Republicans' strategy now relies entirely on stoking the eternal 'victimhood' of their voters
The myth of the elusive "white working class" Trump voter continues to haunt Democratic dreams of holding on to its slim House and Senate majorities. But a closer analysis suggests that what unified millions of Americans to support Trump, and what continues to constitute the biggest threat to Democrats has little to do with economic disparity or any "bread and butter" issues. Rather, it has more to do with the deliberate, calculated efforts by Trump—and now by all Republican elected legislators—to maintain and stoke a perpetual sense of "victimhood" among their constituents.
Trump's supposed appeal to "white working class" Americans has been interpreted as a phenomenon unique to Trump himself, as if his arrival on the political scene suddenly galvanized entire swaths of a previously dormant voter demographic. The reality, though, is considerably more nuanced, as reported in The Washington Post in 2017: "If being working class means being in the bottom half of the income distribution, the vast majority of Trump supporters during the primaries were not working class." The great majority of those who supported Trump during the 2016 primaries—the truest measure of a "Trump voter"—earned livings well above the national median income level:
Nor was lack of a college education peculiar to Trump supporters. Although 70% of his votes came from people without a college degree, there was nothing unique about that in terms of Republican voters overall, as The Post's Nicholas Carnes and Noam Lupu noted.
[D]uring the primaries, about 70 percent of all Republicans didn't have college degrees, close to the national average (71 percent according to the 2013 Census). Far from being a magnet for the less educated, Trump seemed to have about as many people without college degrees in his camp as we would expect any successful Republican candidate to have.
Thomas Edsall, writing for The New York Times convincingly suggests that the glue that bound Republicans together in 2016 and 2020 owes far more to simple psychology than any real sense of economic deprivation, lost economic status, or lack of educational attainment. It is a psychology of injured pride and fear of lost status, an unending sense of victimhood, carefully prodded and cultivated—most visibly by Trump himself since taking office, and now adopted by the rest of the Republican Party as their sole political strategy going forward.
This formula is hardly unique to Trump or the GOP. As pointed out by Alexandra Homolar and Georg Lofflmann, two authors quoted by Edsall, the "humiliation" narrative of victimhood is one commonly employed by so-called populist demagogues thoughout Europe and elsewhere.
From the abstract of their research paper, Populism and the Affective Politics of Humiliation Narratives:
As we show, within the populist security imaginary, humiliation is the key discursive mechanism that helps turn abstract notions of enmity into politically consequential affective narratives of loss, betrayal, and oppression. Humiliation binds together an ostensibly conflicting sense of national greatness and victimhood to achieve an emotive response that enables a radical departure from established domestic and international policy norms and problematizes policy choices centered on collaboration, dialogue, and peaceful conflict resolution.
In more simpler terms, by constantly stoking this over-arching narrative of perpetual victimhood, a demagogue such as Trump (or anyone else) can motivate his followers to reject the very tools of democratic governance that a country such as the U.S. relies on to resolve political differences. This is why millions of Trump voters were so primed and ready to believe that the election was somehow "stolen" from them by some murky, nefarious means. This is the psychology that prompted thousands of conspiracy-addled insurrectionists to attack the U.S. Capitol. It's why despite being the very targets of that mob of rioters, the vast majority of Republican legislators have refused and will continue to refuse to acknowledge the truth about what prompted those attacks.
These legislators are duplicitous—and in most cases, knowingly so. But as things currently stand, they know that any departure from the victimhood narrative will be met with howls of outrage by their constituents. So they will continue to parrot it, because as Trump amply demonstrated, the tactic works. As astounding as it is, white Republican voters, who by many objective measures are some of the most privileged, pampered people in the world, now consider themselves as victims.
As Edsall carefully emphasizes, this does not mean that Trump voters are actual victims. He quotes Clark University psychology professor Johanna Ray Vollhardt, who distinguishes groups who have actually experienced oppression from this altogether different idea of "dominant victimhood."
The psychology of collective victimhood among groups that were objectively targeted and harmed by collective violence and historical oppression is quite different from the psychology of grievance or imagined victimhood among dominant group members, who are driven by a sense of status loss and entitlement as well as resentment of minority groups that are viewed as a threat.
