Sophia A. McClennen

The conservative urge to be a victim: Here’s why right-wing victimhood is spreading so fast

In late November a new variant of COVID-19 was detected by researchers in Botswana and South Africa. Within days, the omicron variant had reached California, marking the first documented case in the United States. By the end of December, omicron had not only become the dominant strain in the U.S, but it had also rapidly spread to push daily case counts well above the recent delta surge.

One of the greatest risks of omicron is the high degree of breakthrough infections, where vaccinated individuals still contract the virus. While the vaccinated, especially those who are boosted, tend to have much milder symptoms, if any at all, they still have the capacity to spread the virus. In only a few weeks, omicron has ripped through the country, stressing hospital capacity, canceling flights, disrupting holiday gatherings, and, most importantly, threatening lives. According to Johns Hopkins University data, between Dec. 1 and Christmas, over 39,000 Americans died of the virus

By all accounts, the principal reason why omicron is causing such havoc in the United States is our low rate of vaccination. The United States, at slightly over 61 percent full vaccination, is among the lowest of the developed world. Cuba has over 84 percent fully vaccinated. Even Brazil, under anti-vaxxer President Jair Bolsonaro has almost 67 percent fully vaccinated. Bolsonaro, like Trump, has been skeptical of the threats of COVID from the start. Yet, he took Trumpian irrationality to a whole new level, claiming a year ago that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine "could turn people into crocodiles or bearded ladies" — and even his country is more vaccinated than the United States.

While there remains much to be learned about omicron and its consequences to public health, one thing is clear: The only reason why the nation is at such extreme public health risk is because the GOP weaponized the pandemic for political gain, convincing their supporters to distrust science and resist any policy, no matter how reasonable, if it came from a Democrat.

We've spent time analyzing the head-scratching right-wing ploy of sowing distrust in vaccines within the GOP constituency, a move which has literally killed off supporters and occasionally GOP leaders and pundits as well. But what we haven't done is recognize that the right-wing response to the pandemic is part of a larger political practice: Victimized Bully Syndrome.

Some of you will be familiar with DARVO, an acronym for deny, attack and reverse victim and offender. DARVO describes the behavior of psychological abusers when they are being held accountable for their behavior. Donald Trump and his supporters clearly exhibit DARVO habits. Rather than accept blame for anything they do, they turn around and accuse those blaming them of creating the problem. Victimized Bully Syndrome (VBS), as I'm describing it, though, is slightly different from DARVO. With DARVO the abusive behavior comes first and DARVO only emerges if the attacker is asked to take responsibility. But with VBS the cries of being victims come first and are used to justify the underlying bullying behaviors. The bully under VBS is always already acting in self-defense.

Take this example: In a recent interview with Fox News, Dr. Mehmet Oz, candidate for Senate in Pennsylvania suggested that Americans had been victimized by President Biden's "one-size-fits-all" COVID-19 "rules that limit our freedom." According to Oz, U.S. citizens "want government to get out of their way to stop scaring them into submission."

If we set aside the sheer stupidity of a doctor suggesting that we need "as many different approaches as possible" to the pandemic, the critical takeaway is Oz's claim that Biden's policy is designed to victimize the public by scaring them, taking away their freedoms, and destroying their dignity. According to this logic, refusing to wear a mask, get vaccinated, or support public health policy is a valid defense, rather than bullying behavior that puts everyone in peril.

And lest there be any doubt, the right isn't just refusing to be vaccinated and to follow public health guidelines; in the face of the pandemic they have chosen to respond with aggressive bullying: engaging in violent confrontations over masking policies, attacking teachers, threatening school board members, violently trolling scientists who speak to the media about COVID, and more. In fact, the violent far-right has exploded in the United States along with COVID-19.

Similar to the "sore winner syndrome" we saw emerge in the wake of former President Trump's election, VBS posits that those on the right are all the time being victimized by their government and that it makes perfect sense to respond aggressively.

