Trump and the right wing have mastered the politics of victimhood. Research suggests we're all its victims
"We're all victims," Donald Trump claimed at his first rally after the presidential election, on Dec. 5 in Georgia "We're all victims. Everybody here. All these thousands of people here tonight. They're all victims. Every one of you." That was quite a change from his 2016 election campaign, when he promised "So much winning you'll get bored." Liberals were supposed to be the "snowflakes," right? What happened? How did the once-proud party of masculine self-reliance and "personal responsibility" become such a bunch of whiny snowflakes?
There are lots of reasons one could point to, but in truth it's pretty much a blind-men-and-the-elephant situation. We have an abundance of particular insights, with different bits and pieces of the answer. But surprisingly little is known about the role of victimhood in politics in any organized sense, even though particular examples are well-known, some of them quite broad. A passage on white Southern victimhood in the conclusion of "The Long Southern Strategy" (author interview here) is a case in point, drawing together some of the major themes developed earlier in the book. But there is no shared empirical framework for comparing levels of Southern victimhood with victimhood levels elsewhere — unlike with other measures, such as modern sexism, which is used to great effect in that book. All kinds of political attitudes have been measured and studied over the years—enough to fill a whole volume, more than 20 years ago, but no one's ever studied victimhood with the same kind of rigorous scrutiny.
Until now, that is — in a new paper by Miles Armaly and Adam Enders, "'Why Me?' The Role of Perceived Victimhood in American Politics" (forthcoming in the journal Political Behavior.) Given how much of a role victimhood plays in politics, it's remarkable that this appears to be the first attempt ever to develop a way to measure it, and thereby open up a whole new realm of inquiry. By measuring perceived victimhood, the authors show that it's "largely unrelated to political predispositions or sociodemographic characteristics," but is related to, but various views of government, society and the world (especially with regard to perceived corruption and conspiratorial thinking) and personality traits such as narcissism and a sense of entitlement.
While the authors didn't set out to explain how Republicans became the victim party, Armaly told me in a recent interview, that makes a lot of sense in terms of what they did find. "The idea of many Trump supporters being 'victims' is borne out in our work," he said. "Inasmuch as cueing from political elites is responsible for some of these feelings, victimhood is currently manifesting in Trump supporters in large part because of 'we are the victims' messages," such as Trump's speech in Georgia.
The combination of two processes — top-down elite cues and bottom-up pre-existing attitudes — is one of three major distinctions drawn in this paper that clarify our understanding of victimhood, and how it helps shape the political landscape. "It's bottom-up in the sense that many psychological traits are. It's top-down in that elites can cue feelings of victimhood," Armaly put it. Neither of those things by itself can explain how victimhood functions in politics; both need to involved. But even to begin we need the help of another distinction — between objectively-defined victimhood and a subjective sense of victimhood — in order to focus on the common psychological factors shared by differently situated political individuals and groups.
Finally, "Why Me" develops a highly-clarifying twofold construct of subjective victimhood: It is egocentric, involving a tendency to agree with statements like "I am the victim because I deserve more than I get," and it involves a sense of systemic unfairness, reflected in sentiments like, "I am the victim because the system is rigged against me." The two are strongly correlated but distinct, with egocentric victims more likely to be Trump supporters, for example, while systemic victims are less likely to be.
In an added wrinkle, the paper's conclusion suggests the existence of a third form of victimhood, "an other-oriented, or accusatory one," and goes on to note:
Modern right-wing rhetoric, for instance, decries liberal "snowflakes," "safe spaces," and political correctness culture. In each of these instances, victimhood is projected onto others. This mobilizes the projectors because the "victims" are illegitimate — they are not deserving of victim status in the eyes of those doing the projecting.
If every accusation is a confession, this third form of victimhood offers a very big clue as to how Trump's base has turned snowflake.
Each of these distinctions is worth considering in turn. But first let's note three key points from the paper's conclusion. First, the centrality of victimhood:
Victimhood is central to politics. If politics is, as Lasswell (1936) famously described, about "who gets what, when, how," there are going to be victims. Some will be perceived as victims when they are not, others just the opposite. Political communication is, in no trivial sense, tasked with making some feel like victims, and others look like victims.
Second, victimhood in politics isn't necessarily pernicious:
That victimhood plays such a central role in politics is not necessarily troubling.
It is intuitive that politicians would make their case to constituents in such a way that victimhood is cued. Indeed, we want representatives that work to realize our values, fill our pockets, and facilitate a happy and healthy life.
Third, what's troubling is when a sense of victimhood fuels extremism:
Rather than the mere appeal to victimhood, it is the lengths one is willing to go in order to mobilize victimhood that poses the greatest potential normative threat to a civilized democratic political system. Speaking historically, it is precisely a feeling of hypervictimization that has caused people to turn to authoritarian regimes for relief.
