The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can aggressors be ‘victims’? Ideologues on the right think so.

When anti-maskers wear yellow stars, the real victims of extremism are pushed out of the spotlight

A demonstrator at an anti-vaccine protest in Paris in July wore a yellow star on his hoodie, evoking the Nazi persecution of Jews. The symbology is not confined to Europe. Last month in Alaska, people protesting mask mandates wore yellow stars at an Anchorage city council meeting. (Michel Euler/AP)

A previous version of this article gave an incorrect age for the Nazi brawler Horst Wessel; he was 22, not 23, when he was shot dead. The article also misstated the month a city council meeting in Anchorage took place; it was September, not October. Both errors have been corrected.

Among the most brazen cries of victimhood pouring from the American right these days is former president Donald Trump’s tribute to Ashli Babbitt, the rioter killed by a Capitol Police officer who was defending legislators on Jan. 6. “Her memory,” Trump said in a recorded video played at a recent birthday commemoration, “will live on in our hearts for all time,” and “we must all demand justice for Ashli” — obscuring the fact that she was shot while attempting to storm the halls of government with an angry mob. A subtler instance is the Glenn Youngkin campaign ad in which a mother claimed that her son was victimized by having to read Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s slavery novel “Beloved” in his high school English class — and that Youngkin’s opponent in the Virginia governor’s race, former governor Terry McAuliffe, was to blame.

The tactic isn’t new; groups of all stripes elevate individuals to martyrdom as they try to manipulate a narrative to fit their ends — and it’s often the aggressors playing the victim. But lately there has been a twist. Increasingly, some on the right openly embrace fascist symbols and rhetoric while portraying themselves as fascism’s historical victims. In addition to being absurd, ironic and offensive, this has the effect, perhaps intended, of pushing the real victims of right-wing extremism out of the spotlight.

Examples run the gamut and emerge from different strands of right-wing ideology, but recent ones have concerned government responses to the coronavirus pandemic. At a city council meeting in Anchorage in September, while Alaska struggled with its worst surge of covid-19, anti-mask protesters wore Stars of David resembling those the Nazis forced Jews to wear during the Holocaust. The words “Do Not Comply” were written on them. The Anchorage mayor said that the stars meant “we will not forget, this will never happen again” and that “borrowing that from [the Jews] is actually a credit to them.” Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene (R-Ga.) has also compared mask mandates to the stars — and to the gassing of Jews during the Holocaust. She later apologized for those remarks but not for likening the Democratic Party to the Nazi party. Herschel Walker, a Trump-endorsed Republican running for the U.S. Senate in Georgia, was forced to cancel a fundraiser hosted by an anti-vaccine supporter displaying a swastika made of syringes on her Twitter profile, but a Walker campaign spokesperson minimized the use of the image, calling it “clearly an anti-mandatory vaccination graphic.”

Anti-vaxxers are claiming centuries of Jewish suffering to look like martyrs

The most extreme examples come from the right’s furthest fringes, which are closest to Trump. In a podcast, Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser and a retired lieutenant general in the U.S. Army, invoked Nazism in denouncing Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease doctor: “Faucism is a component of the health side of fascism and Nazism,” said Flynn, who once had a meeting in Trump Tower with Austrian far-right figure Heinz-Christian Strache, “and it really does have to do with eugenics, and Dr. Fauci would be right in there in the same room with people like Dr. Mengele . . . who worked for the Nazis at the time of all of Hitler’s experimentation on human beings.”

Even at the beginning of alt-right violence by neo-Nazis and white supremacists chanting “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville in 2017, the same extremists who marched on the University of Virginia campus and threatened students were filmed decrying the sometimes-violent reactions of counterprotesters, as if they were the true victims. White supremacist Richard Spencer appeared in the New York Times earlier that year after he was attacked while in D.C. for Trump’s inauguration; “Is It O.K. to Punch a Nazi?” the headline read. In a lengthy Periscope video Spencer titled “The assault on me,” he lamented all his injuries while calling anti-fascist attackers “cowards.” (Recent data from the Center for Strategic and International Studies shows that attacks by members of far-right groups far exceed those attributable to antifascists or the far left.)