This is why Trump-voting COVID-19 deniers feel justified whining about their supposed loss of "freedoms" when asked to wear a mask when shopping or visiting a restaurant, without ever considering how silly these appeals sound to those groups who have truly been victimized by, say, systemic racism throughout this country's history. It's why Fox News and other right-wing media organs continually diminish and dismiss the concerns of genuinely marginalized communities. The brand of "victimhood" hawked by Fox News and its ilk is rooted in social status, and tied to a sense of entitlement, not actual rights.
The fact that many of us consider these attitudes pathetic and selfish doesn't prevent them from being dangerous. As noted by Holmar and Lofflemann, when a group is taught to feel victimized and humiliated, it turns off any impulse towards collaboration or cooperation, and reacts viscerally and emotionally instead, with the inevitable result of gravitating towards those leaders who continue to feed its sense of grievance.
Edsall quotes Scottish researchers Stephen Reicher and Yasemin Ulusahin, who note in their book, The Social Psychology of Collective Victimhood, that this kind of indoctrination fosters a moral dimension in their mentality that further stokes the "juices" of revenge and redemption towards their "oppressors."
It is ultimately about the toxicity of a particular construction of victimhood: One which transforms eliminationist violence into the restitution of a rightful moral order. For it is when we believe ourselves to be acting for the moral good that the most appalling acts can be committed.
As Edsall points out (with several illustrations), nearly every word spoken by Trump on the 2016 campaign trail, and most of the tweets issued from his fingertips while occupying the Oval Office were couched in some form of grievance or resentment, constantly portraying himself and the people who supported him as victims. His attacks on Hillary Clinton as an elitist, his demonization of immigrants, and his winking appeals to violence were all of a piece creating a shared sense of victimhood between himself and his followers.
And once that sense was established with his base, it didn't matter that his actual policies didn't follow through to address their real-life problems. It didn't even matter to them that he grossly fumbled the COVID-19 crisis, or that their fellow Americans were dying in the hundreds of thousands as a result. All that mattered was the sense that they were the victims, their "freedoms" were being threatened and the country had to reopen, even in the face of all medical and rational scientific fact suggesting exactly the opposite course. It was, as Miles Armaly and Adam Enders, two researchers from the University of Mississippi and University of Louisville also quoted by Edsall, describe, "an "egocentric victimhood," among Trump supporters, one which is almost wholly, internally focused.
A systemic victim looks externally to understand her individual victimhood. Egocentric victimhood, on the other hand, 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. Both expressions of victimhood require some level of entitlement, but egocentric victims feel particularly strongly that they, personally, have a harder go at life than others.
By its very nature, this cloud of self-focused victimhood tends to preclude any acknowledgement of personal responsibility by these folks, either for creating their own problems or for failing to cooperate with their fellow Americans to resolve their differences. Like an addict constantly thinking about his/her next fix, they simply crave more fuel to feed their grievances. That explains why Republicans are more or less united in opposing Democratic efforts to provide COVID-19 relief, and feel compelled even to oppose any efforts to improve the nation's infrastructure. They don't want things to improve, because if things improve they will have to find something else for their constituents to feel victimized about. That's the only glue holding Republicans together.
President Biden has, thus far, managed to convey that what he has done thus far will benefit all Americans. If the economy rebounds as most expect it to, the endless litany of race-based grievances from Republicans and Fox News will loom less brightly than they did in 2020, with an economy still adrift from the pandemic. If Biden continues to highlight the favorable impact of these pieces of progressive legislation on people's lives, then that may relegate these fever dreams of victimhood to the ridiculous status where they belong.
But Edsall's analysis also suggests that if Joe Biden or any Democrat wants to make inroads with Republican voters, it will probably take more than simply passing policies that benefit them. It's an oft-overlooked fact that Donald Trump was elected in the midst of a fairly booming economy, one that owed itself almost entirely to Barack Obama. That didn't stop Trump from being elected, and it won't stop Trump or any Republicans—in 2022 or 2024—from employing the same time-tested "victimhood" mantra.
Edsall doesn't offer any specific solutions on how Democrats can combat this strategy, which essentially requires Democrats to convince these people that their grievances are imaginary and being cynically manipulated for political purposes. In an environment where Republicans have convinced more than half of their own electorate that the election was stolen, that seems like a manifestly difficult and probably futile task.
Which is why the focus for Democrats, going forward, should prioritize—above all else—protecting voter rights and access, mobilizing and inspiring our own voters, and doing everything within the realm of the possible to ensure that they turn out.
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