The Right’s Fascination with a Martyrdom Complex

I’m just getting around to reading Rick Perlstein’s excellent Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, and was struck by one of his insights about the kind of people Richard Nixon attracted to the Republican Party. Perlstein frames the early part of the book in terms associated with Nixon’s experience at Whittier: not socially skilled enough to find membership in the school’s elite Franklin social set, Nixon set out to create his own group (the Orthogonians), defined as much by their perceived victimization at the hands of the elite:

When the people who felt like losers united around their shared psychological sense of grievance, their enemies felt somehow more overwhelming, not less; even if the Franklins weren’t always really so powerful at all, Franklin “power” often being merely a self-perpetuating effect of an Orthogonian sense of victimization. Martyrs who were not really martyrs, oppressors who were not really oppressors: a class politics for the white middle class.

I think Perlstein has hit on an incredibly insightful way to describe the thinking of modern American conservatives: despite being born into and raised in incredible privilege, they’ve chosen to cast themselves as victims and martyrs.

When the media dares to report critically about a Republican candidate, they cry about media bias. When confronted by millions of Americans unable to enjoy equal rights under the law, conservatives actually cast themselves as the victims. Despite a pronounced conservative tilt to textbooks, conservative children are presented as victims of a liberal education system. Despite earning more than women, conservative men are victims of feminism. In a country with insanely lax gun laws, conservatives are victims of an authoritarian government. In the most religious (and Christian) developed nation in the world, conservative Christians imagine themselves in as much danger as the early Christian martyrs in Rome.

No matter the institution, the social cause or the government agency, you can count on conservatives to see themselves as victims of its oppression at every turn.

The ultimate irony? These same conservatives imagine themselves as Randian heroes, striding across the stage of the the world like some unholy combination of John Galt and John Wayne. The combination of their heroic fantasy life and paranoid self-victimization must be quite unsettling.

Maybe it’s that kind of cognitive dissonance that allows conservatives to do things like pretend they are being bold by attacking dead homeless people or imagine that they are protecting American values by torturing.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.


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