It is this exact same logic that was the backdrop to the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol and we can see the same logic in play in right-wing responses to the House investigation into the attack. Trump spokesperson Taylor Budowich claimed, "Democracy is under attack. However, not by the people who illegally entered the Capitol on January 6th, 2021, but instead by a committee whose members walk freely in its halls every day." That's right, according to Budowich the real threat to our democracy are those elected officials investigating what happened on January 6, not the actual people who attacked the Capitol. Those people were, according to this twisted logic, simply victims of election fraud.

It gets worse.

The victim card was at the heart of the Kyle Rittenhouse case as well. Rittenhouse claimed he shot three men, two fatally, with an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle in self-defense. In his testimony, Rittenhouse stated the only reason he even went to Kenosha, Wisconsin on the night of the shootings was to provide first aid to people in need. Rittenhouse, then, was no average vigilante. Instead, he was an already victimized one, prepared to claim self-defense if he attacked anyone. In a post-verdict statement issued by the victims' parents, they nail the dangers of Rittenhouse's VBS. The verdict, according to them, "sends the unacceptable message that armed civilians can show up in any town, incite violence, and then use the danger they have created to justify shooting people in the street.

VBS, then, isn't only being used by the right to foster a public health catastrophe, it is literally being used to justify armed murder and armed insurrection. As long as we allow the right to continue to describe themselves as victims who have been harmed, injured, threatened and therefore need to act aggressively in self-defense, the closer we get to civil war. In fact, a recent Public Religion Research Institute poll showed that 30 percent of Republicans believe that "true American patriots" might need to resort to violence in order to save the country. Nearly 40% still think the election was stolen.

So as long as the victimized bully syndrome pandemic is transmitted across the right-wing community, it will continue to surpass any threats to our nation from any new variants to the COVID-19 pandemic. Until we address the real threats to our nation, we not only won't stop COVID-19; we will allow the true risks to our health and the health of our democracy to continue to spread.

The right wing has a twisted logic when it comes to satire

Satire has been bothering the right more than usual lately. The catch is that it seems they can't decide if they want to defend it or attack it. First, the right-wing satirical site The Babylon Bee, a conservative version of an Onion-style comedy-news publication, made headlines when it demanded the New York Times correct a claim that the site promotes misinformation behind a guise of satire. Then we learned that Donald Trump had actually asked advisers and lawyers to investigate whether the Department of Justice could probe or mitigate sources of satirical late-night comedy, like "Saturday Night Live," that made fun of him.

What's sort of fun to watch is the whiplash performed when the right expresses outrage in both directions. For example, Seth Dillon, CEO of the Babylon Bee, made a classic free speech, anti-censorship argument when he complained about Facebook possibly limiting the circulation of their posts. "It's people in positions of power protecting their interests by telling you what you can and cannot joke about. Comedians who self-censor in deference to that power are themselves a joke," he wrote.

Funny to think that that same comment could have been used to defend Stephen Colbert when he was hammered for "going over the line" in his roast of George W. Bush back in 2006.

On the one hand, the Babylon Bee argues that the left — the umbrella under which the right assumes the mainstream media and Big Tech fall — is trying to censor and police their satire. On the other hand, Trump actually did try to censor satire because he was freaked out that he was being mocked.

The buzz over the Babylon Bee stems from the debate over whether the site is — depending on who you are and how you read it — hate-speech masquerading as comedy, deliberate misinformation, or actual right-leaning satire. (Dillon says the latter.) But what's more interesting is how the arguments made in its defense are quite similar to the ones that have been made to defend satire critical of the right, and especially Donald Trump.

And yet, for the most part, conservative pundits have either sidestepped responding to Trump's desires to censor satirical comedy critical of him or have defended him. After a 2018 segment on "SNL" that riffed on "It's a Wonderful Life" and suggested that everyone would be happier if Trump weren't re-elected, there was quite the stir. Essentially, the argument was in the reverse from what is being said to support the Babylon Bee. In defending Trump, the arguments were that Trump satire needed to be reined in because it was too one-sided, too negative and possibly too successful at affecting his image.

For example, Trump himself took to Twitter to complain, "A REAL scandal is the one-sided coverage, hour by hour, of networks like NBC & Democrat spin machines like Saturday Night Live. It is all nothing less than unfair news coverage and Dem commercials. Should be tested in courts, can't be legal? Only defame & belittle! Collusion?" And his anxieties led to debates over what conservatives should do to defend themselves against liberal bias in late-night comedy.

