The Conservative Cult of Victimhood

Trump was a perpetrator who thought himself a victim, and American society has indulged that same illusion among Trump supporters.

An illustration of two elephants walking away.
Shutterstock / The Atlantic

Many of President Donald Trump’s crooked schemes are so ill-thought that even his intimates cannot take them seriously.

Asking Russia to hack your opponent’s emails during a press conference? Who would do that? He must have been joking!

So it was on January 6.

What Trump was trying to achieve that day was so flat-out delusional as to defy belief.

Trump had gotten it into his head that the vice president could overturn a national vote, kicking the certified tallies back to the states, which could subtract enough legitimate votes on the grounds of fraud to hand the election to Trump. This plan was both illegal and impossible, and Vice President Mike Pence said as much to Trump. But Trump did not quit. His admirers devised a Plan B for him. If Pence would not willingly overturn the 2020 election, then Pence could be strong-armed into doing so.

That was the mission for which Trump summoned thousands of his supporters to Washington, D.C., on January 6. As he told the crowd at the Ellipse immediately before the attack on the Capitol: “We’re going to have to fight much harder, and Mike Pence is going to have to come through for us.” That’s why those supporters brandished nooses and shouted death threats against Pence as they surged through the halls of Congress. That’s the thought that had the Trump family dancing to “Gloria” before the attack began: Mike Pence compelled by the pressure of the crowd to do the right thing for Trump.

Through the Trump years, a line of distinguished commentators has argued that Trump is simply too much of a buffoon and a moron to do any real harm. The January 6 plan was indeed buffoonish and moronic. Even supposing the crowd had succeeded in intimidating Pence into rejecting the certified returns, his ruling would not have been sustained. Joe Biden would still become president at noon on January 20.

But an idiotic, futile coup attempt can nonetheless get people killed. Five people died. That number could easily have been much higher. Members of Congress could have been among them. Pence could have been among them.

Mobbing Congress and intimidating Pence to incant some magic words: that was Trump’s wish. The details may have remained very hazy in his mind, as the details remained hazy when he directed Georgia’s secretary of state to “find” enough votes to tip the state in his favor. Maybe he did not exactly contemplate an invasion of the Capitol (although by all reports he was initially thrilled to see it happen on TV). Maybe he did not intend all the injury and death (although he has often threatened opponents with injury and death if they resist him: “I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough—until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad,” Trump said to Breitbart News in March 2019). Trump seldom thinks things through in an orderly way from beginning to end. But to the extent that Trump had a concept for January 6, what you saw was that concept, at least until it all collapsed into fiasco and failure.

Questions remain about the Capitol insurrection. Some of the attackers seemed much better drilled and organized than others. Who were they? Some stole computers and other materials from the offices they invaded. Did they grab randomly or with purpose? Maybe the most important of those questions is: Why were so few personnel deployed to protect the Capitol? Did someone deliberately leave Capitol Hill vulnerable, or was it a complacent and careless error?

But those questions number relatively few, because so much of the plan to attack the Capitol was discussed for weeks prior in plain view. The president’s allies openly advocated overturning the election. On December 31, Trump retweeted an article by the broadcaster Mark Levin insisting that Congress could decide the election on its own.

About that time, Trump began summoning protesters to Washington for January 6. Trump’s tweets and retweets turned steadily more extreme and suggestive of violence. He upped the tempo of his claims that the vice president had the power to overturn the election and reinstall him. On January 5, Trump tweeted an outright threat: “I hope the Democrats, and even more importantly, the weak and ineffective RINO section of the Republican Party, are looking at the thousands of people pouring into D.C. They won’t stand for a landslide election victory to be stolen.” The next day, he tweeted a direct injunction to Pence: “All Mike Pence has to do is send them back to the States, AND WE WIN. Do it Mike, this is a time for extreme courage!”

It’s often been said that if Trump were detected saying in a private phone call what he said on Twitter, he’d be removed from office the next day.

