Thomas Frank: Conservatives And The Cult Of Victimhood

Thanks to Google News, we again smash through Rupert’s Wall Street Journal pay wall.

The political rhetoric of recent weeks has been much deplored for its excesses, but it is as the babbling of toddlers when compared to the masterpieces of the golden age of invective.

In 1876, for example, Colonel Robert Ingersoll urged the Republican convention to choose James G. Blaine as its presidential candidate because, in the course of his many skirmishes with the Democrats, Mr. Blaine had “torn from the throat of treason the tongue of slander” and had flung “his shining lance full and fair against the brazen forehead of the defamers of his country.”

Contrast that with the cravenness of so many of today’s conservatives, whose first rhetorical instinct is to seize the mantle of victimhood. This is how modern political genius expresses itself, with even the biggest bullies contorting themselves to claim injury and persecution. No longer do they boast of having speared their defamers; instead they instinctively depict themselves as the skewer-ee, their innocent foreheads wrongly and unfairly pierced.

Consider the GOP’s conduct during the long health-care fight. Outrageous accusations against Democrats became commonplace. Actual members of Congress cheered for “kill the bill” hecklers and encouraged end-of-the-world fears. The bill was voted through anyway and within a few days many of the Democrats who supported it reported incidents of vandalism and threats.

Then came House Republican whip Eric Cantor, himself a target of a widely reported threat, to turn the tables. What was “reckless,” he said in a press conference last week, was when Democrats told the world about the threats and the vandalism. This was “fanning the flames.” Even worse, Mr. Cantor continued, Democrats were using “threats as political weapons”: they were, in effect, assaulting Republicans with their victimhood, threatening conservatives by recounting how they themselves had been threatened.

In other words: How dare the Democrats use our signature rhetorical strategy against us!

Others chimed in. “It is reprehensible to try and create this dust-up for political gain,” said Michele Bachmann, a Republican representative from Minnesota beloved of the tea party.

“It’s almost like the left is trumping all this up just for the politics of it all,” was the verdict of Fox News host Glenn Beck.

Fox News host Sean Hannity went even further. “I think this is an attempt . . . to smear an entire movement—the tea party movement,” he intoned last week. Yes, agreed countless others in the days since then: The real victims of last week’s threat wave were the tea partiers, unfairly maligned as racists, name-callers and thugs.

To recapitulate: You start with that much-photographed brick, heaved through the glass door of Democratic Party offices in Rochester, N.Y., bearing a quotation from Barry Goldwater and an unmistakable political message.

And you end cursing those damned Democrats and weeping for the tea partiers, abused first by the big-spending tyrant in the White House and victimized yet again by unfair association with a wave of right-wing violence.

This line of reasoning carries a glaring moral hazard, of course: If political vandalism demonstrates the innocence and even the victimhood of the perpetrator’s allies, it obviously encourages more vandalism.

But the more important point is the political sanctity of victimhood itself, the desperation of certain conservatives to depict themselves as the aggrieved party in even the least likely circumstances. They imagine their movement as a great uprising of the common people against elitism, against the snobbery of big money, and against the arrogant power of the media. From Richard Nixon to Joe the Plumber, its heroes have always been victims.

Most revealing of all is Sarah Palin, whose suffering at the hands of the liberal elite has been the overriding motif of her career. She was able to keep up the martyrdom act last week even after she placed a map on her Web site in which rifle-scope crosshairs marked the congressional districts of Democrats who voted for the health-care bill. Many saw the map as an act of intimidation by itself, but Ms. Palin was able to flip the script at her speech in Searchlight, Nev., on Sunday, as a flag reading “SOS” flapped in the breeze beside her. “Media,” she said, addressing the villain by name, “you guys ginning up an issue like that, making it sound like it’s a crowd like this of patriotic Americans who are inciting violence, it’s a bunch of bunk, and we ask for some fair and some balanced reporting coming from you, please.”

But maybe these conservatives know something I don’t. They understand that things are often the very opposite of what they appear. They know that paying for a good time at a bondage-themed nightclub actually cements your family-values credentials. That cheering for hecklers in the House gallery merely demonstrates your dedication to decorum. And that bullying is actually the way of the martyr.

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3 thoughts on “Thomas Frank: Conservatives And The Cult Of Victimhood

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I just finished rerading Frank’s “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” and am immensely grateful to receive a my Frankfix without having to pay the ubercapitalists at wsj.

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