The fact that Trump would melt down after he saw satire critical of him was news enough, but we later found out that Trump did more than complain; he actually looked into whether he could find other avenues to restrict political comedy targeting him. As Asawin Suebsaeng and Adam Rawnsley reported for the Daily Beast, "According to two people familiar with the matter, Trump asked advisers and lawyers in early 2019 about what the Federal Communications Commission, the court system, and—most confusingly to some Trump lieutenants—the Department of Justice could do to probe or mitigate SNL, Jimmy Kimmel, and other late-night comedy mischief-makers."

This story is all the more noteworthy for its coincidence with the Babylon Bee censorship brouhaha. Where were the defenders of the Babylon Bee when Trump was literally asking for late-night comedy shows to be restricted in their jokes about him? If the argument is that comedy should never concede to power, then surely Seth Dillon would be outraged over the story that Trump considered having the DOJ, the FCC and the courts look into ways to limit satire.

The Babylon Bee's claim of discrimination stems from a line in a New York Times article, which was subsequently edited, and the site's allegation that their content is being restricted on social media platforms like Facebook, which has had a notoriously difficult time figuring out what to do with satire anyway. Comedians on both the left and the right deal with having their posts removed because, despite attempting to create community rules, Facebook is ill-equipped to process irony and often takes satirical posts as literal.

But the Babylon Bee's complaints of censorship fit the pattern of a broader right-wing victim rhetoric that suggests their views are being silenced even when there is considerable proof this is not the case. We hear ongoing cries of conservatives being silenced on social media — often surrounding the launch of yet another social media network claiming to be a haven for "free speech" — but in reality, the right rules online. Politico tracked millions of social media posts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and found that "Right-wing social media influencers, conservative media outlets and other GOP supporters dominate online discussions." Working with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based nonpartisan think tank that tracks extremism online, Politico found that "a small number of conservative users routinely outpace their liberal rivals and traditional news outlets in driving the online conversation."

What's even funnier (and concerning) is the fact that most of the cries that social media discriminates against the right are simply anecdotal. Stories of one tweet taken down, one post on Facebook removed, etc., don't line up with data. If anything, it's the reverse: The more that the right whines that they are being censored, the more bandwidth their whines receive on platforms. Even more disturbing is how their stories of being censored have shaped public perceptions. A 2020 Pew Research study found that most Americans believe social media sites censor political views, with 90 percent of Republicans saying that they believe that social media censors them.

The hypocrisy over the right's reaction to censoring satire reveals their consistent position that they are victims. The victim narrative is the common denominator. The right constantly argues that they are being discriminated against, whether because someone is making fun of them or someone is not letting them make fun of them. For those of us who really love satire, the irony of that twisted logic is both pretty funny and pretty disturbing.

Why Trump's loss is inflaming his already delusional base

Shortly after the 2016 election, a funny thing happened. Rather than celebrate the victory of their candidate, Trump supporters took on the position of aggrieved victims. When they should have been happy, they were angry. When they should have been confident, they were insecure. When their votes showed that they had power, they felt marginalized. And, even though they won, they felt that the process had been unfair.

Their mood was vengeful and their attitude was combative. And that was when they won.

Now that their candidate has lost fair and square, we need to brace ourselves for their predictably vicious response.

As Salon's Amanda Marcotte has pointed out, even if Trump had won, we knew we would need to be prepared for the inevitable crybaby response of his supporters. As she puts it, the key word to describe Trump's base is "bitter":

Turn on Fox News any random night, and it's a full blown whine-fest about how alleged "elites" are trying to control them and ruin their lives. The fact that their party controls most state governments, the White House, the Senate and the federal courts never factors in. The narrative is one of perpetual victimhood.

If you feel like you are a perpetual loser, even when you are winning, then things will only get worse when you actually do lose.

And let's face it. Trump didn't just lose; he flamed out. For a man who has consistently avoided being held accountable for his failures, this loss will sting hard. Trump lost to epic proportions. As Eve Fairbanks writes for the Washington Post, Trump did far worse than anyone expected, and that's considering his poor poll numbers before Election Day. Given his status as an incumbent, Trump's "reelection campaign was a historic failure."

