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From Rugged Individualists to Aggrieved Victims: The Rhetorical Trajectory of the Right

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.

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. 

Read entire article at Talking Points Memo