The expression used to be “everyone’s a critic.” Today, “everyone’s a victim” seems more apt.
Conservatives like to criticize liberal-leaning, historically oppressed demographic groups — such as blacks, women, LGBT people, sexual assault survivors and religious minorities — for demanding moral or financial reparations for insults and injuries both real and perceived. Victimhood status has been used and abused to confer sympathy and moral authority, conservatives complain, as well as sundry undeserved “benefits.”
But in recent years, conservatives have found playing the victimhood card to be equally profitable for their own causes.
Right-wing persecution complexes have manifested themselves in men’s rights groups, the imagined War on Christmas (lately transmogrified into the War on Easter) and crusades justifying bigotry in the name of religious or ideological freedom. Prominent conservative leaders such as Ben Carson bemoan the prejudice they supposedly face for bravely sharing their views.
This rhetoric has been effective. Seven in 10 white evangelical Protestants now believe that discrimination against Christians is as bad as discrimination against other groups, according to a 2015 survey from the Public Religion Research Institute; Americans overall are more likely to support protecting the religious freedom of Christians than that of other faith groups, according to a recent poll by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Conservative college students, like their more numerous liberal peers, have demanded spaces safe from upsetting readings or images. And conservative adults campaign for legal protection from all sorts of perceived predators, including transgender bathroom users, immigrants and same-sex couples in need of wedding cakes.
Given our nation’s long infatuation with underdogs, perhaps it’s no surprise that both ideological poles have found claims of victimhood to be useful. What may be surprising, though, is how deftly and productively our nation’s most famous strongman has leveraged similar claims of weakness and victimhood to his advantage.
Donald Trump is a successful businessman. His residences and modes of transit are plated with gold. He has married three gorgeous women. He claims to have a multibillion-dollar net worth. He has mocked the disabled, women, Asians, Hispanics, Muslims, even prisoners of war.
In other words, at first blush, he is no one’s idea of a victim, systemically oppressed or otherwise.
Yet he constantly rationalizes his bad behavior and political setbacks as the inevitable consequence of unfair systems and anti-Trump persecution.
Don’t like his ugly comments about a TV personality, political rival or even a political rival’s spouse? Well, he’s only “counterpunching” after someone else “started it.” Trump is ganged-up-upon underdog, not instigator.
Disapprove of his pro-violence rally rhetoric? He’s just protecting his beleaguered voters against those “big, strong, powerful” Black Lives Matter activists, Bernie bros and other “bad dudes.”
Find his xenophobic remarks about our allies, trading partners and immigrants repulsive? He’s merely defending his supporters from foreigners who prey on them economically, culturally and even sexually. (Those Mexican border-crossers are mostly rapists, after all.)
To hear Trump tell it, he and his supporters are the most beaten-down victims this country has ever seen. The system is rigged to keep them from winning, designed to make the weak even weaker. They have been robbed, disenfranchised, bullied and insulted. With the odds so stacked against them, they — and their leader — are not only permitted but also morally obligated to “punch back” as ferociously as they can.
And they often do.
Which is why I suspect efforts to block Trump from the Republican nomination will backfire.
Headlines about the party establishment’s #NeverTrump machinations seem to have only strengthened Trump’s position. They have, after all, given credence to his and his supporters’ paranoid fantasies about marginalization, persecution and disenfranchisement.
Our convoluted, opaque primary system is fundamentally “unfair,” Trump complains, and party insiders are exploiting that unfairness to disarm Trump’s ragtag, long-shot army. Every backdoor handshake, delegate-stacking effort or super-PAC-funded attack ad is proof of the conspiracy to destroy their economic and political interests.
The John Kasich-Ted Cruz alliance — or as Trump calls it, their “collusion” — to keep states out of Trump’s hands is just the latest and most naked attempt to persecute Trumpkins for their politically incorrect electoral preferences. Or so Trump portrays it.
“It is sad that two grown politicians have to collude against one person who has only been a politician for ten months in order to try and stop that person from getting the Republican nomination,” Trump whined in a statement.
Even with everyone picking on him, Trump promises, he’ll still eke out a victory. He may be a crybully, but he’s no loser.