Likewise, the buildup to the attack on Congress must have been the least clandestine coup planning in history. Trump supporters discussed their intentions on Facebook pages and in online chat groups. Some arrived wearing sweatshirts with the printed logo MAGA Civil War January 6, 2021.

Few if any leading Republicans allowed Trump’s hope to overturn the election to interfere with their own, much more cynical plans to debate and delay. Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz and their allies had planned a self-aggrandizing media stunt, a springboard for future fundraising, an entry into the ever-escalating contest to prove oneself the least compromising person in politics. Neither of them felt even the slightest concern for Trump’s presidency. They were campaigning for their own.

At least since the election of Barack Obama in 2008, the conservative world has become a place of ever more extreme language, ever more widely distanced from real-world events. Conservative talkers would say things like Obama “is literally at war with the American people,” and then be greatly shocked and offended that anyone would connect their words to the growth of extremist violence. The words did not mean anything to the cynics who spoke them, and so they found it difficult to imagine that the words might mean anything to those who heard them.

In the same spirit, Republican elected officials repeated Trump’s outlandish claims about the 2020 election while privately accepting the election outcome as valid and accurate. The lesson that Republican political professionals drew from 2020 was not that Biden’s 81 million votes were fake. The lesson they drew was that they must use their power over elections at the state and local level to prevent that many people from voting in the future.

They mouthed Trump’s complaints about voter fraud in 2020 while they devised their own, rational plans for voter suppression in 2022 and 2024. They counted on the rest of the political world being responsible enough to apply the brakes before Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election got too far out of hand. In the meantime, they had TV spots to book and funds to raise.

A lot of modern conservatism is a species of affinity fraud. If rank-and-file conservatives are dumb enough to be separated from their money by fantastic lies, well, there are conservative elites who feel they would be remiss not to do the separating. As for Trump himself, some figured, what harm could he possibly do at this point? The American system has been peaceably transitioning presidential power for a very long time; who could seriously imagine that system blowing up in 2021? They knew the road was closed, so they went along for the ride—thinking that the driver must stop when he reached the barrier. Except this time, Trump was not just whining as usual. He crashed right through the barrier. The ride led here: to the dumb-as-rocks fiasco that abruptly severed the long tradition of the peaceful transition of power in the United States.

After the attempted coup, the mood in the pro-Trump world became one of profoundest self-pity. The president’s supporters compare themselves to victims of Stalin’s purges, to the unpersons of George Orwell’s 1984. They watch their Twitter followers disappear as the company closes QAnon accounts, and they feel persecuted. They invoke Martin Niemöller’s famous poem about Nazi Germany: First they came for those who plotted the violent overthrow of the U.S. government, and I said nothing.

Again and again since Election Night 2020, Republicans have urged sympathy and accommodation for those who refused to accept the election outcome. Give them space for their feelings. What harm will it do to humor them a little longer?

Over the past half decade, we have turned much of the country’s mindscape into a group-therapy session for Trump believers. Reporters play the part of the therapist, reassuring the analyzed of a safe space for their grievances and complaints. The pro-Trump world has accepted the invitation. Even as Trump commits one constitutional, legal, and ethical abuse after another, his followers depict themselves as somehow the people truly suffering unfairness. Trump was a perpetrator who thought himself a victim, and American society has indulged that same illusion among Trump supporters.

Hawley described himself as a victim of a “woke mob” after his publisher terminated his book contract because of his leadership role in propagating the falsehoods that inspired the attack. Cruz, who shoved himself to the forefront of the movement to overturn the 2020 election, has accused his critics, beginning with Biden, of “vicious, partisan rhetoric that tears our country apart.” The head of the American Conservative Union—a lobbyist married to Trump’s communications director—lamented that he and his fellow Trump supporters were being sent to a “digital Gulag.” A co-publisher of the conservative news site Human Events tweeted: “The conservative movement is about to face a level of collective discrimination by the institutions of our society not seen since Jim Crow.” The op-ed editor of the New York Post topped that analogy: “We're now going to see US sanctions—à la Iraq and Iran—applied to religious conservatives, economic leftists and others who reject the reigning corporate woke orthodoxy. Oh, you don't think there are 157 genders? There goes your access to banking!”

