Trump's Brand of Tough-Guy Victim Is A Toxic Mix of Confederate Lost Cause Revanchism and Bernhard Goetz Vigilantism
by Michael C. Dorf
For years, conservatives have criticized those on the left who ground claims for money, status, and other goods in victimhood. The criticism has two strands. First, focusing on victimhood is said to be counterproductive. If you think of yourself as a victim, you will undercut your ability to achieve. Second, claiming victimhood is said to be unfair to the non-victims who are asked to pay the price of repair even if they were not among the perpetrators. Conservative complaints about race-based affirmative action unite these two objections, but so do other complaints, including the mocking of liberal "snowflakes" on college campuses and elsewhere.
Given the right's disdain for victimhood-as-moral-high-ground, how do we explain the continued embrace of Donald Trump's self-pitying sore-loserism? We can see the beginning of an answer in a statement Trump made during his Georgia rally on Saturday night: "We're all victims. Everybody here--all these thousands of people here tonight. They're all victims, every one of you." As a malignant narcissist, Trump lacks empathy for others, but as a practiced con-man, he is skilled at inducing his followers to identify with him. Thus, for Trump's loyalists, if Trump is a victim, so are they.
Yet that is only the beginning of an answer, because we still don't have an account of why people who regard claims to victim status as worthy of disdain want to think of themselves as victims. Human psychology supplies most of the rest of the answer. We are all hypocrites and projectionists, hating in others the very flaws we allow but refuse to acknowledge in ourselves.
Beyond general psychological traits common to all, Trump offers a particularly attractive--highly toxic and racist--account of victimology that unites the Southern "Lost Cause" mythology of the Civil War with more recent experience as personified by Trump, who entered the public eye in New York City in the 1980s and thrust himself into the center of every race-fueled episode of the time.
Despite evidence that Trump marginally improved on his performance among African American voters from 2016 to 2020, the primary explanation for his appeal and its limits was and remains racial. Trump just barely won the Presidency in 2016 by flipping three industrial states of the northern rust belt--Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin--from blue to red, and he lost this year when those states (along with Arizona and Georgia) flipped from red to blue. They were in play because of their substantial numbers of white voters without college degrees. In focusing on the states that swung, however, it is easy to overlook the obvious. Trump's core strength was in the whitest parts of the country. He dominated in Wyoming and the Dakotas, which are upwards of 85% white. With the exception of Virginia--with its very large number of residents who are DC suburbanites--and Georgia, Trump won every state in the Confederacy. North Carolina--with its high-tech centers around the Research Triangle--was close but stayed red.
None of that is entirely new. For over half a century, Republican Presidential candidates have been appealing to white racial resentments based on variations on Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy. Trump's innovation was to replace dog-whistles with outright support for white supremacists and white supremacy. Writing in the NY Review of Books on the eve of the election, historian David Blight compared Trumpism to a new mythology comparable to the Lost Cause myth that emerged in the South--in which the Civil War was fought for some reason other than the preservation of slavery, which was in any event a benign institution, and in which the South didn't really lose. Blight sees "Trump flags replace Confederate flags on truck caravans and at Republican rallies," but that is not quite accurate. Trump flags supplement and merge in meaning with the Confederate flags that still dot the landscape at many Trump events. More than a month after the election, I can drive for ten minutes outside my college-town enclave into the surrounding rural areas and see houses festooned with Trump signs and flags. About one in ten also has a Confederate flag. And to be clear, I live in New York State.
Trump, who grew up in Queens, NY, and made his reputation in Manhattan (and then magnified it via a TV show in which he played a fictionalized and more successful version of himself) may seem like an unlikely avatar of Southern redeemer mythology. The centrality of white racial grievance unites the stories. Even now, there is a possibility that Trump will veto a bipartisan defense policy bill because it contains a provision calling for renaming military bases currently named for Confederate soldiers. As for New York, well that requires a trip down memory lane.
