Trump’s alleged appeal to “white working class” Americans has been interpreted as a phenomenon unique to Trump himself, as if his arrival on the political scene had suddenly kicked off parts of a previously dormant voter demography. The reality, however, is far more nuanced, as reported in the Washington Post in 2017: “If working class means being in the lower half of the income distribution, the vast majority of Trump supporters during the primaries were not working classes.” The vast majority of those who supported Trump during the 2016 primaries – the truest measure of a “Trump voter” – earned a living well above the national median income.
There was also no lack of a college education that was peculiar to Trump supporters. While 70% of his votes came from people without a college degree, it was nothing unique about Republican voters as a whole, as noted by the Post’s Nicholas Carnes and Noam Lupu.
Thomas Edsall, who writes for the New York Times, convincingly suggests that the glue that held Republicans together in 2016 and 2020 was due to far more simple psychology than any real sense of economic disadvantage, lost economic status or a lack of educational qualifications. It’s a psychology of wounded pride and fear of a lost status, an infinite sense of sacrifice carefully pushed and nurtured – most visible by Trump himself since he took office and now by the rest of the Republican Party as their only political strategy for that Future accepted.
This formula is hardly unique to Trump or the GOP. As Alexandra Homolar and Georg Lofflmann, two authors quoted by Edsall, point out, the victim’s “humiliation” narrative is often used by so-called populist demagogues across Europe and elsewhere.
From the summary of her research paper Populism and the Affective Politics of Narrative Humiliation:
As we show, humiliation is the most important discursive mechanism within the populist notion of security that helps transform abstract ideas of enmity into politically consistent affective narratives of loss, betrayal, and oppression. Humiliation combines a seemingly contradicting sense of national greatness and willingness to make sacrifices in order to achieve an emotional response that enables a radical departure from established national and international political norms and problematizes political decisions based on cooperation, dialogue and peaceful conflict resolution.
Put more simply, a demagogue like Trump (or anyone else) can motivate his supporters to reject the very instruments of democratic governance that a country like the US depends on to resolve by constantly fueling this overarching narrative of eternal victims of political differences. This is why millions of Trump voters were so well prepared and ready to believe that the election was somberly “stolen” from them. This is the psychology that led thousands of conspiratorial insurgents to attack the U.S. Capitol. Because of this, the vast majority of Republican lawmakers, despite being the ultimate target of this group of rioters, have refused, and will continue to refuse, to acknowledge the truth about what sparked these attacks.
These legislators are duplicated – and, for the most part, knowingly. As things stand now, however, they know that any deviation from the victim narrative will be indignantly received by their constituents. So they will continue to parrots because, as Trump has demonstrated at length, the tactic works. Amazing as it is, white Republican voters, who by many objective standards are some of the most privileged and spoiled people in the world, now consider themselves victims.
As Edsall carefully points out, this does not mean that Trump voters are actual victims. He quotes Clark University psychology professor Johanna Ray Vollhardt who distinguishes groups that have actually experienced oppression from this completely different idea of the “dominant victim.”
The psychology of the collective victim role among groups objectively attacked and harmed by collective violence and historical oppression differs significantly from the psychology of complaint or imaginary victim role among dominant group members, driven by a sense of loss of status and legitimacy as well as resentment are made by minorities who are seen as a threat.
This is why Trump voting COVID-19 deniers feel entitled to whine about their alleged loss of “freedoms” when asked to wear a mask while shopping or visiting a restaurant without ever being told ponder how silly these appeals sound to those groups who have really been victims of, for example, systemic racism in the history of this country. It is for this reason that Fox News and other right-wing media outlets are constantly reducing and dismissing the concerns of truly marginalized communities. The “victim” brand traded by Fox News and its kind is rooted in social status and tied to a sense of legitimacy, not actual rights.
The fact that many of us find these attitudes pathetic and selfish does not prevent them from being dangerous. As noted by Homolar and Lofflmann, once a group has learned to feel bullied and humiliated, it shuts off any impulse to collaborate or cooperates and instead responds viscerally and emotionally, with the inevitable result of focusing on those leaders which continue to nourish their sense of the complaint.
Edsall quotes the Scottish researchers Stephen Reicher and Yasemin Ulusahin, who state in the book The Social Psychology of Collective Victimhood that this type of indoctrination promotes a moral dimension in their mentality, the “juices” of vengeance and redemption against their “oppressors” continues to fuel. ”
It is ultimately about the toxicity of a particular construction of the victim: one that turns eliminative violence into the restoration of a legitimate moral order. For when we believe we are acting for the moral good, the most appalling deeds can be committed.
As Edsall points out (with multiple illustrations), almost every word Trump uttered on the 2016 campaign trail, and most of the tweets he uttered from his fingertips during the occupation of the Oval Office, contained some form of grievance or resentment , where he constantly and himself portrayed 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 parts that aroused a common sense of victimization between him and his followers.
And once that sense was made with his base, it didn’t matter that his actual guidelines didn’t go through to address their real-world problems. They didn’t even care that he roughly fiddled with the COVID-19 crisis or that their fellow Americans died in the hundreds of thousands as a result. All that mattered was the feeling that they were the victims, that their “freedoms” were threatened, and that the country had to be reopened, even in the face of all the medical and rational scientific facts that suggested exactly the opposite path. It was, like Miles Armaly and Adam Enders, two researchers from the University of Mississippi and the University of Louisville, also quoted by Edsall, “an” egocentric victim “among Trump supporters that is almost entirely internal.
A systemic victim looks outward to understand their individual victim. Egocentric victims, on the other hand, are less directed outwards. Self-centered victims feel like they never get what they deserve in life, never get an extra break, and always settle for less. Neither the “oppressor” and the blame are very specific. Both forms of victimization require a certain level of sophistication, but egocentric victims in particular have a strong feeling that they personally have a harder time than others.
This cloud of self-focused victims naturally precludes any recognition of personal responsibility by these people, either to create their own problems or not to work with their fellow Americans to resolve their differences. Like an addict constantly thinking about his next solution, he simply craves more fuel to allay his ailments. This explains why Republicans are more or less in agreement when they oppose Democratic efforts to provide COVID-19 aid, and even feel compelled to oppose any efforts to improve national infrastructure. They don’t want things to get better because when things get better they have to find something else to make their constituents feel bullied. It’s the only glue that holds Republicans together.
So far, President Biden has managed to convey that what he has done so far benefits all Americans. If the economy recovers, as most expect, the endless litany of racial grievances from Republicans and Fox News will appear less bright than 2020 as the economy still drifts away from the pandemic. If Biden continues to highlight the positive impact this advanced legislation is having on people’s lives, it could transform these feverish dreams of victims into the ridiculous status they belong in.
But Edsall’s analysis also suggests that if Joe Biden, or a Democrat, wants to get in touch with Republican voters, it probably needs more than just adopting policies that will benefit them. It is an often overlooked fact that Donald Trump was elected amid a fairly booming economy that was almost entirely due to Barack Obama. That did not prevent Trump from being elected, and it did not prevent Trump or any Republicans – in 2022 or 2024 – from using the same tried and tested mantra of “victimhood.”
Edsall does not offer specific solutions on how Democrats can combat this strategy, which essentially requires that Democrats convince these people that their complaints are imaginary and cynically manipulated for political purposes. In an environment where Republicans have convinced more than half of their own voters that the election was stolen, it seems an obviously difficult and probably futile task.
For this reason, the primary focus of Democrats going forward should be to protect electoral rights and access, mobilize and inspire our own voters, and do whatever is possible to ensure that they stand out.