Many condemnations of the violence came hedged and guarded. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, for example, released a video statement about the attacks that joined 20 seconds of forthright condemnation to nearly four full minutes of blame shifting and excuse making:

Is the mainstream media—especially places like CNN and MSNBC—outrageously biased? Of course! One hundred percent … And by the way, this kind of blatant bias, this double standard, that’s one of the reasons why so many Americans have sought political shelter in divisive political movements and in conspiracy theories that offer them the promise of fighting back against it … We can’t allow our anger at all that stuff to turn us into them.

The central concept in modern conservatism is victimhood. Responsibility, accountability—those are standards they apply to others, never to themselves. Even as they confront their stark record of complicity and culpability, they cannot absorb it.

During the 2016 campaign, candidate Trump excoriated President Obama for supposedly refusing to use the term radical Islamic terrorism. At one of that year’s presidential debates, Trump said: “Now, to solve a problem, you have to be able to state what the problem is or at least say the name. [Hillary Clinton] won’t say the name and President Obama won’t say the name. But the name is there. It’s radical Islamic terror.”

But now the conservative world has gone all bashful about naming things. The preferred formulas for condemning the violence are vague and general, without reference to who did the violence and why and for whose sake. The vagueness is even more remarkable when you recall that pro-Trump groups had previously invaded the Michigan legislature and tried to seize the governor as a hostage, or that on January 6 armed protesters also menaced the statehouse in Georgia, forced the evacuation of the statehouse in New Mexico, and breached the gates of the governor’s mansion in Washington State.

Unlike the looters who sacked stores during the protests in the summer of 2020, these pro-Trump groups were engaged in political action, not private criminality. Unlike the radicals who besieged the federal courthouse in Portland, the pro-Trump groups are not a hopeless fringe group. They mobilized to support the man who heads the government—and they are praised and encouraged by him.

The world has already met some of the people who executed the attack on Congress: the former military man with the honorable record, the successful real-estate agent, the six Republican elected officials who participated in an attempted violent overthrow of a democratic election. Many more will be met in the months ahead, as police make arrests, and employers terminate jobs. Some of those we meet might be deeply committed radicals. Most will probably turn out to be gullible people with grievances, who were manipulated and deceived by the cable-news network they watched and the politicians they trusted. We will all have many occasions to wonder: Who converted these once-ordinary Americans into enemies of democracy?

Seventy-four million people voted for Trump, and surely the great majority of them reject political violence in all its forms. President Trump is in so much political trouble right now precisely because even those who voted for him reject his violence. But Trumpism as a cause has been tainted from the start by its openness to political violence to take and keep power.

There’s too much guilt here for Trump to shoulder all by himself, although of course he bears the largest individual weight. Many are guilty, a very great many—even if they never intended for things to spin out of control. They may have wanted only to score some TV time for themselves, or to pad their social-media followings, or to extract a few dollars from angry viewers or readers.

But if the conservative world is to pull itself out of the moral wreck into which it has been led by Trump, its leaders will have to do better than Rubio did in his blame-everybody-but-me video. They will have to reckon with a long record of inflammatory deceit, a reckoning with a politics founded on nothing bigger than fear and resentment.

There is no redemption without repentance. There is no repentance without accountability. There is no accountability without consequences. Republican support for the impeachment and removal of President Trump, and his disqualification from ever again holding office, is the first step toward the renewal and recovery of the party that will otherwise bear the mark of Trump even after he departs office.

An ex-conservative friend of mine told me a story about a conversation she had with someone who remained much more active in the conservative movement. The active conservative had raged about “liberal elites” until finally my friend could stand it no longer: “You went to law school. Why aren’t you an elite?” The active conservative paused, reflected, and then answered, “Well, what do you want me to call the people I hate?”

Maybe it’s time to stop hating so many people. Maybe that’s the beginning of the way back from following Trump to rejoining America.