New York City in the 1980s was a cauldron of violent crime and racial unrest. Donald Trump was, at the time, mostly interested in publicizing himself in the society pages, but he also took an interest in the incendiary politics of race. Two episodes epitomize the era.
Bernhard Goetz portrayed himself as a mild-mannered (white) man minding his own business who had been victimized in the past by aggressive young Black men, so he had purchased a gun for protection. He then used it against four such young men who accosted him on the subway. Evidence against Goetz pretty clearly showed that he continued to fire after any threat had passed, but he was found guilty only of illegal possession of an unregistered firearm. For many white New Yorkers at the time, the very thing that made Goetz's act criminal--the use of potentially deadly force for vengeance rather than in self-defense--made him a hero. Trump's current champion, Rudy Giuliani, epitomized and exploited this view. As David Freedlander wrote in an astute Vanity Fair article on what the Donald learned from Rudy's star turn, "whites largely living in the outer boroughs who had been dismayed by the turn the city had taken over the previous decade . . . considered Bernhard Goetz, the 'Subway Vigilante,' a hero. Giuliani let it be known that their New York was his." The Goetz story shows how one can be both victim and tough-guy avenger.
The second critical episode took place five years later, in 1989, when a jogger in Central Park was brutally assaulted and left for dead. One Latino and four Black young men who came to be known as the Central Park Five were convicted based on extended interrogations that produced confessions. Donald Trump ran a full-page ad in the NY Daily News under the headline "Bring back the death penalty!" Many years later, the Central Park Five--who had maintained their innocence and claimed the confessions were coerced--were exonerated. Trump continued to say they were guilty.
If you did not live through the 1980s in New York, you can get a good sense of the time and place from the late great Lou Reed's magnificent album New York, which was released in 1989, the same year as the attack on the Central Park jogger. It brings together in music all of the elements discussed here. Some representative lyrics:
From Hold On:
There's blacks with knives and whites with guns fighting in Howard Beach. There's no such thing as human rights when you walk the N.Y. streets. A cop was shot in the head by a ten-year old kid named Buddha in Central Park last week. The fathers are lined up by the coffins by the Statue of Bigotry. . . .You got a black .38 and a gravity knife. You still have to ride the train. There's the smelly essence of New York down there but you ain't no Bernhard Goetz.
From Dirty Boulevard:
Give me your hungry, your tired your poor I'll piss on 'em. That's what the statue of bigotry says. Your poor huddled masses, let's club 'em to death and get it over with . . . .
And from Sick of You:
They arrested the Mayor for an illegal favor . . . And the Ayatollah bought a nuclear warship; if he dies he wants to go out in style . . . . They ordained the Trumps and then he got the mumps and died bein' treated at Mt. Sinai. And my best friend Bill died from a poison pill some wired doctor prescribed for stress. My arms and legs are shrunk. The food all has lumps. They discovered some animal no one's ever seen. It was an inside trader eating a rubber tire after runnin' over Rudy Giuliani. They say the President's dead. No one can find his head. It's been missin' now for weeks. But no one noticed it. He had seemed so fit. And I'm sick of it. I'm sick of you. I'm so sick of you. Bye, bye, bye.
I'm tempted to close by saying plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, but that's not true. Violent crime in NYC peaked a year after the Central Park jogger attack and Reed's masterpiece, then fell dramatically and stayed low. Similar trends occurred throughout the country. As we know all too well, policing practices lagged and thus, so did racial tension. But the very real problems of policing and structural racism that beset our urban centers have virtually nothing to do with Trump's rise. Trump draws his strength from racial resentments felt most intensely by rural Americans. Why?
That's a question for another time. For now, I want to suggest that whatever the source of the racial resentments felt by white non-college-educated voters in the South, midwest, upper Plains, and elsewhere in the United States, in Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani they have found a seemingly odd but on reflection almost perfectly fitting pair of time-traveling champions.