The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New research shows the connection between political victimhood and White support for Trump

Victims feel like victims regardless of their actual privilege.

Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol on Jan. 6 in Washington. (John Minchillo/AP)

At a Dec. 5 rally in Valdosta, Ga., President Trump told the crowd: “We’re all victims. Everybody here. All these thousands of people here tonight. They’re all victims. Every one of you.” To many observers, last week’s Capitol riot shows that feelings of victimhood can be a powerful motivator.

Our research shows that feelings of victimhood can indeed be stoked by politicians, and are linked to support for Trump and his policy agenda. Victimhood is also related to the conspiracy theories and distrust displayed at the Capitol.

A violent mob overran Congress. 3 takeaways for the weeks ahead.

How many Americans think they’re victims?

We argue that there are at least two types of victimhood. “Egocentric” victims believe they’re getting less than they deserve. “Systemic” victims are different in that they identify a culprit and believe “the system” is unfairly stacked against them.

To measure victimhood, we polled nationally representative samples of 1,020 and 800 U.S. adults in February 2019 and August 2020. We asked respondents how much they agreed or disagreed with the statements below.

Egocentric victimhood:

  1. I usually have to settle for less. (42 percent agree)
  2. I never seem to get an extra break. (36 percent)
  3. Great things never come to me. (28 percent)
  4. I rarely get what I deserve in life. (27 percent)

Systemic victimhood:

  1. The system is rigged to benefit a select few. (54 percent agree)
  2. The system works against people like me. (36 percent)
  3. The world is “doing it” to me and there’s nothing I can do about it. (21 percent)
  4. The world is out to get me. (14 percent)

Depending on the item, anywhere from 14 to 54 percent of Americans agree with these sentiments. Perceived victimhood is generally not the majority position but it is prevalent among a significant minority.

Moreover, the two types of victimhood tend to go together: Those high in egocentric victimhood are typically high in systemic victimhood as well.

Who feels like a victim?

Believing you’re a victim doesn’t appear to depend on any true state of oppression. In other words, people do not need to actually be victimized to feel like a victim.

For example, a roughly equal fraction of Whites (53 percent) and non-Whites (57 percent) agree that “the system is rigged to benefit a select few.” Perceived victimhood doesn’t depend on gender either. For instance, while 39 percent of women agreed with the statement “I usually have to settle for less,” 45 percent of men did so. We didn’t find large differences based on education either. This helps explain why victimhood could loom so large in the minds of Capitol rioters, even though many appear to have been fairly privileged, based on race and socioeconomic status.

Perceived victimhood is also similar among Republicans and Democrats and among conservatives and liberals. For example, 28 percent of Republicans and 27 percent of Democrats expressed agreement with the statement “great things never come to me.”

Politicians can encourage a sense of victimhood

Instead, any partisan differences may lie more in who is activating and encouraging these feelings, and when. In an experiment conducted in an April 2020 poll of 513 American adults, we investigated how much Trump and then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden could generate feelings of victimhood among their supporters by using rhetoric similar to Trump’s claims in Georgia.

Specifically, we told a random subset of respondents that their preferred candidate (Trump or Biden) had said the following:

“You, the middle class and working people, have been the victims of so much. You never seem to catch a break, and always seem to pay the steepest price.

It’s sad, it really is. And I’m going to keep fighting for you no matter what.”

Compared to a group that did not read a statement, people who saw this statement were 10 points more likely to agree with the four egocentric victimhood statements. For instance, the percentage who agreed with the statement, “I never seem to get an extra break,” increased from 24 percent to 35 percent.

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And this was only after reading a single brief statement. Politicians may have a larger effect after they engage in an extended campaign like Trump’s effort to delegitimize the election and convince his supporters that they’re being victimized.

The consequences of perceived victimhood

Our study finds that perceived victimhood relates to many characteristics observed at the Capitol — including dissatisfaction with government and support for Trump. This is particularly true among White people.

For instance, egocentric and systemic victimhood are both positively related to distrust of government. Perceived victims are also more likely to explain major events and circumstances using conspiratorial narratives.

There are more specific political consequences as well. For example, after accounting for other factors, people who manifest egocentric victimhood are more likely to support Trump and a border wall with Mexico, and more likely to oppose “political correctness.”

Notably, these linkages are about twice as large for White respondents as non-White respondents. This means that although racial groups do not differ in how victimized they feel, they differ in how much perceived victimization is activated and linked to political attitudes. And White people who feel victimized are particularly prone to supporting Trump and are, therefore, amenable to Trump’s victim narrative.

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What this means for the U.S. Capitol riot

Both forms of victimhood may have been present among the Capitol rioters, including those who feel that their voices were not being heard and that outside forces were conspiring against them — and their president. The riot also had clear evidence of a distinctly White victimhood, visible in the Confederate flags, anti-Semitic regalia and participation of known neo-Nazis and white nationalists.

Fundamentally, the riot shows that feelings of victimhood have real, even dire, political consequences — especially when those feelings are inflamed by a leader like Trump. While Trump will not be in office after Jan. 20, his supporters will likely continue to feel like victims. And this does not bode well for a peaceful presidential transition or a civil politics in the months or years ahead.

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Miles T. Armaly is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Mississippi where he studies polarization and public support for courts.

Adam M. Enders is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Louisville where he studies conspiracy theories, misinformation and polarization.