On Wednesday, President Joe Biden was asked about the decisions made by the governors of Texas and Mississippi to lift their COVID restrictions -- including mask mandates -- against the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. His response has conservatives in a bit of an uproar.
After highlighting the efficacy of masks and emphasizing the progress being made against the virus thanks to increased vaccinations, Biden said, “The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that, in the meantime, everything is fine, take off your mask. Forget it. It still matters.”
Cue the right-wing media outrage.
Former Trump White House press secretary and current Fox News contributor Kayleigh McEnany appeared on Fox & Friends the following day to compare Biden’s “Neanderthal” remark to 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment.
To outsiders, Biden’s dig at Republican governors set on repeating the mistakes of the past year seems fairly mild and couldn’t really be interpreted to be an attack on conservatives as a whole. To Fox News, it was a tool to manipulate as a way of tapping into its audience’s anger and sense of cultural victimhood.
Texas’ decision to lift its statewide restrictions, including its mask mandate, was immediately criticized by the CDC as unwise.
“I think we at the CDC have been very clear that now is not the time to release all restrictions,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky said on Wednesday morning. “The next month or two is really pivotal with how this pandemic goes as we scale up vaccinations, we really do need to decrease the amount of the virus that is circulating as we are trying to vaccinate all of the public.”
This follows a February 12 CDC report titled “Decline in COVID-19 Hospitalization Growth Rates Associated with Statewide Mask Mandates,” which called masks “a component of a multipronged strategy to decrease exposure to and transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and reduce strain on the health care system, with likely direct effects on COVID-19 morbidity and associated mortality.” In short: Masks work and mask mandates are a good idea.
Fox News has tried time and again to find a “deplorables” moment for Biden, but nothing has stuck.
During an October campaign stop, a group of former President Donald Trump’s supporters tried to drown out a Biden speech by loudly and repeatedly honking their car horns. He was in the middle of discussing the need for a mask mandate and said, “Dr. Fauci called for a mask mandate last week. This isn’t a political statement, like those ugly folks over there, beeping the horns. This is a patriotic duty for God’s sake.”
Immediately, Fox News rushed to label this as Biden’s “deplorable moment.” Fox ran multiple segments on the comments, which were being portrayed as an attack on Trump supporters, generally, rather than a response to the individuals disrupting his speech.
“When you hear Biden, you know, call Trump voters ugly, you think back to Hillary Clinton exactly in the deplorable statement and you say to yourself, wow, this is really how you feel about the American public,” said Fox contributor Sara Carter at the time.
During a June fundraiser, Biden said, “Do we really think this is as good as we can be as a nation? I don’t think the vast majority of people think that. There are probably anywhere from 10 to 15% of the people out there that are just not very good people, but that’s not who we are. The vast majority of the people are decent, and we have to appeal to that and we have to unite people -- bring them together.”
A Fox News article said that the comments “harken back to the controversial comments made by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential election when, at a campaign event, she estimated that ‘half’ of Trump’s supporters belong in a ‘basket of deplorables.’”
In April of last year, Biden was asked at a fundraiser whether he would be able to reach Trump’s base.
“His base? Probably not,” he said. “There are people who support the president because they like the fact that he is engaged in the politics of division. They really support the notion that, you know, all Mexicans are rapists and all Muslims are bad and ... dividing this nation based on ethnicity, race. This is the one of the few presidents who succeeded by deliberately trying to divide the country, not unite the country.”
Once again, Fox asked if this was Biden’s “deplorables moment.”
In January 2020, following a Biden comment about the need to transition away from fossil fuels and the job training programs needed to help those working in that industry to find new work, Fox Nation host Rachel Campos-Duffy again called it “his ‘deplorable’ moment.”
The constant need to create a “deplorables” moment for Biden shows just how central victimhood is to the right-wing media ecosystem and conservative movement, generally.
One reason Fox News’ attacks on Clinton and former President Barack Obama as snobby elitists who look down upon Republicans were so successful was that other big names in news were happy to parrot the attacks to their audiences, as well.
When Obama tried to empathize with people in rural Pennsylvania who felt let down by their government, saying in 2008 that it’s understandable that they might be “bitter” and “cling to guns or religion,” a right-wing narrative that Obama thought Republicans were all “bitter clingers” took form.
When Clinton said not to write off all Trump supporters because, while she estimated that half could be categorized as “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic -- you name it,” the other half “are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. ... Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well,” the narrative that Trump supporters were “deplorables” was brought into existence.
