politically convenient, but it's an oversimplification that ignores a lot of other important factors such as global and interstate competition. Warren called for "big structural change," including raising taxes high enough to pay for "childcare, college, and Medicare for all."

Warren said she's "not afraid of a fight, not even a hard fight."

"Hard" may be understating the challenge of selling the American electorate on these ideas, let alone successfully implementing them. The campaign, though, is just starting. As Galen put it from the back of the crowd watching Warren amid the mostly empty mill buildings of Lawrence, "We're going to have two years of this circus."

Ira Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com and author of JFK, Conservative.