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The Radicalism of Warren’s Unapologetic Aggression

The senator’s evisceration of her competitors at the Las Vegas Democratic debate hinted at an ability to shatter a long-standing political convention.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Mike Bloomberg has proposed to buy American votes with $400 million (and counting) in advertisements. Elizabeth Warren walked onto Wednesday’s debate stage proposing to buy American votes with the body of Mike Bloomberg. It was quality television. It was “Big Dick Energy.” And it could mark the end of an era in American politics.

Four years ago, pundits were blaming Hillary Clinton’s poor early primary showings on her overly cerebral, pragmatic approach. There were many substantive differences between the two candidates, but a surprising amount of criticism focused on Clinton’s detachment, in contrast with Bernie Sanders’s passion and dynamism. Rebecca Traister, writing in New York magazine, took the pundits to task for this stylistic critique. It was gendered, she argued, and hardly fair: If Clinton were to be as “grumpy” and aggressive as Sanders, voters would like her less, not more.

“Here is a truth about America,” she wrote. “No one likes a woman who yells loudly about revolution.… This is a paradigm; it’s why Mom is the disciplinarian and Dad is the fun guy, why women remain the brains and organizational workhorses behind social movements while men get to be the gut-ripping orators, why so many women still manage campaigns and so many men are still candidates.”

Traister was not the first to point out that female aggression is often perceived as shrill, which has created something of a bind for female candidates: One has to attack one’s opponents at some point. But how can one do that—against a male opponent in particular—without being seen as undesirable to voters (and pundits)?

Warren’s unbridled bellicosity Wednesday night offered an unconventional answer to that question. Some saw her performance as an act of desperation: a flagging candidate seeking discount media coverage with a parade of quotable moments. Or it may have been more strategic: driving a stake through the heart of the revenant stop-and-frisk architect, as a televised show of devotion for progressive and black voters. Either way, as countless postdebate write-ups have already pointed out, it was a return to the “fighter” identity that Massachusetts voted for in 2012. But that’s underselling its novelty.

“Fighter” is by no means an established identity for a woman seeking the highest office in the United States. Hillary Clinton’s “Fight Song” theme hardly reflected her actual pugilism in debates, which mostly didn’t feature pointed and specific personal attacks. Not until this week has a female politician at this level been quite so unapologetic about aggression—without offering any of the typical excuses or cover for female emotion in public life.

Acceptable female passion and aggression in American culture is typically cloaked in the language of motherhood. That’s particularly true for presidential and vice-presidential candidates—as though a role that has never been female can only be attained by leaning into an identity that has always been female. Clinton was the “it takes a village” mom. Sarah Palin was the hockey mom, the “mama grizzly.”

No moms advertised their motherhood in Nevada on Wednesday night. While Amy Klobuchar nodded toward convention by positioning herself as the candidate with “heart,” Warren unsheathed her scimitar, aimed for the trouser break, and proceeded to stack bodies by her lectern like an outdoor cat leaving neighborhood mouse carcasses on progressives’ doormat.

Closing statements are a revealing little exercise, each candidate trying and sometimes failing to boil down their pitch to a single word. Bloomberg asked for votes as a “manager.” Biden asked for votes as Joe Biden. Sanders played the revolutionary, and Buttigieg the unifier. Warren sold herself as a “fighter.” No maternal overtones tempered the identity presented in this final statement. Warren did not describe herself as a “mama grizzly.” She did not mention her children at all. And the “mother” she mentioned was not herself, but her own mother. “I watched my mother fight to save our family. And I grew up fighting to save our family, my family,” she said. “Give me a chance, I’ll go to the White House, and I’ll fight for your family.”

It’s such a trite little triptych you could easily miss the bait-and-switch. As a female candidate, you’re supposed to ground any aggression you might have in your motherhood, not the childhood that people of all genders share. But Warren, at the end of the debate, didn’t grin sheepishly and say, “Well, I’m a mom after all.” She claimed her kills, and promised American families to go out and fell fresh targets in their name. Here was an assassin, bathed in the blood of her enemies, turning steady eyes to the TV camera and offering her talents to the public: For the small price of a primary vote, this assassin will work for you.

It was a sales pitch unlike any ever attempted by a woman running for president in America. If voters buy it, our political conventions could break wide open.