As Trump tells it, he is a hard-working and honorable president whose conduct has been “perfect” but who is being harassed and tormented by “Do Nothing Democrat Savages” and a corrupt intelligence community resolved to perpetuate a hoax, defraud the public and, ultimately, undo the 2016 election.
“There has been no President in the history of our Country who has been treated so badly as I have,” Trump tweeted Wednesday, some 13 hours after Pelosi’s announcement.
Victimization always has been core to Trump’s identity, both as a politician and as a real estate promoter and reality-television star. It is the emotional glue that yokes Trump to the grievance politics of the right. Many of Trump’s grass-roots followers have said they feel protective of the president in part because they also feel oppressed and ostracized by elites.
As Congress considers impeaching him over his request that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky investigate 2020 Democratic candidate Joe Biden and his family as well as an unsubstantiated theory that Ukrainians worked with Democrats to interfere in the 2016 election, Trump is claiming a broad conspiracy to erase history. He has sought to stitch together his existing narrative about the Russia investigation with the emerging probe of his Ukraine episode into a seamless “deep state” story line — in part by trying to discredit an urgent complaint about his conduct with Zelensky from an intelligence-community whistleblower.
“He’s been forecasting that the ‘deep state’ is out to get him, and there’s a way in which the narrative of the whistleblower can come to confirm all of that for his followers,” said historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat, an expert on authoritarianism at New York University.
This shared sense of persecution is one reason so many Republican officeholders and conservative media personalities are defending the president — at least for now — against allegations that he abused the power of his office for personal political gain.
“At a Trump rally, central to the show is the idea of shared victimization,” said Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, a Trump critic. “Donald Trump revels in it, has consistently portrayed himself as a victim of the media and of his political opponents, and this will all be framed as an unfair effort to overturn a legitimate election. That argument will have enormous currency across right-wing media. It will be believed.”
At the heart of Trump’s case is his obsession with the 2016 election, the results of which he boasts about in historic terms despite the asterisk over Russia’s interference campaign to boost his candidacy, as well as the fact that he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton.
In the nearly three years since, Trump has tried to re-litigate his election by discounting — and, in some instances, rejecting outright — the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered, and by proving that he defeated Clinton soundly in the electoral college entirely on his own superior abilities as a candidate.
“We won [the] election, convincingly. Convincingly,” Trump told reporters last week. Invoking communications between former FBI officials, he continued, “Then you had the text message on, well, if she doesn’t win, we’ve got an insurance policy. How bad was that? You know the insurance policy? That’s sort of what has been taking place over the last number of years — the insurance policy. No, there are a lot of very dishonest people. We’re the ones that played it straight.”
At the same news conference Tuesday on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, Trump reminisced about his winning strategy in 2016.
“If you go by the college, electoral college, that’s a much different race than running popular vote,” Trump said. “It’s like the 100-yard dash or the mile. You train differently. And I can’t help it that my opponent didn’t go to Wisconsin and should have gone much more to Michigan and Pennsylvania and other places. But that’s the way it is.”
Rick Wilson, another GOP strategist and Trump critic, likened the president to “the guy circling the high school parking lot in his Camaro five years after he graduated. He always wants to go back to 2016 and his victory. That’s the triumphal arc of his history. And he’s always trying to go back to having a fight about Hillary Clinton and her emails and the servers, straight from the greatest hits album.”
For instance, when Trump met with Zelensky last Wednesday, he called Clinton’s deletion of emails “one of the great crimes committed” and speculated without evidence that they “could very well” reside on a server in Ukraine.
Ben-Ghiat drew parallels between Trump’s strategy and the tactics of leaders with authoritarian tendencies past and present around the world. She said Trump’s branding of investigations against him as “witch hunts” mirrors the language used by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi to condemn probes into their conduct.
“Their cult of victimization is part of their persona,” Ben-Ghiat said. “It’s how they get support for people. It’s how they justify lashing out. A lot of their repressive agenda is against the press, the intelligence communities, anybody with investigatory capabilities.”
Trump’s aides, however, say that the president’s sense of being under siege is justified because Democrats decided long ago they wanted to remove him from office and have now settled on his call with the Ukrainian president as their best case after months of failing to rally around other rationales.
“People were talking about impeaching this president before he even got inaugurated. Now they are getting their wish,” Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, told reporters Friday. “Nancy Pelosi finally capitulated to her angry mob.”
Trump’s victim mentality has historical precedent — including with the 17th president, Andrew Johnson, who ascended after Abraham Lincoln’s 1865 assassination. He was impeached by the House, acquitted in the Senate and did not stand for election at the end of his term, having failed to win his party’s nomination in 1868.
“People were shocked at the first tirade they heard and thought [Johnson] must be drunk, but he wasn’t,” Wineapple said. “It was so similar to today as to be scary. Both men felt a victimization and a sense of being martyred by a radical group of fanatics not out to save the country but out to get them.”
The media being what it was in the 19th century, Johnson’s remarks were not nearly as widely disseminated as Trump’s are today.
In the modern era, both Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton tended toward feelings of victimhood in the confidences of their families and staffs during their respective impeachment battles. Nixon resigned before facing a verdict, while Clinton was acquitted in the Senate. But neither president aired his emotions quite like Trump, who announces his grievances every few hours on Twitter and in regular media appearances.
Lanny Davis, one of Clinton’s lawyers and crisis strategists, said his client tried to keep his public comments focused on the facts of his case, although he acknowledged that the first lady implanted the notion of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.”
Davis now represents Trump-lawyer-turned-critic Michael Cohen. In Trump’s situation, he said, “a strategy based on the Democrats ganging up on me or being persecuted won’t work among the people who are voting on impeachment because of the transcript of his telephone conversation. It’s his own words.”
“What do you do when you have facts that are terrible and you can’t change, can’t delete, can’t sweep them under the rug?” Davis added. “The competitive narrative that ‘the Democrats are persecuting me’ just ignores the elephant in the room.”
Trump’s attitude is shared by his personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, whose own work in Ukraine looks to figure prominently in the impeachment inquiry.
Giuliani revealed this mind-set in a phone call this past week with Elaina Plott, a reporter from the Atlantic.
“It is impossible that the whistleblower is a hero and I’m not. And I will be the hero! These morons — when this is over, I will be the hero,” Giuliani told her.
“I’m not acting as a lawyer. I’m acting as someone who has devoted most of his life to straightening out government,” Giuliani continued. “Anything I did should be praised.”