People across the broad spectrum of conservative politics in America see themselves as under attack. From “cancel culture” to “deplatforming,” people on the right paint themselves as innocent victims of an oppressive society and simultaneously proud aggressors — defenders of a hypermasculine, hyper-patriotic set of values. This seems paradoxical at first, but it is actually part of a longer historical phenomenon in American and European society. In many ways, the Lost Cause myth is simply a refiguring of the literal aggressors of the Civil War into the valiant victims. In both the Lost Cause and the contemporary trend, there is an attempt at an inversion of power. Though victim-makers hold most of the power, they claim to be victimized by forces beyond their control.

Historically, this tactic has been part of the fascist playbook. Consider the case of Horst Wessel, a 22-year-old college dropout and member of Adolf Hitler’s brownshirts, the SA, in Berlin. He was a Nazi street brawler who organized attacks against communists before he was shot dead in 1930. Despite Wessel’s checkered and less-than-heroic past, the Nazis, led by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, seized upon his death and elevated him to official martyr status. His funeral drew tens of thousands of mourners, and a song bearing his name became the official anthem of the Nazi party. Though a petty criminal, Wessel became both a positive symbol of the aggressive violence of the regime and an “innocent victim” of the “evil” communists (shades of Babbitt).

The 'reasonable' rebels

Thirteen years later, another prominent Nazi, Heinrich Himmler, addressed a particularly unexpected group of Nazi “victims.” In a speech in Poland to high-level SS officers, most of whom had been involved in the mass murder of Jews, Himmler noted that it was these men, rather than the Jews, who were the victims and bore the scars of their work. The mass killings, he said, were “the most difficult duty.” He addressed men who “know what it means when 100 corpses are lying side by side, or 500 or 1,000” and praised them for having “endured” their participation in genocide. Two years earlier, he told the commanders of the killing squads that it was their “sacred obligation . . . to see to it personally that none of our men who have to fulfill this heavy duty, become brutalized.” Even though these men were the perpetrators, they preferred to see themselves as the ones sacrificing and suffering.

Why do the aggressors so often attempt to portray themselves as the victims? The case of the Nazi killers is an extreme example, but similar rhetoric from the American far right also demands explanation. The most obvious is a plea for sympathy. Another is a desire to be seen as defenders responding to attacks. Part and parcel of this is the frequent paradox of racism: Racists consider different ethnicities inferior but also existential threats. There is also the psychological comfort of portraying oneself as the victim.

But there is another, darker possibility. When the right associates itself with Jews in the Holocaust, it is appropriating the space reserved for victims. It is, in a sense, pushing the rightful victims out and attempting to absorb the sympathy and compassion they are owed. It is a form of re-victimization that has as its goal negating, relativizing or erasing real suffering.

There seems to be no small degree of projection (conscious or unconscious) at play here. While we cannot perhaps characterize Trump conservatism as inherently antisemitic, many of its fellow travelers are. The pushback against critical race theory also attempts to recenter victimhood away from those who have actually been harmed. In this instance, a predominantly White demographic is uncomfortable recognizing the suffering of minorities — because it is a mirror to their own complicity. In reaction, they forcefully try to insert themselves into the narrative as either the only victims or an equally victimized group. As one Twitter commenter noted about the Youngkin ad objecting to “Beloved,” “If your son was traumatized by reading a novel about slavery imagine how the actual enslaved people felt.”

The danger here is that playing the victim (as opposed to being the victim) can be addictive and energizing. The Republican establishment is actively playing into this economy of victimization. Nearly the entire Republican Party attempted to scuttle any investigation of the causes of the Jan. 6 insurrection, for instance. This is the first step in turning extremists into victims and then into martyrs.

Allowing the right to weave pernicious counternarratives and to create saints from sinners will only embolden future Ashli Babbitts and spawn more violence. This is not an unreasonable prediction. Last month, a man was arrested in a molotov cocktail attack on the headquarters of the Democratic Party in Austin; an investigator said that the attack was politically motivated and that the man blamed Democrats for the country’s problems. The problem with creating martyrs is that they are too often born of violence and death, and then used to perpetuate more violence. The cycle, as history has shown, is very hard to break.