For many years, conservatives mocked liberals for what they described as a politics of victimhood, one in which the left supposedly centered its politics on a series of grievances it claimed must be addressed. Quit whining and pull yourself up by your bootstraps, conservatives said; if you’ve got it bad, the fault lies with no one but yourself.
But somewhere along the way, the right realized that claiming the status of victim, whether earned or not, can be extremely powerful. In the age of Trump, the politics of conservative victimhood has reached new heights. And as usual, it comes right from the top.
After bombs were sent to a dozen people President Trump had attacked, he quickly identified the person really being threatened. “Come to think of it, who gets attacked more than me?” he asked at a White House political event just after reading some words about unity that were obviously written by others and about which he couldn’t have cared less.
And after 11 people were gunned down in a Pittsburgh synagogue, reportedly by a white supremacist who believed George Soros is bringing a caravan of migrants to invade the United States — the conspiracy theory propagated in various versions by Trump and others on the right — Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway homed in on the best way to understand what had happened:
The anti-religiosity in this country, that it’s somehow in vogue and funny to make fun of anybody of faith, to constantly be making fun of people who express religion, the late-night comedians, the unfunny people on TV shows, it’s always anti-religious. And remember, these people were gunned down in their place of worship, as were the people in South Carolina several years ago. And they were there because they’re people of faith and it’s that faith that needs to bring us together. This is no time to be driving God out of the public square.
The victims in Pittsburgh weren’t murdered because they were “people of faith”; they were murdered because they were Jews. And the nine people murdered at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015 weren’t murdered because they were “people of faith”; they were murdered because they were black.
So what’s the point of the pivot toward the supposed oppression of religious people? It’s obvious: Putting it in those terms says to the deeply religious white Christians who make up such a key part of Trump’s base that they are the real victims here, or at least joined to these events by their profound and ongoing victimization.
The truth is that victimhood does afford one a certain moral status that can be politically powerful. If we accept that an actual wrong has been done and you are the victim of that wrong, that means you have a legitimate claim not only to redress but also to hold the perpetrator accountable.
Which is why it’s such a common retort to say “You’re not the real victim, I’m the real victim.” The problem isn’t racism, it’s white people being unfairly accused of racism. The problem isn’t sexual harassment and assault, it’s the fear felt by men unsure what will happen to them if they’re too flirty with their employees. The problem isn’t hate speech, it’s “political correctness” that keeps me from saying whatever I want. The problem isn’t what Brett M. Kavanaugh did to Christine Blasey Ford, it’s the fact that Kavanaugh had to endure listening to his accusers and all he got was a lifetime seat on the Supreme Court.
No presidential candidate ever validated and nurtured the right’s fantasies of victimhood like Donald Trump did. He said to conservative Christians: Yes, you are the real oppressed minority (even if you’re the majority). When you walk into a department store and see a sign that says “Happy Holidays,” you have suffered a terrible injustice by not being able to force everyone to acknowledge your religious holiday to the exclusion of all others. Only I will allow you to say “Merry Christmas” again, even if nobody ever stopped you from saying it in the first place. When antidiscrimination laws are passed and you have to allow gay people to patronize your business, you’ve been wounded and the laws must be changed to undo what you have endured.
This is what they had been telling themselves for years, and when Trump repeated it back to them, they were thrilled. He also understood a different kind of victimhood that lay at the intersection of race and class. Those working-class white voters who were so drawn to him? Nothing made them madder than when they looked around their communities and saw nothing but low-wage jobs with meager benefits, underfunded schools and the opioid crisis running wild — and then heard someone say that whiteness confers on them privileges people of color don’t enjoy. Trump validated them on both counts, telling them that they’ve been victimized by a “rigged” system and that foreigners and minorities get all the breaks.
The idea of conservatives being the real victims in any situation is difficult to maintain when they control all the levers of power. But actual facts play only the slightest role in the construction of this narrative. If you believe that Trump — a man born into wealth who spent a lifetime lying, cheating and staying one step ahead of the law — is a victim, then you’ll believe just about anything.