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Facebook Fight

Inside the cult of Elizabeth Warren.

On Tuesday, Representative Patrick McHenry called Elizabeth Warren a liar. Twice. As Obama’s advisor for the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Warren has grown accustomed to conservative ire. But this grew personal. First, while chairing a House subcommittee hearing, the North Carolina Republican accused Warren of misleading testimony. Then, after she testified, she asked to be excused for another meeting, which she claimed to have previously discussed with the congressman’s staff. McHenry snapped, “You’re making this up.” As Warren’s mouth fell agape, Democrat Elijah Cummings jumped to her defense: “Mr. Chairman … I’m trying to be cordial here, but you just accused the lady of lying.”

McHenry, whatever his motive, could not have prepared for what was coming next. Within hours, hundreds of Warren supporters took to the congressman’s Facebook “fan” page to chide his bad manners. “You kiss your mother with that mouth? Apologize to Elizabeth Warren,” wrote one. Others called him “classless,” “undignified,” and accused him of blatant sexism: “What a pathetic display of pig-headed machismo.” By Wednesday afternoon, just twenty-four hours later, the negative comments numbered into the thousands, with diatribes from Warren defenders unspooling every five to ten seconds like clockwork. A nascent Facebook group—Citizens Against Patrick McHenry—sprung up to maintain the momentum: “We’re starting to get noticed. More posts, people, more posts.” The insults ranged from the political—“Hiding behind your Republican Agenda is not good enough”—to the petty: “You’re ugly and your mama dresses you funny.”

It seems safe to say that, under normal circumstances, government officials—those culled from the ranks of dull bureaucrats, policy wonks, and lawyers—rarely inspire this kind of fealty, much less passion. And on paper, at least, Elizabeth Warren appears to fit this uninspiring mold: She’s a lawyer, an academic, and one from Harvard to boot. Yet Warren commands a legion of loyalists apparently willing to rush, at a moment’s notice, to her defense. The whole episode was strange enough for me to decide to find out more about her devotees and ask a basic question: Just who are these people, this de-facto Elizabeth Warren Fan Club, and why would they go to such great lengths?

The first thing that surprised me about the Warren Facebook gurus was that they were by no means the same Internet-savvy millennials that pioneered Obama’s web support in 2008. (Even before getting them on the phone, their profile pictures, as well as the peculiar yet charming reticence of their insults, gave them away.) But my cursory phone survey lent further evidence to the fact that Warren fan clubbers are overwhelmingly 40-plus, boasting a fair number of retirees in their 60s. As Cena Buchannon, a 63-year-old retiree from Dayton, Ohio, told me, “I’m a recent joiner, I guess, of Facebook, and I’m still not quite sure how I do some of these things.”

One of the big technical dilemmas confronting Warren loyalists was the fact that they were forced to become a “fan” of Congressman McHenry’s Facebook page before being granted access to pillory him. This aroused the fear of artificially inflating his Facebook fan base. Thankfully, helpful fellow Warrenites were there to lend a hand with instructional posts like this one: “Quick Tip: If you hit ‘Like’ so you can post on the wall, there's an unlike button at the bottom left page for when you’re finished!” On Wednesday, the congressman had 3,963 likes; by Friday it had spiked to 5,491. Warren’s defenders apparently weren’t getting the message. But whatever their shortcomings in Internet aptitude, they more made up for them with clever taunts: “Wow, you’re getting a lot of ‘likes’ Representative! Pity they aren’t broken down by irony.”

The more I considered it, however, the more the average age of Warren’s defenders made sense. Angry at Wall Street’s complicity in the financial collapse and the damage it has wrecked upon pension plans, befuddled by the cynical and shoddy evasions of guilt by credit agencies and banks, the folks I spoke to all possessed a preternatural craving for a straight talker—and they found it in Warren. “Elizabeth Warren is the person we can most count on to tell the truth,” Buchannon wrote on McHenry’s page. Indeed, Warren has made a career out of standing up for consumers on so-called kitchen table issues, and her plain language has won her points and even made her a fan favorite during appearances on “Dr. Phil” and John Stewart’s “Daily Show.” “Any time I’ve heard her speak on TV, she has seemed to have a very firm grasp of the things that caused the financial meltdown,” Buchannon told me over the phone. “She seems to be able to explain things so that everyone can understand. It seems like all these credit card companies and banks want to hide behind legalese and it’s almost impossible to understand.”

In part, it is Warren’s folksy style that has helped make her a middle-class populist hero. And as the daughter of a janitor, the Oklahoman has the roots to back it up. “She comes off like one of us, ready to protect us,” says Darlene Stukas, a 56-year-old retiree from Acworth, Georgia, who a day before had urged McHenry to apologize to this “wonderful woman.” “She has shown herself to be a champion of the common people … willing to stick up for us in the face of the onslaught from the bankers,” says Bill Pierce, a 50-year-old concert sound engineer from Tucson who took to Facebook to deride McHenry’s “boorish behavior.” Later, he told me he was a constituent of Gabby Giffords, adding that “seeing civility return to our national discourse has special meaning to me.”

To be sure, it also doesn’t hurt that McHenry appears in many ways the perfect stooge for banking interests. Among his top campaign contributors in 2010 were Wells Fargo, Bank of America and the American Bankers Association. This is not surprising when you consider his district, once blue-collar backcountry, is now becoming a bedroom community for banking-centric Charlotte. Carolyn Mabry, a 48-year-old dancer, writer, and fire performer from Raleigh, took it upon herself to repeatedly repost McHenry’s donor record on his Facebook wall. “We need to spread THESE truths far and wide!” she wrote. Stan Ford, who works at an oil and gas company in Houston, decided to do the same, explaining to me that he blames these Wall Street special interests for the recession that has hit his family members. While he’s no liberal, Ford still believes Warren is the best person to run the CFPB: “Wall Street and Big Banks are terrified of her, which means she is on the right track.”

In the face of this maelstrom of criticism, McHenry, for the most part, has taken the high road. His staffers have not been wholesale deleting posts (which would be difficult anyway, given their rapid rate of entry). On Wednesday, “Team McHenry” wrote to “our Facebook friends,” praising the “open forum” and encouraging respectful discussion of “all points of view.” Occasionally, a McHenry supporter will appear, a lone wolf crying out in the wilderness, and the post will be promptly defaced by a stream of negative comments from Warren supporters. In the meantime, McHenry has taken a few cheap shots elsewhere, calling Warren out on Twitter for her “complete disregard for congressional oversight,” and linking to a Washington Examiner story that said she “skipped out” of the hearing.

Yet, in the past few days, support for Warren has only grown. A grassroots petition, led by a progressive coalition, garnered more than 150,000 signatures in its call for Warren to be Obama’s appointee to head the CFPB. Rumors started circulating that she could get a recess appointment over Memorial Day, avoiding the contentious confirmation process. Concerned Republicans responded by insuring that Congress won’t technically be in recess this holiday weekend, though they will do no official business. Should Warren eventually secure Obama’s nomination, Republicans, no doubt, will publicly denounce the move. But when they do, they’ll have to answer to Warren’s loyal fans, who will be there to defend her honor. “We need Ms. Warren to run the new Consumer Protection Agency,” one devotee wrote on McHenry’s Facebook page. “We need her to protect us from people exactly like you.”

Tiffany Stanley is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.

Follow @tnr on Twitter.