In both cases, mainstream media picked up the right-wing attack lines, as disingenuous as they may have been, and parroted them back to their audiences.
The lack of mainstream media buy-in on Fox News’ incessant search for a “deplorables” moment helps explain why the attacks haven’t been particularly effective against Biden, but there’s more to the network’s strategy than meets the eye.
When a group protested a Biden speech in October, he said, “I’ll work as hard for those who don’t support me as those who do, including those chumps with the microphone out there. Look, that’s the job of a president -- the duty to care for everyone.”
Fox News host Sean Hannity worked that remark, too, into his string of complaints about conservatives’ eternal victimhood, saying, “Let’s come together, you irredeemable, deplorable chumps! That cling to your god, your Second Amendment, your bibles, your religion. Hmm, we’ve got to come together, the chumps and Biden. And today, at a campaign stop in Minnesota, he called Trump supporters ugly. That was not very nice.”
At a certain point, turning every slight against an individual into a broad insult against an entire group of people has to wear thin. Why, when Clinton said that half of Trump supporters were good people, did the Hannitys of the world immediately decide that they must be in the “deplorable” half? Why, when Obama said he understood why people who felt let down by their government would become disillusioned, did Hannity and his ilk act as though it was meant as an insult? Why, when Biden calls the decision by a governor to ignore basic science “Neanderthal thinking,” is “Joe Biden just called ME a Neanderthal!” the first thought that comes to mind for so many on the right? There actually may be a scientific answer to that question.
There’s a very specific kind of victimhood that aligns with Fox News’ political interests.
In a January study published in the journal Political Behavior, “‘Why Me?’ The Role of Perceived Victimhood in American Politics,” authors Miles T. Armaly and Adam M. Enders explored how an individual’s sense of victimhood correlates with their political beliefs and voting habits. What they found was that victimhood was central to former President Trump’s political success.
Perceiving oneself to be a victim is ubiquitous in American politics. As Horwitz (2018) remarks, “The victim has become among the most important identity positions in American politics” (553). This is no accident. Victimhood is a central theme of modern political messaging. For instance, a Republican strategist observed, “At a Trump rally, central to the show is the idea of shared victimization...Trump revels in it, has consistently portrayed himself as a victim of the media and of his political opponents...” (in Rucker 2019). However, if you consider Trump’s demographic characteristics (white and male) and his successes (in terms of wealth and being president), he is not a victim by any serious societal standard. While Trump’s supporters may, to varying degrees, be victims of certain social and political circumstances, the rallies at which the president is reveling in their shared victimhood are direct consequences of at least their recent political successes.
The authors found that people who engaged in egocentric victimhood (“I am the victim because I deserve more than I get”) were more likely to support Trump during his 2016 campaign, while people who engaged in systemic victimhood (“I am the victim because the system is rigged against me”) were less likely to vote for Trump. Additionally, the authors established that “both manifestations of victimhood are manipulable, including by elite messages. The sum of our evidence indicates that feelings of victimhood exist in the mass public, can be mobilized by political elites, and can potentially influence support for specific policies and candidates.”
If the goal of Fox News is to keep its audience voting Republican, this may explain why the channel is so desperate to tell its viewers that they are being personally attacked by politicians and the press. This is also why Fox may have an incentive to downplay systems of oppression -- you don’t exactly hear many arguments against capitalism or the patriarchy throughout Fox’s programming, generally speaking.
Just last week, Fox devoted an inordinate amount of time to the idea of Dr. Seuss being “cancelled” to promote the network’s “cancel culture” narrative. The week before that included days devoted to preserving the gender of Mr. Potato Head and explaining to viewers why Disney’s decision to add content warnings to the beginning of a handful of episodes of The Muppet Show on its streaming platform was a sign of leftist-generated cultural rot. The strategy is to keep audiences angry, aggrieved, and aware that at any moment, one of their beloved cultural icons could be whisked away by an overzealous group of liberals dedicated to persecuting conservatives.
So, as Fox News personalities play up their latest attempt to create a “deplorables” moment from Biden -- and this will certainly not be the last time they try to manifest one of these -- it’s worth understanding that there’s a strong incentive for the network to push audiences to see themselves as victims on a personal level. Where there are legitimate gripes to be had, Fox will use them; where there aren’t, Fox will invent them.