Beware: Populism Has Created a Culture of Victimhood

Trump’s victim politics is a complete fraud, an old trick used by economic elite to keep working-class Americans fighting each other rather than focusing on processes to counter the plutocrats who are ripping them off. Trump and his allies stoke racial tensions even as they seek to cut taxes on the rich by shedding affordable health care for everyone else, dismantle protection for workers and consumers, and tear down environmental protections that stop wealthy corporations from poisoning communities. Victim politics is cultivated for a reason – to keep workers distracted from the real causes of economic inequality. Populism is the new victimhood – now propelled by the digital revolution and the threatened insecurity. We need to distinguish between victimhood itself and the politics of victimhood – the process whereby suffering is confected or conferred, and then ‘weaponized’ for political purposes.

Populism calls for kicking out the political establishment, but it doesn’t specify what should replace it. Populists are dividers, not uniters. They split society into two homogenous and antagonistic groups: the pure people on the one end and the corrupt elite on the other and they say they are guided by “the will of the people,” according to Cas Mudde. The distinction between the elite and the people is not based on how much money you have or even what kind of position you have.  It is based on your values. The narrative of “the common people” is used in an attempt to legitimize conspiracy theories and emphasizes the need to take action. Populists often ask the right questions but give the wrong answers. Populism gives overtly simple answers to complex problems – answers that, if implemented, would not help solve these problems – they are just replacing one elite with another.

The presence of cancel culture and political shaming, particularly on US campuses, is where these identity politics thrive, is forcing tension between groups of different races and genders as figurative walls arise between those that agree whole-heartedly with the leftist view of identity politics, and those that believe otherwise. The left has always been prone to hair-splitting. Meanwhile, just as populism undermines democracy, “cancel culture” undoes the tolerance such that as you cancel disagreement, you start seeing it everywhere. Cancel culture’s zero-sum game plays off disadvantaged groups against one another, rather as right-wing populism pits the blue-collar “left behind” against groups that remain marginalized, such as Blacks, LGBTQ, low-income individuals and undocumented immigrants. Amid the left’s Twitter micro-wars, its real enemy – neoliberal hegemony – remains safely out of view. While black, queer, transsexual and feminist folk bicker, powerful white dudes carry on running the world.

But it’s never been confined to the left – it was and is frequently deployed by anyone who can claim to represent a group with a grievance, religious, ethnic, national or whatever. After all, victimhood is Donald Trump’s main play: America is the victim of self-serving globalist elites (or Mexicans, or the Chinese, or Muslims) and he will save it. To say Trump is a populist is only a partial understanding of his success. Trump’s populism is a base populism, which excites the worst of the American psyche – the bombastic superiority paradoxically combined with a fear of the other – and offers himself as the only answer. Populism is invariably divisive, thrives on conspiracy, finds enemies even when they do not exist, proceeds to criminalize all opposition to it, plays up external threats, and more often than not insists its critics are working for ‘the deep state.’   

Donald Trump’s traits associated with narcissistic personality disorder involves a pattern of blaming others for the problems he causes for himself. He plays the victim card, for example, his attacks on women. His narcissistic pathology compels him to see women as inferior – any women asking an “impertinent question” is an affront to his self-importance associated with his high status. Trump’s populist policies include tapping the victimhood of white supremacists with accelerated race-baiting that serves his self-interest of winning a second term. Central to the psychological processes of the narcissist is the characteristic of “splitting”, which is a polarized perception of events and people into extremes of all-good, ideal, and wonderful or all-bad, entirely devalued, and demonized. Trump frames people or events in terms that are absolute with no middle ground for discussion. At the heart of this populism is the culture war divide between the so-called establishment and the people.

A gaslighter’s statements and accusations are often based on deliberate falsehoods and calculated marginalization. The term gaslighting is derived from the 1944 film Gaslight, where a husband tries to convince his wife that she’s insane by causing her to question herself and her reality. Consider Trump’s statement: “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not happening.”  It makes victims question their reality, becoming even more dependent on the gaslighter as the only source of true information. In relation to hostile online material, the enthusiasts for chaos have no interest in whether it is true, nor even whether it supports their own ideological position. They will share hostile fake material both for and against their ‘side’, not simply for the devilment but because they see it as making collapse and chaos more likely. Social media has provided a huge proselytizing opportunity to those with destructive intentions. Many of Donald Trump’s tweets qualify.

Georg Hegel (1770-1831) claims individuals are in various states of alienation – the tension created between the way things are and the way they ought to be. Once the potentialities of a particular society had been realized in the creation of a certain mode of life, its historical role was over; its members became aware of its inadequacies, and the laws and institutions they had previously accepted unquestioningly in the past were now experienced as fetters, inhibiting further development and no longer reflecting their deepest aspirations. In contemporary usage, “populism” is generally understood to mean political movements and individuals who channel widespread alienation and frustration by claiming to speak for “the people” against forces that are said to be destroying cherished ways of life. There can be no progress, according to Hegel, without struggle. For Hegel, the struggle against alienation becomes the attainment of freedom.

Hegel introduced a system to study history – dialectical thinking – a progression in which each successive movement emerges as a solution to the contradictions inherent in the preceding movement with the development of freedom and the consciousness of freedom. Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), one of the most prominent members of the Frankfurt School, initially turned to Hegel’s ideas in his writing in order to explain their philosophical strength through the dynamics of socioeconomic contradictions. Marcuse uses dialectical thinking to expose the contradictions by which an advanced industrial society is constituted. The problem of concealment occurs here because not only does society produce contraindications in the forms of domination that come with them, it also produces the social and psychological mechanisms that conceal these contradictions. An example of social contradictions is the co-existence of the growth of national wealth and poverty at the same time.

Class and economy which until recently were the main ideological battle ground, have been replaced by culture and identity. Culture now actively promotes constant vigilance and outrage in response to perceived microaggressions and divergence from “approved” opinion. Historically, the left indulges in these victimhood narratives to a far greater degree than the right. However, cancel culture on the left is the mirror image of right-wing populism. Trump self-identifies as the chief victim of attacks, particularly attacks perpetuated by the media and Democratic party. Trump turns to victimhood culture to divide the population into two groups such as: strong on law and order compared to weak on law and order; Trump as the outsider while Biden is under the influence of globalist interests and “deep state radicals”. The goal is to distract attention from the widening imbalance of wealth and power between the vast majority and a tiny minority at the top who are accumulating just about all.

Hegel who saw a world governed by individual self-interest believed that we are controlled by external forces, and are nothing but pawns in the game. Victim identification is one of the strongest political forces in the world today. The apparent endgame of these cultural conflicts is perpetual one-party rule for Republicans, whose core mission is to enable the dramatic concentration of wealth within a privileged stratum, achieved through radical deregulation, corporate handouts, and tax cuts for the wealthy. Victimhood has been weaponized for political purposes to convince voters to support the project for fear of the alternative which is further stripping of their rights and the decline of safety in their community. The Republican slight-of-hand is to claim victim status while holding a viselike grip on much of federal, state and judicial power. Beware that populism of the right creates a culture of victimhood to use as a tool to sustain conservative politics.1

1 Zak Cheny-Rice (25 Oct 2019) Republicans Want Victimhood Without Being Victimized https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/10/republicans-scif-protest-and-the-politics-of-victimhood.html

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