In the days since a mob of Trump supporters waged an attack on the U.S. Capitol, I’ve been thinking a lot about the week in October 2018 when a supporter of President Donald Trump was caught mailing explosives to prominent Democrats and a right-wing gunman slaughtered 11 people at a Pennsylvania synagogue. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about Trump’s reactions to the events, which were arguably inspired by his own rhetoric.
Trump opened his remarks during the 2018 Young Black Leadership Summit event at the White House with an update on the bombing story, which had dominated the news that week: An arrest had been made.
“These terrorizing acts are despicable and have no place in our country,” he told the crowd, describing an actual attempt to murder his political rivals. But within minutes and without a trace of self-awareness, Trump asked the crowd, “Who gets attacked more than me?”
“I can do the greatest thing for our country, and on the networks and on different things, it will show bad,” he sulked. At another point during his speech, he attacked “globalists” (“They like the globe. I like the globe too.”) and grumbled that a White House announcement the day before “didn’t get the kind of coverage it should have” because it was “competing with this story that took place,” referring to the bombs being sent to Democrats.
That speech will forever stand out as not just a summation of the Trump presidency, but of the conservative movement and its victimhood complex, in general.
The man arrested for sending those bombs was Cesar Sayoc, a hardcore Trump supporter who pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The day after Trump’s speech, a white nationalist named Robert Bowers murdered 11 people in a shooting spree at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Bowers’ attack was driven by a belief that a migrant caravan was being secretly funded by billionaire George Soros. This was a popular narrative in right-wing media that continued on in the weeks following the attack.
Trump’s response to the synagogue shooting, like his response to Sayoc’s bombing spree, omitted details about the motivations behind the attack. Rather than criticizing the absurd narrative that helped drive the attack, Trump instead condemned hate in a general sense before suggesting that the victims of the massacre should have protected themselves.
Through the lens of Trump’s past self-pitying comments, the conservative response to the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol makes sense.
Even as the mob tore through the Capitol, Trump continued to position himself as the actual victim. Sure, five people died, members of Congress were terrorized, and the rioters chanted, “Hang Mike Pence,” but Trump couldn’t help but throw himself a pity party.
“Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify. USA demands the truth!” tweeted Trump, continuing to push the lies that he was the true winner of the election and that Pence had betrayed him by refusing to single-handedly overturn the results.
Even in his tweet urging people to go home, he justified what had happened by portraying his supporters as the real victims, writing, “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long. Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!”
The insurrection was hardly spontaneous. While it’s no surprise that fringe social media sites like Gab, Parler, and the pro-Trump Reddit clone TheDonald.win were filled with calls for violence ahead of the January 6 certification of the Electoral College votes, mainstream platforms like Twitter and Facebook were also unwitting staging grounds for the violent uprising.
Although Twitter and Facebook have long had rules against inciting violence and have each pledged to crack down on accounts which support the QAnon conspiracy theory, enforcement has been spotty. That changed after the 6th. Trump, whose lies about the election being stolen from him have helped fuel the right-wing rage, has had his account banned or suspended by virtually every social media platform so as not to incite additional attacks. But these well-deserved bans simply gave the right another opportunity to play the victim.
As thousands of other accounts were suspended in the wake of the Capitol attack, conservatives working in media and government focused on what’s really important: their follower counts.
I’ve lost 50k+ followers this week. The radical left and their big tech allies cannot marginalize, censor, or silence the American people. This is not China, this is United States of America, and we are a free country. https://t.co/Xupd0N1hea
— Sarah Huckabee Sanders (@SarahHuckabee) January 9, 2021
Twitter explained what was happening in a statement to NBC News:
“The accounts have been suspended in line with our policy on Coordinated Harmful Activity," a Twitter spokesperson told NBC News. “We’ve been clear that we will take strong enforcement action on behavior that has the potential to lead to offline harm, and given the renewed potential for violence surrounding this type of behavior in the coming days, we will permanently suspend accounts that are solely dedicated to sharing QAnon content.”
Being suspended for violating a social media platform’s rules is not evidence of bias, but even if it was, it takes a really outsized sense of victimhood to respond to a violent insurrection whipped up as the result of a blatant lie about the election results by turning yourself into the real victim -- even more so when many of the people complaining about their lost followers were the same people who promoted the lie in the first place.
TheBlaze’s Glenn Beck appeared on the January 12 episode of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight, where he argued that social media platforms taking steps to avoid being places where terrorist attacks are planned is just like what the Nazis did in the 1930s.
“You can't have freedom of speech if you can't have -- if you can't express yourself in a meaningful place,” he said. “This is -- this is like the Germans with the Jews behind the wall. They would put them in the ghetto. Well, this is the digital ghetto. ‘You can talk all you want. Jews, you do whatever you want behind the wall.’”
And Beck wasn’t the only right-wing media figure to make this obscene comparison of Trump supporters to victims of Nazi persecution:
Embracing the role of victim is what helps conservatives avoid having to come to terms with the reality of being the bully.
Every mean-spirited thing conservatives do seems to come from a place of self-victimization or, at the very least, is often justified by self-victimization. And in the case of the Capitol attack, these narratives of conservative victimhood were building for two months following Trump’s electoral defeat, as right-wing media figures worked overtime to falsely claim that he had really won the election which Democrats were trying to steal through overwhelming fraud.
In a December interview with Charlie Kirk, right-wing radio host Eric Metaxas said he needed “to fight to the death, to the last drop of blood” to overturn the election, an explicit endorsement of violence. Rather than admit that it was an election that Trump lost, Metaxas and Kirk both agreed that Trump was the rightful winner and that the election was stolen from him. Metaxas compared Biden’s win to “stealing the heart and soul of America. It's like holding a rusty knife to the throat of Lady Liberty.”
Metaxas couldn’t just come out and say that Trump should remain in power despite losing the election. Instead, he framed his proposition as simply trying to right a wrong that was done to him and to the country.
Acts of bullying, whether taking the form of verbal abuse, physical altercations, or just a general disregard for others, are framed in conservative victimhood narratives as justifiable responses to imagined attacks from their political enemies. Metaxas justified his bloodlust by portraying any actions he may have to take as being retaliation for an election that was stolen. Conservatives regularly fight to oppress and curtail the rights of already marginalized groups under the guise of defending themselves in the culture war. Anything can be justified in the fight to “stand up to woke America,” as the school newspaper of the far-right Hillsdale College framed legislation and court decisions targeting transgender people.
No matter the subject, the message of right-wing media to conservatives is always the same: You are the real victim here. And when you are the victim, you can justify just about anything -- even inciting a terrorist attack.