Subjective vs. objective
Let's turn to the three distinctions described above: The objective/subjective distinction comes first. One reason perceived victimhood hasn't been systematically studied, Armaly told me, is because "there are actual political victims." In the course of getting the paper published, he said, "People were talking about 'How are Black people different from white people? How are women different from men?' Because people were stuck in the idea of genuine victims of the political process. I think that's one of the reasons that we haven't had this direct focus on perceived victimhood in political science or similar fields."
In fact, the paper itself notes: "Men seem to be slightly higher in perceived victimhood across the board. … Such an observation underscores our claim that victimhood — as a self-perception — does not require relative disempowerment or subjection to injustices."
In conversation, Armaly was more blunt. "It doesn't matter what's true," he said. "It matters what people think and what they feel."
A broader public understanding of this could be helpful, he said: "If people understand that these are perceptions, that they can be made to feel this way — and that's a powerful source for political elites." Indeed, promoting this kind of awareness was the underlying insight behind the race-class narrative project developed by Ian Haney López, Anat Shenker-Osorio, and Demos, which I wrote about here in June 2018. I described it as a suite of narratives "that call out scapegoating by greedy, wealthy special interests, and that call on people to unify across racial lines for the common good."
Armaly expressed the promise he sees in more general terms. "If an individual can recognize that perhaps they are being told they're victims when indeed they're not, maybe there's something there that people can learn from: 'Hold on, I'm not really the victim here.''"
The race-class narratives didn't specifically discuss victimhood, but they did confront the dynamic. For example:
California's strength comes from our ability to work together – to knit together a landscape of people from different places and of different races into a whole. For this to be a place of freedom for all, we cannot let the greedy few and the politicians they pay for divide us against each other based on what someone looks like, where they come from or how much money they have. It's time to stand up for each other and come together. It is time for us to vote for leaders who see all of us as equal, whether we are white, black, or brown, who respect all of our families, and who will govern for all of us.
Armaly's work suggests that other elite manipulations of victimhood could be countered with similar kinds of messages. Recognizing victimhood as a subjective state is the first step toward breaking its spell.
Egocentric vs. systemic
This distinction is the most fully elaborated of the three. What both poles have in common is that victimhood is "attractive," Armaly explained, "because it's placing the blame for one's lot in life on somebody else: 'It's not my fault.' It's a psychologically pleasing thing. I don't have to be blamed, because somebody else is doing this." From there, the two types diverge. "With the systemic, people are placing the blame with specific higher entities if you will, and with egocentric, people feel this way, they have the internal feelings of victimhood, but again, it's not their fault. It's always nice to lay blame somewhere else. That's the way to eliminate psychological pressure on oneself."
The difference between the two might seem subtle, and only emerged gradually over time. "We were discussing how to measure victimhood, and we have these ideas central to what we thought victimhood entailed," Armaly explained. "At a certain point we realized these are kind of tapping different things. So if you look at the items we use, four of them refer to the self, or 'me' or 'I' or something like that, and the other four are referring to outward sources."
The paper itself puts it this way: "The major distinction between egocentric and systemic victimhood is blame attribution. Systemic victimhood is a manifestation of perceived victimhood whereby the self defined victim specifically attributes blame for their victim status on systemic issues and entities." By contrast, "Egocentric victimhood ... is less outwardly focused. Egocentric victims feel that they never get what they deserve in life, never get an extra break, and are always settling for less. Neither the 'oppressor,' nor the attribution of blame, are very specific."
Indeed, the difference is striking: As mentioned above, egocentric victims are more supportive of Trump, while systemic victims are less likely to be. This makes intuitive sense, in terms of Trump's vague, self-centered language way — about victimization and pretty much everything else. The lack of evidence of voter fraud or any irregularities in the 50-plus election-related lawsuits Trump and his allies have filed does not matter nearly as much to egocentric victims as it potentially would to systemic victims. But the differential support could also reflect the fact that Trump was president when the study was done, Armaly noted. On top of that, "Trump is the establishment, he's wealthy, he's been around forever. So people who see wealth and maybe other systemic issues as victimizing don't support Trump."
There was a similar difference with regard to a set of racial issues, including affirmative action. "Somebody who thinks that they're the victim, an egocentric victim [is] going to view something like affirmative action as taking away possibilities that they think they rightfully deserve," Armaly explained. "Whereas a systemic victim seemingly recognizes that there are systemic forces that need to be corrected, and affirmative action is a correction for that type of systemic racial issue."
