Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) tweeted that we should never use the term lynching because “the painful scourge in our history has no comparison to politics.” Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has remained largely silent in response to Trump’s racist remarks in the past, declared it “an unfortunate choice of words.”
Notwithstanding the shocked reaction to the outrageous comparison, Trump’s comments were in keeping with a long-standing strand of conservative rhetoric that might best be dubbed “elite victimization.” This is a mode of speech typically used by wealthy, powerful white men in which they employ the language of enslavement and Jim Crow to describe their plight and claim to be victims of everything from government programs to social movements they dislike to investigations into wrongdoing.
This language marks a double appropriation. First, it is a reaction to the increasing power of claiming rights by minority populations. In the 20th century, African Americans and other oppressed groups forced the country to confront its violent, racist history and demanded full rights and citizenship. By casting themselves as victims, elites frame their individual sense of being wronged as a violation of their rights, even though those rights are well-secured. Second, it is to demand sympathy for a kind of physical and spiritual suffering akin to that experienced by racial minorities that elites claim to endure when they feel under attack.
But the language may also feel true to them. Given that wealthy white men do not face discrimination on the basis of race, the slightest feeling of vulnerability or threat might feel like oppression, however distinct it is from the lived experience of oppressed groups. In 1946, for example, J. Howard Pew, the conservative oil man, condemned what he called “continued unfair and discriminatory legislation granting special privileges for favored minorities at the expense of the general welfare.”
But this language perversely minimizes the plight of African Americans for much of American history and compares systemic wrongs with hideous consequences to legal actions or social movements that conservative white men happen to dislike.
Long before Tuesday’s tweet, Trump had shown himself to be a master of this language of elite grievance and loss. (Think: “witch hunt.”) But he did not invent it.
During the New Deal era, for example, business leaders and conservative politicians used images of racialized subjection, including slavery and lynching, to describe their purported plight. To them, the language of slavery stood in for all manner of abuse faced by businesspeople and affluent taxpayers. “There are many kinds of slavery,” charged Rep. Joseph Martin (Mass.), the House Republican leader, at a Lincoln Day dinner in 1940. The most dangerous form in the current world, he implied, referring to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, was “political slavery, which in these later years has begun creeping like some strange new and insidious malady.”
And conservative men didn’t stop with generalized accusations of slavery either. They used a charged language tied to this practice that evoked the assaults on freedom that had long confronted African Americans. According to the conservative journalist Kyle Palmer, for example, California’s Proposition 11, the Fair Employment Practices Act of 1946, would lead to a denial of freedom by placing “shackles on human feelings, emotions, sympathies.” Other critics complained that the actions and rhetoric of New Dealers had turned the business community into a “whipping boy.”
But using this language deeply distorted power realities. To embrace it, conservatives like Martin and Palmer had to disavow their power in society and depict themselves as precarious and weak, in the process displacing the claims of workers and African Americans to these subordinate positions and making it harder for those groups to secure equality under the law. These conservatives rarely acknowledged the realities of white supremacy, including the Jim Crow laws that then subordinated African Americans throughout the nation.
And conservative reliance on this language lasted long after the New Deal era ended. Conservatives continued to imagine themselves in the metaphorical position of victims of racist violence when facing uncomfortable situations, even as they maintained more than their fair share of political power. These men sometimes acted as if their rights were under siege thanks not only to their political opponents, but also to the growing power of social movements, especially the civil rights movement, as it gained steam. They appropriated a language of minority rights, in which they conceived themselves as an embattled, ignored and abject minority. Like Trump, they often invoked the language of racialized mob violence to describe their plight.
As he faced hearings to censure him in the U.S. Senate in 1954, the demagogic anti-communist Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) complained that the special session amounted to a “lynch party.” Supporters of Richard Nixon’s Supreme Court nominee G. Harrold Carswell blamed a “liberal lynch mob” for his failure to ascend to the high court in 1970 despite ample evidence of his manifest incompetence and racism. In 1987, employing the same language, the National Conservative Political Action Committee put out an ad campaign that condemned the “liberal lynch mob” for criticizing President Ronald Reagan during the Iran-contra scandal.
The most infamous use of this metaphor came in 1991, when Clarence Thomas, President George H.W. Bush’s nominee to the Supreme Court, denounced those who raised allegations that he had sexually harassed Anita Hill as proponents of a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.” Unlike most conservatives who employed such language, Thomas is, of course, African American, which gave the charge additional power, by suggesting that white senators who opposed his nomination were motivated by racial animus. By casting himself as a victim, Thomas directed the public’s attention to the process rather than the substance of the accusations made against him. It worked.
And, as Trump’s tweet demonstrates, powerful people continue to invoke images of racialized inversion, in which they imagine themselves to be victimized akin to those suffering the worst under America’s racial caste system. Indeed, from Thomas’s “high-tech” to Trump’s use of the term to describe the investigation into his “high crimes,” the language of lynching has long been a keyword in conservative discourse. Such figures of speech brashly suggested that something analogous to lynching was at play when their plans were thwarted, enacting symbolic if not actual violence to their person.
Their use of this language fit more broadly in the rise of backlash politics since the 1960s, in which people with relative power symbolically understood themselves to be in subordinate, precarious positions, facing threats to their dignity and person every bit as extreme as advocates for greater equality. Such alarmist, self-pitying rhetoric has long since become a staple of the political landscape, mostly but not exclusively on the right. For example, defenders of President Bill Clinton during his impeachment inquiry suggested at the time that it could be construed as “partisan lynching.”
The essence of “elite victimization” is the desire to take the metaphorical place of the victims of actual racial violence. But most often, conservatives invoke this language not in violent circumstances but when they are confronted with the consequences of their own behavior or perhaps when they experience a sense of loss of exalted status in a society straining to live up to its founding ideal of equality.
The use of this language aims to shut down efforts to hold them accountable or to forge a fairer, more just society. Marginalized groups worked painstakingly to educate white Americans as to their plight and to demand justice. Instead of responding to these demands and working to stem the tide of violence or even to recognize the wrongs being done, some conservative men have instead appropriated their victimhood.
Trump falls into this group. Although many of his actions are unprecedented, in this way the president’s rhetoric represents the culmination of a long tradition. If his tweet helps unmask the tradition of elite victimization and subjects it to critical scrutiny, it will be one of the most positive, if unintended, developments of his presidency.