The day after Donald Trump dramatically declared he was the "persecuted" victim of an "FBI raid," a debate erupted over how big a deal this really is. As Trump fundraised off his imaginary victimhood, some folks (including myself, full disclosure) assumed this must be important, for the FBI to go to all this trouble. Other folks insisted Trump is just stubbornly clinging to otherwise irrelevant classified documents, and that the "raid" was closer to the government coming to fetch an overdue library book.
Late Tuesday, reports from both the Washington Post and the New York Times pointed to the latter theory, with the Times noting that the "agents carried out the search in a relatively low-key manner," even avoiding wearing their FBI jackets. If that turns out to be true, then the situation is disappointing, but somehow even more sinister. It would suggest Trump is hanging onto these documents for the same reason a serial killer keeps jewelry from his victims, as a trophy to caress whenever he wishes to reminisce over his destructive power and gloat about how he got away with it all.
"Mr. Trump would wave things like the North Korean leader's letters at people, as if they were collectors' items he was showing off," the New York Times reported.
If this really is about document retrieval, it also heightens the absurdity of Trump's outsized reaction — including calling himself "the most persecuted person in the history of our country" — and the alarming effect it's having on both the GOP establishment and his followers. Most Republicans have fallen in line with Trump's victim narrative, vowing revenge on Attorney General Merrick Garland and threatening to "defund" the FBI in retaliation. Trump's followers, meanwhile, are taking his tantrum as the "go" sign to escalate the domestic terrorism, calling for "civil war" and telling each other to "lock and load." Steve Bannon went on Infowars to declare that the FBI is trying to "assassinate" Trump. A Fox News guest declared the document retrieval is "a declaration of war against the American public."
All of the violent rhetoric and defenses of Trumpian criminality are bad no matter what, but it's especially bizarre if it's all in service of Trump boring his guests at Mar-a-Lago by showing off letters from Kim Jung-un. As Paul Waldman of the Washington Post points out, however, it's part of a larger Trump-driven mission — which has been wholly adopted by the larger Republican Party — to collapse any distinction between the party's political agenda, the goals of far-right extremists and Trump's impulses.
Republican America is trapped in an endless whirlwind of nebulous rage over its own perceived victimization.
"Trump's personal narrative of oppression," Waldman writes, has been fully embraced by GOP the even though it has nothing to do with "the lives of the Americans whose votes Trump might soon be seeking again."
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Waldman's right. "Bring back Trump so he can keep his mementos!" is not a compelling campaign slogan to swing voters. But what's weird is how compelling it truly is to the GOP base. Fox News isn't going all out with the fake Trump victimization storyline for the hell of it. The social media reaction from the right does, indeed, suggest that the GOP base really does thrill for a fight over Trump's "right" to flout every single law, big or small. To understand why, it helps to understand how much modern politics, especially for Republicans, is about symbolism and identity.
There was much online mockery of the GOP House Judiciary tweeting, "If they can do it to a former President, imagine what they can do to you." A lot of people pointed out that the FBI wouldn't hesitate to show up at any of our houses, if we had, like Trump, stolen classified documents. But that's not really what any of this is about. Trump has, with his relentless whining, managed to turn himself into a larger symbol of right-wing America's own complaints about what they perceive as unfair attacks on their own unearned privileges over those they consider un-Americans.
It's swiftly becoming the most famous blog comment of all time, from Frank Wilhoit, a composer and commenter at the blog Crooked Timber: "Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: There must be in-groups whom the law protectes but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect."
Or, as one of the January 6 insurrectionists whined: "They're supposed to shoot BLM, but they're shooting the patriots."
As policy researcher Will Stancil noted Tuesday on Twitter:
Mar-a-Lago search showing how modern US conservativism can be reduced to three views:
1. whining about their victimhood
2. demanding special treatment to reverse victimization
3. if special treatment is denied, asserting a right to commit violence and break rules in response
— Will Stancil (@whstancil) August 9, 2022
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Trump's whining is received by his base on this symbolic level. His tantrum over being asked to obey record-keeping laws resonates with his followers because of its resemblance to their personal grievances like being asked not to use the n-word around the grandkids or being told by H.R. to stop ogling the secretary's legs. It's not unlike having your niece make a face at Thanksgiving when you go off on another rant about "globalists" and the "abortion industry" or having people unfollow you on Facebook when you post yet another unhinged meme about the "invasion" at the border. Trump devotees keenly feel the slights against their "right" to be racist, sexist louts — that's what all the "cancel culture" whining is about — and Trump has channeled that larger and inchoate cloud of entitled whining into his own set of often idiosyncratic bellyaches.
Trump has channeled that larger and inchoate cloud of entitled whining into his own set of often idiosyncratic bellyaches.
We see a similar situation with the obsessive right-wing anger at Christine Blasey Ford for accusing Justice Brett Kavanaugh of attempting to rape her in high school. The extremely personal anger from MAGA America isn't because they know what it's like to be questioned in a Supreme Court confirmation hearing about their past transgressions. What they did relate to was this fear that they — or their husbands or their sons — could face very real consequences for sexual violence that, in the past, had been swept under the rug. Or, even more abstractly, they're angry that the presumption of male supremacy is under threat. And a lot of men don't want to give that up because they rely on it for everything from getting out of doing dishes to getting paid more at work.
Liberals engage in a similar, if far more pro-social, tendency to project their own concerns onto the lives of public figures. People thrill to see the rise of figures like President Barack Obama, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren because their success gives life to the aspirations of marginalized people. Hell, there's even a pop culture component, where celebrity gossip (such as the Amber Heard/Johnny Depp trial) becomes important because the details reflect the concerns of ordinary people. There's nothing necessarily wrong with this. These kinds of stories help define and shape our culture, which very much impacts how regular people experience their own lives.
Where things get toxic, however, is in the right's anger about diversity in politics or celebrities speaking out about issues like racism or gendered violence. Conservatives resent what it means for their own lives, and how these national stories contribute to pressures they don't like, like having to show respect to women and people of color in their own neighborhoods and workplaces. That kind of resentment can be channeled into avenues that make emotional, if not logical sense. We saw this in the furor over masking and vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic, which became touchstones for a generalized right-wing rejection of having to show any concern or care for others in their community.
Donald Trump gets this more than anyone. No, it doesn't make sense that people who are aggrieved over increasing race and gender equality would connect their anger to Trump's tantrum over having to hand over some stolen documents. But it doesn't need to make sense. Republican America is trapped in an endless whirlwind of nebulous rage over its own perceived victimization, which needs neither evidence nor logic to sustain it. Unfortunately, as January 6 showed, that disconnect from all rationality makes them even more dangerous.