How The Right Developed Its Victim Complex

Once a party that touted rugged individualism, today's Republicans have an ever-expanding list of grievances and complaints about perceived wrongs.
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A proliferation of intense invective and polemical demands for freedom characterizes the present American right, driven by an intense sense of victimhood: The reactionaries, we are told, are truly the oppressed. Even before the presidency of Donald J. Trump, the right framed various anodyne reforms, like the Affordable Care Act, as existential threats to freedom. Things got so bad that then-president Barack Obama admitted in 2012 that he hoped the Republican fever would break following his reelection. But, as Trump’s candidacy, presidency, and, now, second candidacy demonstrate, the body politic’s illness has only gotten worse. And while the midterms reflected a degree of ambivalence among Americans about the fringiest political figures and narratives, the incoming Republican House leadership looks set to be controlled by these voices, as it is beholden to the furthest-right members in order to keep its slim majority unified.

Trump’s rhetoric (whether campaigning or governing, he did not shift much), was steeped in the narrative of victimhood. Immigrants threatened the U.S. with sexual violence, urban criminals menaced the forgotten Americans, and China was dominating and beating the U.S. Once president, legitimate democratic criticism of Trump became a sign of his and his supporters’ unjust persecution: whether the impeachment proceedings targeting his attempts to force Ukraine to help him out in the U.S. election or his role in encouraging the January 6, 2021 invasion of the Capitol, Trump framed accountability for unprecedented historical events  as witch hunts, lynch mobs, and illegitimate persecutions. 

The GOP candidates for Senate in this month’s election adopted Trump’s list of grievances and tailored it to their own circumstances, underscoring the purchase victimhood has on the right: Blake Masters, Republican candidate for Arizona’s Senate seat, had no “issues” section on his campaign website, choosing to let rage-filled voters fill in the blanks themselves, while political action committees like Truth PAC produced ads attempting to link Mandela Barnes, the Black Democratic candidate for Wisconsin Senate, to child abductions, darkened silhouettes of people brandishing knives, and surveillance camera footage of shootings. Outrage without a clear set of policy solutions — and hostility towards democracy itself — was the order of the day. Democrats’ surprisingly narrow losses prompted some hand-wringing among conservative pundits, but, as following the 2012 and 2018 elections, it’s not clear that broader capacities for introspection even exist on much of the right.

Its perhaps a little surprising to consider how widespread the cult of victimhood is on the right: weren’t they tough on crime, didn’t they thump their chests, invoking appeasement at Munich whenever a threat appeared on the global stage, and didn’t they talk ceaselessly about rugged individualism and pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps? 

Why did victimhood become so central on the right?

In fact, it has been central from the start. But only in the last 30 years have its idioms been destigmatized for mainstream conservatives, facilitated by a combination of national and international political disruptions which revealed the central role that the victimized ethos has played in GOP politics.

In the earliest phase, generally unsound but occasionally plausible claims of exclusion drove intellectual, political, and social organizing.

The sources of the right’s descent into victimhood vapors can be defined in three phases: a genesis period in which the modern right came to define itself against midcentury liberal democracy, a moment of accelerating boldness tied to the Cold War’s end, and finally hyper intensification rooted in the tripartite traumas of 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, and the election of Barack Obama as president. 

In the earliest phase, generally unsound but occasionally plausible claims of exclusion drove intellectual, political, and social organizing. The radical right’s animating energy had a hard time finding public footing during Cold War consensus politics. During this period conservatives insisted that they were out of power and pointed to the bipartisan commitments of the Washington consensus as a sign that there was little tolerance both in DC and in the news media for hearing out right-wing dissent. There was considerable overlap between the people who made up these conservative constituencies. Proprietors of local and regional businesses had been thinking of themselves as victims at least since the New Deal, which made imagining that Big Government empowered by Cold War imperatives would tax and regulate them into extinction easy enough. Others held stringent anti-communist views, and bought fully into the narratives that the U.S. was engaged in a global struggle for freedom: consequently, they tended to make wild accusations, like the John Birch Society’s head Robert Welch, who accused D-Day hero Dwight Eisenhower of being a Communist agent. Others, like the Christian radio men described by Nicole Hemmer in “Messengers of the Right,” were concerned that their limited access to powerful broadcast bandwidths suggested a creeping secularism would lock Christianity out of public culture. You also had the conservative intellectuals in what Michael Lee calls conservatism’s “print culture,” who wrote in outlets like analysis, Human Events and National Review because they believed their ideas could not get a hearing at the papers and magazines of record. And of course there was the emerging demographic that would make up those who first had their curiosity piqued by George Wallace’s moves to absorb racial animus into attacks on a Washington establishment even before they could find themselves more fully represented in Richard Nixon’s silent majority: white men and women uncomfortable with what they perceived as the postwar period’s accelerating egalitarianism. All of these overlapping constituencies, despite their relatively comfortable place in midcentury society, were committed to asserting that they were the victims of forces they could not control.  

