For the last seven years, I’ve had quite a few people here in Europe ask me to explain Trump and his MAGA sycophants. Their incredulous questions are understandable. What’s in MAGA minds? How could they believe such things? Why are they so full of hate?
Europe has its own history of narcissistic con men who have led the easily led. But I understand that Europeans struggle to comprehend the United States’ own unique strain of this political virus.
The Trump/MAGA phenomenon is often characterized as shallow and one-dimensional, but like all cultural phenomena, it is complicated. We can’t reduce the thoughts and feelings of these people to simplistic summaries. We can, however, take a phenomenological approach that looks at what these people say and do, letting them tell and show us what they are about.
What’s the point of Trump, and why does he do what he does? What’s the point of being one of his MAGA minions? People do things for reasons. “Why?” is always a good question to ask.
Trump’s reasons are obvious. He shows again and again that he craves and needs to be the center of attention. He also seems to really like feeling important. Those who follow and idolize Trump also seem to get feelings of importance from doing so. That’s common. People frequently join groups and/or become fans of public figures to gain a sense of importance.
There is, though, a particular strain of importance and identity that the Trump/MAGA followers are feeling and expressing in their adoration of their leader. Their group is different from, for example, fans of pop music acts or sports teams.
A key characteristic of MAGA is that it is antagonistic and externally focused. Sure, there’s “yay, rah, Trump, yay, rah, us!” but the MAGA movement is dominated by the feeling of “we are under threat!” After all, what “MAGA” really means is “we think America is not great.”
Feeling under threat means feeling someone is out to get you. Listening to MAGA adherents tells us who they think has made America not great. One of the most telling trends in MAGA is a common right-wing talking point about critical race theory (CRT). The MAGA mob is very, very against CRT, and they are usually straw manning it as a war on white people. When pressed to give a more rational reason why they want to ban all mention of CRT (and Black history, especially slavery and segregation), they accuse CRT of trying to relegate Black people to being perpetual victims. Even if that accusation were true, the MAGA sentiment quickly morphs into accusations that allowing discussion of the history of racial discrimination harms whites.
The MAGA moaners are claiming to be victims of CRT. And not just victims of CRT, the MAGA martyrs are victims of wokeism, the gay agenda, immigrants, and having to pay taxes. (I left out a few dozen other boogeymen allegedly preying on the poor MAGA victims.) The MAGA movement is the reactionary right crying “circle the wagons, the savages are attacking!” Trump, craving attention, exploits the reactionary right’s craving for victimhood.
Is the boisterous vehemence of Trump and his minions best understood as a demand for recognition of their victimhood? Is that what the culture wars are really about? “You can’t talk about social injustices, because we are the greater victims here!” This demand would explain the motivation for much of what the MAGA martyrs say and do.
Victim Envy and Victimhood Culture
The Paris Institute for Critical Thinking says that victimhood is a common response to felt trauma. The sense of victimhood can undermine assumptions about the world as a just and reasonable place. Claiming victimhood can also work as a strategy to avoid responsibility and criticism, producing a “victim mentality.” Taking on that mentality of victimhood, one can feel above ethical accountability yet entitled to render ethical judgment on others.
Sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning argue that there is a rise of a “victimhood culture”* that incentivizes people to publicize grievances and make victimhood a central part of their identity. It is, they say, a dizzying cultural milieu that replaces a culture of dignity with a culture of identifying as a victim. Trump is a leader in victimhood culture, and his MAGA minions are eager participants.
Victimhood is a strange way to feel important, but it is not uncommon. I researched the topic of subcultural antagonism in one of my books.* I argued that some subcultures are oriented toward commiseration over perceived victimhood and take on an attitude of “us against the world” as a source of identity. The MAGA subculture is hardly alone in this behavior, but a whataboutery of “that group plays the victim too” doesn’t change the likelihood that the MAGA movement is fundamentally an expression of victimhood. Yes, “cancel culture” from the Fake Left is a “victim mentality,” and Trump and his MAGA minions are another version of “cancel culture.” As Campbell and Manning say, there is now a clash between these two cancel cultures trying to out-victim each other.
Since being indicted, Trump has gone into off-the-charts victimhood mode. Biden, the Justice Department, Democrats, and the Wicked Witch are all out to get him. That’s why he needs money, so he says. And his supporters are apparently still willing to shell out money to help Victim Trump, who is now claiming he is being martyred for them, his supporters. The incredible irony of it all is that the MAGA minions can’t point to anything that Trump has done for them other than express out loud their own sense of victimhood. Maybe that’s enough? Is this a profession now, Professional Victims’ Spokesperson?
Listening to MAGA
Are the people who support Victim Trump themselves victims? They say they are, even if they don’t use the v-word. Then we should listen to their complaints and ask of them two questions. One, are your complaints justified, and are you actually victimized by those you claim are threatening you (CRT, wokeism, the gay agenda, immigrants, and so on)? Two, are you seeking a positive solution, wallowing in your victimhood, or reveling in being hostile to soothe your feelings of victimhood?
If MAGA people can justify their complaints and show they are willing to work for solutions cooperatively and constructively, then we owe them our respect and cooperation. However, if they are instead interested only in complaining and attacking and canceling other people, then they are victimizing themselves. They are showing they aren’t trying to make America great; they are trying to make themselves greater victims.
* Purchases through these links would, in theory, lead to an exceedingly tiny commission for the author.