Unfair is one of his favorite words, and he has used it in 69 tweets. He calls the federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election a rigged witch hunt. He accuses the FBI of infiltrating his campaign with spies. He insists the media is running a sophisticated disinformation operation to discredit him. And he demands apologies for myriad criticisms and slights.
Never mind that Donald Trump was born into extraordinary wealth, emblazoned his name on skyscrapers and golf courses across the globe and now is the elected leader of the free world.
In President Trump’s telling, which can often be more imaginary than real, he is a victim — a long-suffering, tormented victim.
When ABC canceled its top-rated sitcom “Roseanne” last week because of racist tweets by star Roseanne Barr, who is a Trump supporter, Disney chief executive Bob Iger personally reached out to former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, who is black and was compared to an ape in one of Barr’s tweets. But Trump said that he, too, was owed a personal apology from Iger.
“Gee, he never called President Donald J. Trump to apologize for the HORRIBLE statements made and said about me on ABC,” Trump tweeted Wednesday. He was at it again the next day, tweeting, “Iger, where is my call of apology? You and ABC have offended millions of people, and they demand a response. . . . Double Standard!”
For Trump, this posture makes and preserves political power. He has created around himself an aura of unfair persecution — by the nation’s elites, Democrats, the media and law enforcement — that inspires sympathy from and solidarity with his aggrieved supporters.
“When he says that he’s a victim, all of his billions of dollars melt away and the power of the presidency becomes irrelevant,” said Michael D’Antonio, a Trump biographer. “What people see and hear is a white man who might have been sitting on his porch complaining about how he was cheated on something. There’s an emotional logic to it that is much more powerful than any exploration of the reality could produce.”
Consider Trump’s visit to Nashville last week for one of his most boisterous rallies of late. Addressing the crowd, he called out, “How do you like the fact they had people infiltrating our campaign? Can you imagine? Can you imagine? Can you imagine people infiltrating our campaign?”
The president was referring to an FBI source who in 2016 had been gathering intelligence about connections between the Trump campaign and Russia. But he cited no evidence to support his claim that there were multiple such sources, or that any had infiltrated his campaign.
Still, Trump’s message from center stage inside Nashville’s Municipal Auditorium was clear: He had been victimized. Trump’s supporters shook their heads and booed in agreement.
The next morning, Trump claimed victimhood again, attacking the New York Times for estimating the crowd at his Nashville rally at 1,000 people. The Times later corrected its figure to reflect the fire marshal’s count of 5,500, but to Trump, this was an unforgivable slight.
“This,” he tweeted, “is the way they demean and disparage.”
Jennifer Palmieri, a Democratic strategist and top official on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, said her party’s leaders face great peril if they dismiss the potency of Trump’s sense of victimization.
“It’s a way he keeps solidarity with his supporters, this shared persecution that we don’t get the respect that we deserve, and I think it’s really powerful,” Palmieri said.
“People assume this stuff is an act,” she added. “But I don’t think it’s an act . . . I think that he is so deeply insecure and has such a deep psychological need for affirmation that he really does believe he is treated badly and he really believes that he is persecuted.”
Trump’s self-victimization — as with other ways he conducts himself in office, as well as some of his policies — seems to run counter to what many Republicans had claimed as a core tenet of the party: personal responsibility.
“In the lottery of life, Donald Trump would be one of the most lucky people in the world,” said Stuart Stevens, a GOP strategist and Trump critic. But, he continued, Trump “is a grievance shopper. It is not about what is fair or right or just, but about settling a score, and that’s just something the Republican Party has always been opposed to . . . There’s not a kindergarten teacher in America who would try to instill that value in a child.”
Trump extends his sense of victimhood to include his closest and most loyal associates. As part of a flurry of Russia-related complaints aired over Memorial Day weekend, Trump tweeted, “Who’s going to give back the young and beautiful lives (and others) that have been devastated and destroyed by the phony Russia Collusion Witch Hunt? They journeyed down to Washington, D.C., with stars in their eyes and wanting to help our nation . . . They went back home in tatters!”
On Sunday, Trump alleged the FBI treated him unfairly in 2016 by not tipping him off that his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was under investigation. “We should have been told that Comey and the boys were doing a number on him, and he wouldn’t have been hired,” Trump tweeted, referencing former FBI director James B. Comey.
Such complaints are part of Trump’s overall strategy to discredit the Russia investigation by portraying special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and his team of prosecutors as partisan operatives determined to destroy his presidency. Trump has used the label “witch hunt” in 54 separate tweets since being sworn in as president and has repeatedly invoked what he calls the “13 Angry Democrats” working on the probe — willfully overlooking the fact that the man leading it, Mueller, is a lifelong Republican.
Lately, Trump has been using a sinister catchphrase, “Spygate,” to refer to the FBI’s intelligence-gathering efforts at the outset of its Russia interference investigation.
Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney who has spearheaded a more openly adversarial approach to the Mueller investigation, said the president settled on the term “Spygate” to make people see the issue as a scandal of historic proportions.
“Of course, anytime we have a scandal, because of Watergate, you use the ‘gate’ thing, right?” Giuliani said in a recent interview. “This is about as close as you get to Watergate — an intrusion into the campaign of the opposition-party candidate by the president of the United States. Richard Nixon. Barack Obama.”
Trump’s tactic is hardly new. He spelled it out in “The Art of the Deal,” the 1987 bestseller he co-authored with Tony Schwartz. In it, Trump explains that he perceives himself as the victim in part to justify lashing back at his enemies.
“When people treat me badly or unfairly or try to take advantage of me, my general attitude, all my life, has been to fight back very hard,” Trump writes.
Trump also explains another tactic: exaggerating the truth or telling falsehoods to “play to people’s fantasies.” In the book, Trump writes, “I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.”
D’Antonio, who wrote the 2015 Trump biography “Never Enough,” said Trump has long used complaining as a marketing technique. He recalled that in the 1970s, when Trump’s family real estate business was charged with racial profiling in renting apartments by turning away possible black tenants, Trump publicly claimed “reverse discrimination” — a tactic that provoked sympathy from some whites.
“If there are white people who imagine they have no privilege in this world and struggle to achieve and maintain middle-class status, and he says ‘reverse discrimination,’ it goes right into their amygdala,” D’Antonio said.
In other ways, too, Trump claimed he was victimized in his business by government authorities. D’Antonio said Trump routinely sought approval to build many more units than typically allowed, then would cry foul to the press when he was only granted a standard amount.
“He’s the kid who complained forever that life was unfair to him as a chauffeur picked him up in a Rolls-Royce,” D’Antonio said. “It depends on the audience suspending judgment.”