Beware Trump’s championing of the ‘victim-warrior’

Former President Donald Trump has long pushed contradictory messages about the people who participated in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot. He has downplayed their actions, arguing that the “real” insurrection is happening at the U.S.-Mexico border. He has peddled conspiracy theories about how they were duped by a deep state conspiracy and were taken as “hostages.” And he has praised them as peaceful “patriots.”

But at a rally in Las Vegas on Sunday, Trump offered up a new formulation that might epitomize how he feels about that fateful day — and about the role violence should play in his movement. 

The victim-warrior mentality is in fact at the heart of all of Trump’s politics.

“Those J6 warriors — they were warriors — but they were really, more than anything else, they’re victims of what happened,” Trump said. “All they were doing is protesting a rigged election, that’s what they were doing. And then the police say, go in, go in, go in, go in. What a setup that was.” 

Trump offers up two conflicting descriptions. On one hand, the Jan. 6 rioters were “warriors,” which frames them as consciously violent and struggling for a cause. On the other hand, he describes them as “victims,” suggesting they were unwitting innocents who were targeted and set up by Capitol police. 

The tension between Trump’s two accounts could be attributed to incoherence. But it’s more illuminating to think of them as components of a MAGA duality that helps explain Trump’s autocratic worldview and his style of politicking. By using the term “warrior,” Trump is not just valorizing Jan. 6 violence as virtuous. He’s both recruiting a new set of warriors to fight for his cause and is openly spurring the most militant members of his movement. And by using the term “victim,” Trump is signaling that he believes that those who (literally) fight for him should be immune to accountability, that even their most brutal actions should be blamed on authorities who allegedly provoke and entrap them. 

The victim-warrior mentality is in fact at the heart of all of Trump’s politics. Much of his base is driven by what political scientists call white “racial resentment” and by beliefs that Trump’s voters are the unique or foremost victims of the machinations of America’s political and economic systems. For example, in the aftermath of Trump’s 2016 election, scholars at the University of Chicago used survey data to argue that “white vulnerability” — the fear of loss of status relative to other racial groups through no fault of their own — motivated the white millennials in Trump’s base to cast their ballot for him. Among other things, people who scored higher on the pollsters’ measures of “white vulnerability” were more likely to believe that racism against white people is as big of a problem as it is for Black people.

And Trump’s movement has been tinged with violence since its very beginning. He has encouraged violence against counterprotesters at his rallies, depicted physical assaults on the media on social media, and spoke highly of demonstrators attending a white supremacist rally even after one mowed a counterprotester down with a car. Trump supported the vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse who killed Black Lives Matter protesters, and threatened military violence against BLM protesters as well. And, of course, he incited a mob to try to prevent a transfer of power to President Joe Biden. 

The combination of these two identities is chilling. The MAGA victim-warriors are perpetually aggrieved, aggressive and preemptively justified in violence because they’ve been “set up” by the system. Their champion — a racist, corrupt billionaire who has been found liable for sexual abuse — is a predator who sits atop almost every social food chain imaginable, and then complains that he is a martyr. What the MAGA victim-warriors won’t admit is that they don’t want to break the rules to fix the system, but to foreclose any erosion of social hierarchies. Their cause is not to restore American greatness, but to preserve their own power. 

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