The failure registers even more so for the fact that in Trump's universe he simply always wins. As he once put it, "I win, I win, I always win. In the end I always win, whether it's in golf, whether it's in tennis, whether it's in life, I just always win. I tell people I always win, because I do."

But here's the thing. Even with all the winning, Trump has been obsessed with the notion that he has been treated unfairly. "No politician in history — and I say this with great surety — has been treated worse or more unfairly." This was Trump in a 2018 commencement address to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, yet again using a moment when he should have been paying attention to others to narcissistically talk about himself.

And that's one of the uncanny hypocrisies of the sore winner. Because actually the sore winner is always already a loser. You can't be a victim and a winner. You can't claim that you have been mistreated, discriminated against and maligned if you always get everything your way.

Or can you?

If you think back on the days immediately following the 2016 election, what stands out is the overwhelming sense of anger and the ongoing desire for retribution over a system in which Trump had always, only been — according to himself — successful.

And lest we think that this sort of contradiction was uniquely Trumpian, recall that his supporters have long followed suit. The same people who whine that they are being forced to give up their guns only manage to stockpile more. The same people who hysterically claim that the Black Lives Matter movement is racist have only become more openly white supremacist. The same people who moan about biased media have only picked up even more media power.

The same people who claim that the liberal left is a bunch of sniffling snowflakes never seem to be able to stop whining themselves. Their identities are locked into an endless screeching over the various ways that they believe the system is rigged against them at the same time that they continue to reap successes from that very same system.

We've spent so much time parsing the faulty logic, delusional rhetoric and twisted thinking of Trump and his supporters that it is now no longer news to claim that what he and his base think makes absolutely no sense.

So now that the sore winners are losers, you might wonder if that will somehow shift things — if the sore winners will change in the face of their losses.

The quick answer is no. There is no reason whatsoever to think that anything about the right-wing identity of the privileged victim is going to change other than to become more agitated and more aggressive. Going back as far as the presidency of Richard Nixon, the right has been casting itself as a victim of U.S. society. What's more, this idea that they are strong, powerful, morally superior, highly patriotic, successful victims is only likely to take on greater urgency during a Biden-Harris administration.

The problem that we have to confront is the fact that this "successful loser" mentality actually does win, and that despite Trump's humiliating loss, the GOP overall did pretty well in the 2020 election. At the core of this mindset is a sense of justified outrage. It is centered on a deep conviction that the right is the aggrieved party and deserves to be angry about it. It is equally centered around a sense of confidence that their views are right and their ideas are not just better, but the very best.

The fundamental hypocrisy of the winning victim might be mind-melting, but you have to admit it sells well. It offers its proponents a chance to take absolutely no responsibility for themselves while also occupying a position of self-righteous superiority. You get to take no blame, bully and harass, spew hate-filled bile and still cry about how everything is unfair and everyone is out to get you.

Much will be said in the days to follow about how to reach across the aisle and build a unified nation. We will watch the left twist itself up in its characteristic capitulating fashion, finding ways to actually blame a divided nation on the left's own failings to engage in dialogue.

But that's the wrong model. This is not a scenario where we envision two equal parties that need mediation to move forward. This, instead, is a case of a nationwide right-wing temper tantrum. And just in the same way we learn to treat a misbehaving child, the only way to handle these sore losers is to ignore them.

As the famous pediatrician Dr. Spock once taught us, just because children get angry doesn't mean we should give them free rein to express themselves. And angry children should not be allowed to bully or intimidate. Our response to them should not be to back down or to give up. "Occasional fits of anger are normal," Spock explained, "but if a child is frequently or easily enraged, she may be sending a signal for help." Maybe it's time for us to help Trump supporters grow up by giving them all a time-out.

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A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece for Salon about Michael Moore in which I recounted the story of how he became the youngest elected public official in U.S. history.  At 18, Moore decided to run for head of his Michigan community school board on the simple platform that he planned to fire the principal and vice principal of his school because they supported corporal punishment of students.

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