A similar logic applies with respect to anti-political-correctness attitudes, Armaly said. "The egocentric victim sees it like, 'I'm being told what I can and can't say. This is an infringement of My First Amendment rights.' Of course it's not. It's not coming from the government. But they perceive society as censoring them."
By contrast, people with a high sense of systemic victimhood "would think you really shouldn't speak to each other the way we do sometimes. Maybe some of this political correctness language is a good thing, because it's more inclusive, It helps people not feel so bad about how other people speak about them," Armaly explained.
With this more detailed understanding of systemic and egocentric victimhood in hand, we are better able to appreciate the significance of the third distinction, between the top-down and bottom-up aspects of victimhood. The primary focus of the paper (and the discussion above) is on the latter: Bottom-up aspects provide the primary data. But top-down elite messaging is central to the political process. There's no way to understand victimhood's political significance (not just potential) without it.
Subjects were presented with identical victimhood narratives attributed to Trump or Joe Biden, according to their partisan identification. "One thing we know from decades of political science research is people only respond to cues from sources they trust," Armaly noted. "Republicans are going to support Trump, Democrats are going to support Biden. Let's see if they can cue victimhood in their followers." The message was simple:
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.
The result, the paper noted, was that "both egocentric and systemic victimhood increase as a result of hearing Trump or Biden describe the average people's inability to catch a break." In short, Armaly said, "This is not a Trump phenomenon. This is not a Republican or conservative phenomenon. It cuts across ideological lines and partisan lines. But Trump is very effective at it. And it seems like he's weaponizing this victimhood to adhere people to him, to the party, to certain policies. This is a powerful force and it's a powerful feeling. If people feel like victims, it's unlikely that they're going to see the other party as a way to fix victimhood.
"So Republicans who agree with Trump that 'Hey, we are the victims,' they're never going to turn to Joe Biden for the remedy. They're only going to turn to Republicans in the future, maybe even continuing to support Trump. So one consequence of this, we think, is entrenching polarization, furthering extremity in beliefs about politics, and making people set up more in their existing camps."
Of course, Trump election loss and his subsequent behavior has further intensified feelings of victimhood: "That's precisely what the 'Stop the Steal' thing is about," Armaly said. "'We're the victims of fraudulent elections,' even though there's no evidence pointing there and they keep losing in court. But that is definitely a victimhood-cueing rallying cry."
In a way, this helps makes sense of the decades-long thrust of "The Long Southern Strategy." Threatened identities — first around race, and then gender and religion — were key to the whole enterprise. As co-author Angie Maxwell told me, "They didn't have infrastructure in a lot of places for the Republican Party. So they had to create this sense of urgency, and you do that by tapping into things that people feel are fragile and are being threatened." In short, they had to promote feelings of victimhood.
I asked Maxwell to comment on the theme of victimhood for this story. She responded:
In an effort to cut an electoral map path to victory, starting in the 1960s, Republican strategists pushed individualism against the collective — against collective bargaining, protest, organizing. Individualism creates blinders that can deny systemic racism, sexism and privilege. Simultaneously, these GOP strategists, in order to shake Southern whites lose from their long-term connection to the Democratic Party, manufactured a sense of urgency about everything from the "war on Christmas" to the welfare queen bankrupting the taxpayer. That combination creates a self-focused, faux victimhood, reminiscent of the Lost Cause in the South but with a national appeal.
This is how, under the "Stop the Steal" banner, we get a majority of House Republicans supporting an utterly frivolous lawsuit before the Supreme Court that flies in the face of decades of GOP "states' rights" rhetoric. Surprise! The Southern strategy was never about states' rights, any more than the Civil War was. (The Dred Scott decision and the Fugitive Slave Act had already made a mockery of those Southern claims.)
On the role of narcissism
It's worth highlighting how significant Trump's narcissism is in this dynamic. He is utterly incapable of ever admitting he's been wrong. When finally forced to recant his support for birtherism, he double-falsely claimed, "Hillary Clinton started birtherism, and I ended it." Now, having lost an election by more than 7 million votes he claims the election is being stolen from him.
So even though narcissism is only related to victimhood statistically, it's still important to consider the role it plays. For this, I reached out to therapist Elizabeth Mika, whose chapter in "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump" on "Tyranny as a Triumph of Narcissism" explained how tyranny is a "three-legged beast," encompassing the tyrant, his supporters and the society as a whole.
"A sense of victimhood — as opposed to real victimhood — is always based in narcissism: the erroneous, corrosive and inherently destructive belief that we are special — somehow better than others — and thus we deserve special treatment, perks and privileges," Mika said.
There's a logical connection, she continued. "Narcissists are eternal victims, as perpetual victimhood is the other side of the narcissistic coin. It can't be otherwise, because if you believe yourself to be special and the world does not reflect this back to you, as is always the case sooner or later, you are going to feel victimized by the lack of special treatment."