It was only after Goldwater’s defeat that skilled rhetors and organizers like Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Phyllis Schlafly, and Richard Viguerie sought to give the movement public imprimatur, which Reagan’s presidential victory in the 1980 election eventually affirmed.

A number of the arguments and ideas circulating in these vectors were lunatic: Paul Jones, writing in Human Events in 1957, labelled the ill-will cast at Joe McCarthy “short sighted” while influential conservative economist Ludwig von Mises offered a problematic analogy in titling one of his essays directed at delegitimating state interventions into the market economy “Freedom is Slavery.” Yet their escape velocity was ultimately limited by several factors: the very Cold War imperatives that created some overlapping interests between the Democrats and Republicans tamped down on official enthusiasm for party politicians to amplify these claims; savvy operators on the right like William F. Buckley knew that they needed to make a good show of occasionally purging such figures as “extremists” (even if they maintained close ties with many who harbored these views); and the first presidential candidate who bore the standard of the movement was Barry Goldwater, who had a penchant for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, marking conservatism as a fringe rather than common sense way of thinking.

(Getty Images)

It was only after Goldwater’s defeat that skilled rhetors and organizers like Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Phyllis Schlafly, and Richard Viguerie sought to give the movement public imprimatur, which Reagan’s presidential victory in the 1980 election eventually affirmed. While many narratives about the rise of conservatism try to to segregate the story of Watergate and Nixon’s fall from the heights of the Reagan Revolution, it bears mentioning that there were few conservatives of any stripes who had immediate enthusiasm for investigating and pursuing appropriate sanctions for Nixon’s team of “ratfuckers.” For many, Watergate was an illegitimate witch hunt, and Reagan’s victory marked not a break from the corrupt DC of scandal, but rather an affirmation of conservatism’s skill at playing victim politics. More than a few of the men who had been on Nixon’s staff found their way into significant campaign and governance roles with Reagan: Roger Stone and Lee Atwater both helped George HW Bush, whose term would see the end of the Twilight Struggle, get elected in 1988. 

The end of the Cold War saw a period of accelerating boldness in which the moderate domestic political stability afforded by a bipolar international system began to crumble. During the conflict, the Soviet Union had absorbed a lot of negative energy: civil rights protestors could be labeled Communist agents; if U.S. politicians needed to define freedom they could engage in rhetorical comparisons by pointing to living standards behind the Iron Curtain; and enemies abroad could take the fall for foes of domestic origin. The fall of the Wall ended this limited armistice.  

Without bipolar struggle to offer as a kind of lightning rod to absorb negative energy, the existential question of the U.S.’s identity would circle around foreign and domestic others.

As the power of the Soviet Union waned, so too did the pressures to gesture in the direction of egalitarianism. The government committed to the War on Drugs during an earlier period of relative thaw in relations with the Soviet Union, and more intensely prosecuted the War on Crime during the same period. These policies and their rhetoric produced domestic enemies that contrasted with the right’s commitment to “law and order.” But what were racializing supplements to the U.S.’s capacity to define itself as free and proud during the Cold War quickly became insufficient on their own as the alternative to liberal capitalism collapsed. Triumphant following its Cold War victory, the U.S. still had to define itself. Little help was the ascendant elite political enthusiasm for globalization — embodied most clearly in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) — which held that commercial cosmopolitanism between nations rather than any essential national identity ought to be the defining civic spirit. Meanwhile, overreach by the California GOP against immigration made the issue relatively radioactive for the mainstream party for the rest of the decade. However, the xenophobic impulse was a tell: without bipolar struggle to offer as a kind of lightning rod to absorb negative energy, the existential question of the U.S.’s identity would circle around foreign and domestic others.

One such answer to this question regarding what U.S. identity would be was given in Los Angeles in 1991, less than two years after the Berlin Wall came down, when observer George Holliday videotaped four Los Angeles police officers viciously beating Rodney King, a Black man. A forerunner to the viral contemporary lynchings of Black people by police and vigilantes, the video constituted a major national media event hinting at the “primal scene” of the postwar U.S.: racist violence. Following the acquittal of three of the officers by a Simi Valley jury — jurors were hung on charges against the fourth — was a consequent uprising in South Central Los Angeles, which government put down by police and military force. 

