Mitt breaks out the V-word

What's the matter with the 47 percent? Romney's talk of "victims" tapped into long-standing right-wing grievances

Topics: 2012 Elections, Mitt Romney, 47 percent, Sarah Palin, Steve King,

There is a word that has gotten lost in all the parsing of Mitt’s rage at the 47 percent. It’s the v-word: Victim. That 47 percent who are with Obama, Romney told the group of wealthy donors, “believe that they are victims” who are “entitled” to government assistance. Like the moocher rhetoric, this is simply a graceless (or, if you prefer Mitt’s own take, inelegant) and uncoded rendering of what has become conservative dogma.

The clear meaning, of course, is that these 47 percent erroneously believe that they are victims. The implication is that the real victims are the wealthy people before him, whose justly earned money is being siphoned off for the benefit of these ersatz victims.

In throwing the word “victim” into a complaint ostensibly about taxes, Romney was handily drawing on a long-standing right-wing riposte to “identity politics” — the critique of so-called victimology. Faced with the argument from black Americans, women, immigrants and sexual minorities — many of whom Romney would be correct to say are unlikely to vote for him, especially at the rate he and his party are going — that structural discrimination undermines the narrative of the “opportunity society,” the response is to tell them they’ve been duped by elites into falsely believing they are victims. In other words, the problem is partly in their heads.

From Phyllis Schlafly declaring that Sarah Palin “is not a feminist because she doesn’t adopt the victimology notion of the feminists” to John McWhorter’s allegation of a “cult of victimology” among the African-American community, this is practically right-wing boilerplate. But Rep. Steve King of Iowa, the id of today’s Republican Party, was the most recent conservative to give this idea full expression. Discussing campus multicultural groups, he said they involved being “brought into a group of people that are – have a grievance against society rather than understand there’s a tremendous blessing in this society.”

Later, he clarified his remarks: “It’s not the multiculturalism that’s wrong, it’s the victimology, which has been the core of multiculturalism,” said King. “People are being told that it’s not their fault, that it’s somebody else’s …That’s the excuse path. We need to have individual responsibility, a culture that supports it — that celebrates it — and one that discourages the slackers from lining up at the public trough and accepting the benefits of the sweat of someone else’s brow.” This amounts to the actual Republican pitch to the traditional Democratic coalition, not intellectually disparate from Mitt Romney’s secret video comments: It’s not your identity we don’t like, it’s your “excuse path,” your “slackers lining up at the public trough.”

That, in turn, renders the true victim the supposed supplier of that “public trough” who’s being taken for a ride. Corey Robin has argued that “far from being an invention of the politically correct, victimhood has been a talking point of the right ever since Burke decried the mob’s treatment of Marie Antoinette. The conservative, to be sure, speaks for a special type of victim: one who has lost something of value, as opposed to the wretched of the earth, whose chief complaint is that they never had anything to lose.” Robin says that this formulation has a more “universal significance” than it appears. In this case we can say that even those who didn’t have as much to “lose” as the gatherers at Mitt’s fundraiser in Boca Raton, Fla. — say, a low-income white man — can find something that feels lost in a world with a black president and sundry other indignities.

Romney’s claim last night was that what’s on the video isn’t substantively different from what he’s said in public. This is partly true; he has railed against people who want “free stuff,” and those people have been, by implication, black voters and women who demand that their private insurance cover contraception. In July, referring to a speech given the same day to the NAACP, he said:

When I mentioned I am going to get rid of Obamacare they weren’t happy, I didn’t get the same response. That’s OK, I want people to know what I stand for and if I don’t stand for what they want, go vote for someone else, that’s just fine. But I hope people understand this, your friends who like Obamacare, you remind them of this, if they want more stuff from government tell them to go vote for the other guy–more free stuff.

And in March, in response to a question about birth control — the questioner erroneously called it “free” — Romney said, “If you’re looking for free stuff you don’t have to pay for? Vote for the other guy, that’s what he’s all about, OK? That’s not, that’s not what I’m about.” This was part of the right-wing condemnation of Fluke, that she was looking for “free” stuff, in this case to supposedly finance another bête noire that has rankled since the ’60s — an imagined wild sex life.

But it’s not true that Romney has always accused roughly half of the population of acting “entitled” to “free stuff” out of their unjustified sense of victimhood. When he made his Obamacare free stuff remarks, he again claimed to be consistent: “I gave them the same speech I am giving you. I don’t give different speeches to different audiences, all right? I gave them the same speech.” But revisiting that NAACP speech, however given in bad faith it was, is a striking contrast to the Romney of Boca Raton.

“If equal opportunity in America were an accomplished fact, then a chronically bad economy would be equally bad for everyone,” he said. “Instead, it’s worse for African Americans in almost every way.” (Are you rubbing your eyes yet?) “The unemployment rate, the duration of unemployment, average income, and median family wealth are all worse for the black community. In June, while the overall unemployment rate remained stuck at 8.2 percent, the unemployment rate for African Americans actually went up, from 13.6 percent to 14.4 percent.”

Romney went on, “The path of inequality often leads to lost opportunity,” saying of disadvantaged young people, “Many live in neighborhoods filled with violence and fear, and empty of opportunity. Their impatience for real change is understandable. They are entitled to feel that life in America should be better than this.” (Emphasis added.) What a profoundly different idea of entitlement this use expresses, one that involves a fundamental human rights claim that acknowledges that history and structural discrimination — and, in the case of women and the disabled, physiology — means that an “opportunity society” still mostly benefits the same people who were in the room with Romney in Florida.

We know Mitt Romney said these words aloud, just as he said precisely what his donors wanted to hear. We have no idea if he understands them. But we do know that he has no real plan or intention to act upon them.

Irin Carmon

Irin Carmon is a staff writer for Salon. Follow her on Twitter at @irincarmon or email her at

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>