A similar logic applies to groups as well. "You can expect the members of historically privileged classes and groups to have a sense of specialness ingrained in them by the virtue of being part of that class," Mika said. "When their sense of privilege is threatened and/or eroded, by, for example, expanding the privilege to others, members of previously disenfranchised and thus 'inferior' groups, they react with anger and rage that seek suitable scapegoats, more often than not from among those who are seen as 'stealing' their privilege or otherwise responsible for its loss. For narcissists, the loss of privilege feels like oppression."
This description is a near-perfect fit for Trump's white, Christian nationalist base. That base easily delivered landslide re-election victories for Richard Nixon in the 70s and Ronald Reagan in the 80s, but has only managed one popular-vote victory since 1988. Its privileged position has been eroding for at least 30 years now, and has only survived this long because of multiple anti-democratic features of our politics: the Electoral College, gerrymandering, voter suppression, the Senate filibuster and ideologically-stacked courts. The longer that power has been sustained on such a fragile, illegitimate foundation, the more crushing its loss would seem. Hello, snowflakes!
A third kind of victimhood
As mentioned before, a third form of victimhood is proposed in the paper, an other-oriented or accusatory one typified by right-wing attacks on liberal "snowflakes" and political correctness in which victimhood is projected onto others. "This mobilizes the projectors because the 'victims' are illegitimate — they are not deserving of victim status in the eyes of those doing the projecting."
This is clearly more complicated than egocentric or systemic victimhood. But more than projection is likely going on. It may be a process known as "projective identification," discovered by British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, which I wrote about here in late 2015. It involves "introjection (imagining another — or aspects of another — inside oneself) as well as projection—or even both, simultaneously." The first example Klein gave was a specific form known as "envious reversal," in which the projector's unwanted inner states (thoughts, feelings, etc.) are projected (into what Klein called the "container") while the projector steals some desirable state of the "container."
If one is not a victim but claims to be, that's very likely an example of envious reversal. But if one is a snowflake and has spent years attacking others as snowflakes, that's also an example of envious reversal. So, too, if you believe that others are unfairly claiming victim status, when in fact that's been your go-to move ever since Brown v. Board of Education. So there's a potential for this kind of victimhood to lead into a hall-of-mirrors fantasy situation. But remember: This is still subjective victimhood. Questions about how subjective and objective realities align are incredibly important, but to fully address them we need to understand the subjective side as well as can.
The first step in studying "other-oriented victimhood," Armaly said, would be to examine whether the "correlates" are "similar to egocentric or systemic victimhood, or whether we are talking about a third, totally unique type?" His intuition is that such people "would reject the idea that they're victims, most of the time," but might also "reject the idea that others are victims. Other-oriented victimhood doesn't ever seem to be saying, 'Oh yeah, those people are victims of the political process,' It's usually used as a way to say they're not."
The notion of other-oriented victimhood can also have significance for the public as citizens in a democracy, helping us to see things more clearly. "The bleeding heart in me wants to talk about empathy," Armaly said. "Maybe let's not think about victimhood in terms of who is and isn't a victim. Maybe there's another way to approach it. Also, I think victimhood is not zero-sum. Multiple people can be victims — it's not mutually exclusive and not dichotomous in that way."
As a big-picture thought about victimhood as whole, Armaly raised a fundamental question. "We should be asking ourselves, 'Are we comfortable giving victims increased status to make social and political claims?'" he said. "And then, similarly, 'Are we comfortable judging the veracity of different claims?' We don't have a way to do this. Society isn't cohesive. We don't have the same mores and the same norms, necessarily, across all facets of society." He went on to note that, "Elevating some claims over others incentivizes these feelings of victimhood, and that's one of the reasons people are attracted to them. I think we have to consider whether incentivizing that feeling is a good thing."
Recalling the three points from the conclusion of "Why Me?" cited above, the answer may be that victimhood is inevitably central to politics and isn't necessarily pernicious, but that our capacity to deal with it without falling prey to hyper-victimization may be at a historically low ebb. That recognition could help orient us toward civic repair. Eliminating both actual victimhood and a sense of victimhood is not within our power. But continuing to be a victim of victimhood just might be. If, as Armaly argues, victimhood is not zero-sum, the best way to help any professed victims might be to help them all. Yes, even the snowflakes-in-denial who can't let go of their damaged and defeated president.
- Right-wing pro-Trump group deletes tweet mocking 'leftists' for ... ›
- 'We will exterminate you': Proud Boys and other right-wing Trump ... ›
- 'Fan fiction': Conservative journalists slam Fox News and right-wing ›