(Photo by Steve Liss/Getty Images)

Developments like Pat Buchanan’s xenophobic campaign for the Republican nomination in 1992 suggested the response to a more cosmopolitan world would be hard-nosed. Democrats also made some concessions to the right-wing theory of U.S. politics, as with Bill Clinton’s famous “Sister Souljah” moment in which he attacked the rapper’s anti-imperialist art as extremist, and his eventual support for strict welfare reform. Each response was informed by the events in Los Angeles: Buchanan’s famous culture war speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention was dripping with praise for the deployment of the military to Los Angeles’ “dark streets,” while Clinton’s critique of Souljah suggested a degree of affinity with the neoconserative thesis that the ‘60s excesses — raced, sexualized, gendered — had gone too far. The ‘90s were also the decade of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. Conservatism’s fully developed media ecosystem promised to tell well-off white people what they wanted to hear. 

If these developments were, in their way, boons for conservatives, the terrorist attacks of September 11, which marked the beginning of a hyper-intensified period of conservative panic, burnished conservative’s brand of nationalism while making it even more toxic. Conservatives assigned 9/11 an almost metaphysical status as traumatic event: the attack posed an existential threat to American freedom, constituted an unspeakable horror whose unnameability authorized reprisal without end (the initial name for the War on Terror was Operation Infinite Justice), and became synecdoche for a racialized — by way of the figures of the Muslim and/or immigrant — threat to the U.S. 9/11 made all of the U.S. a raw nerve, primed to extract vengeance and highly sensitive to any hint of foreignness.

All this would be bad enough, but 2008 brought two further blows: the crisis in credit markets and subsequent global financial crisis and the presidential victory of Barack Obama, whose Blackness made the Otherizing subtext of conservatism’s turn impossible to disavow. If the Republican Party was proudly the party of white men, then the 2008 financial crisis happened in an economic sector dominated by white guys and associated with the turn to financialization characteristic of the globalized economy. The presidency has long been conflated with whiteness and masculinity, making the election of a mixed race president disruptive to an American national mythos in any circumstance. But, amidst panicked financial markets, job losses, and worries about a global economic collapse, that the solution the American people decided upon was a charismatic mixed-race man with a “foreign” sounding name — Barack Hussein Obama — registered as a step too far for many conservatives. That is, they were injured by the economy, emasculated by the new president, and by proxy, repudiated and humiliated by the American “people.”

Sept. 11, 2001’s wounds remained open: the occupation of Afghanistan had not yet brought Osama Bin Laden to justice, the Iraq war was a boondoggle, and there was no way to close the book on an amorphous, infinitely available threat of “terrorism.” Meanwhile the GOP had spent decades playing footsie with segregationists, dog whistling about Blackness, while the evangelical base warned of end times. The decades-long tendency to describe anodyne liberal democracy as threatening to freedom — whether Ronald Reagan’s comparisons of liberal regulatory aims to gulags, Birchers linking civil rights demands to communist agitation, or evangelical talk about secular humanism as existential threat — became embodied in a charismatic Black guy who had proven significantly more popular with Americans than John McCain. 

What had been left unstated (though implied) for decades — that conservatives were the real American people — finally had to be said out loud, prompted by feelings of existential dread sourced in Obama’s status as the popular face of America.

In what followed, like the Tea Party’s talk of being put in chains, campaigns painting the Affordable Care Act as a dictatorial initiative, reactionary posturing, and violence against the Movement for Black Life, one can note existential continuity: the nation cannot reliably defend itself from foreign enemies, economic catastrophe, nor from the racial difference on which the nation itself is built. What had been left unstated (though implied) for decades — that conservatives were the real American people — finally had to be said out loud, prompted by feelings of existential dread sourced in Obama’s status as the popular face of America. That these feelings and sentiments are irrational — the most reliably Republican voters are relatively well-off and Obama hardly governed like Angela Davis — is of little consequence. The first decade of the 21st century was taken to have humiliated the U.S., with psychically catastrophic effect. 

That sets the stage for today. We can better understand the disavowal of #MeToo found in our current discourses of white male victimhood, the anti-trans and anti-queer panic about sharing bathrooms and threats aimed at supposed “groomers” (read: anyone not white and male and definitely not a Catholic priest), and an explosion of mass-casualty shooters who are mostly white guys: the more existential the imagined “loss” of nation, the more extreme the measures needed to compensate for the psychic wounds.

Had the GOP either united against Trump in 2016, or impeached him in either one of its two opportunities to do in 2020 or 2021, or taken seriously the congressional efforts to grapple with January 6, they might face short- or medium-term headwinds, but would also have, however belatedly, begun the process of confronting the monstrous sentiments that they, for decades, have been cooking up rhetorically. With the midterms now in the rear-view mirror, all signs suggest they will continue to defer this reckoning at great cost, for both themselves and the nation.

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