National Opinions

Can aggressors be ‘victims’? Ideologues on the right think so.

Waitman Wade Beorn, a combat veteran of Iraq, is a Holocaust and genocide studies historian, a senior lecturer in history at Northumbria University in Newcastle, England, and the author of “Marching Into Darkness: The Wehrmacht and the Holocaust in Belarus.”

Among the most brazen cries of victimhood pouring from the American right these days is that of former president Donald Trump paying tribute to Ashli Babbitt, the insurrectionist killed by a Capitol police officer who was defending legislators on Jan. 6. “Her memory,” Trump said in a recorded video played at a recent birthday commemoration, “will live on in our hearts for all time,” and “we must all demand justice for Ashli” - obscuring the fact that she was shot while attempting to storm the halls of government with an angry mob. A subtler instance is the new Glenn Youngkin campaign ad in which a mother claims her son was victimized by having to read Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s slavery novel “Beloved” in his high school English class - and that Youngkin’s opponent in the Virginia governor’s race, former governor Terry McAuliffe, was to blame.

The tactic isn’t new; groups of all stripes elevate individuals to martyrdom as they try to manipulate a narrative to fit their ends - and it’s often the aggressors playing the victim. But lately there has been a twist. Increasingly, there are those on the right who openly embrace fascist symbology and rhetoric while simultaneously portraying themselves as fascism’s historical victims. In addition to being absurd, ironic and offensive, this tactic has the effect, perhaps intended, of pushing the real victims of right-wing extremism out of the spotlight.

Examples run the gamut and emerge from different strands of right-wing ideology, but recent ones have concerned government responses to the coronavirus pandemic. At a city council meeting in Anchorage in October, while Alaska struggled with its worst surge of covid-19, anti-mask protesters wore Stars of David resembling those the Nazis forced Jews to wear during the Holocaust. The words “Do Not Comply” were written on them. The Anchorage mayor said that the stars meant " ‘we will not forget, this will never happen again’ " and that “borrowing that from [the Jews] is actually a credit to them.” Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene (R-Ga.) has also compared mask mandates to the stars - comparable to the gassing of Jews during the Holocaust. She later apologized for those remarks, but not for comparing the Democratic Party to the Nazi party. Herschel Walker, a Trump-endorsed Republican running for U.S. Senate in Georgia, was forced to cancel a fundraiser hosted by an anti-vaccine supporter displaying a swastika made of syringes on her Twitter profile, but a Walker campaign spokesperson minimized the use of the image, calling it “clearly an anti-mandatory vaccination graphic.”

The most extreme examples come from the right’s farthest fringes, which are at the same time closest to Trump. In a video, Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser and a retired lieutenant general in the U.S. Army, invoked Nazism in denouncing Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease doctor: “Faucism is a component of the health side of fascism and Nazism,” Flynn said, “and it really does have to do with eugenics, and Dr. Fauci would be right in there in the same room with people like Dr. Mengele . . . who worked for the Nazis at the time of all of Hitler’s experimentation on human beings.”

Even at the beginning of “alt-right” violence by neo-Nazis and white supremacists chanting “Jews will not replaces us” in Charlottesville in 2017, the same extremists who marched on the University of Virginia campus and threatened students were filmed decrying the sometimes violent reaction of counterprotesters, as if they were the true victims. White supremacist Richard Spencer appeared in the New York Times that year after he was attacked. “Is it O.K. to punch a Nazi?” the headline read. In a lengthy Periscope video Spencer titled “The Assault on Me,” he lamented all his injuries while calling anti-fascist attackers “cowards.” (Recent data from the Center for Strategic and International Studies shows that attacks by members of far-right groups far exceed those attributable to antifascits or the far left.)

People across the broad spectrum of conservative politics in America see themselves as under attack. From “cancel culture” to “deplatforming,” the right simultaneously paints itself as innocent victims of an oppressive society while also proud to be the aggressors - defenders of a hypermasculine, hyper-patriotic set of values. This seems paradoxical at first, but it is actually part of a longer historical phenomenon in both American and European society. In many ways, the “lost cause” myth is simply a refiguring of the literal aggressors of the Civil War into the valiant victims. In both the lost cause and the contemporary phenomenon, what is striking is that proponents attempt an inversion of power. Though holding most of the power, victim-makers claim to be victimized by forces beyond their control.

Historically, this tactic has been part of the fascist playbook. Consider the case of Horst Wessel. Wessel was a 23-year-old college dropout and member of Hitler’s brownshirts, the SA, in Berlin. He was a Nazi street brawler who had organized attacks against communists before he was shot dead in 1930. Despite Wessel’s checkered and less-than-heroic past, the Nazis, led by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, seized upon his death and elevated him to official martyr status. His funeral drew tens of thousands of mourners, and a song bearing his name became the official anthem of the Nazi party. Though a petty criminal, Wessel became simultaneously a positive symbol of the aggressive violence of the regime and an “innocent victim” of the evil communists (shades of Babbitt).

Thirteen years later, another prominent Nazi, Heinrich Himmler, addressed a particularly unexpected group of Nazi “victims.” In a speech in Posen to high-level SS officers, most of whom had been involved in the mass murder of Jews, Himmler noted that it was these men, rather than the Jews, who were the victims and bore the scars of their work. The mass killings, he said, were “the most difficult duty.” He addressed men who “know what it means when 100 corpses are lying side by side, or 500 or 1,000″ and praised them for having “endured” their participation in genocide. Two years earlier, he had told the commanders of the killing squads that it was their “sacred obligation . . . to see to it personally that none of our men who have to fulfill this heavy duty, become brutalized.” The “heavy duty” of which he spoke was mass killing. Even though these men were the perpetrators, they preferred to see themselves as the ones sacrificing and suffering. Part and parcel of this is the frequent paradox of racism: Racists consider different ethnicities simultaneously inferior and also existential threats.

Why do the aggressors so often attempt to portray themselves as the victims? The case of the Nazi killers is an extreme example, but similar rhetoric from the American far right also demands explanation. The most obvious is a plea for sympathy. Another is a desire to be seen as defenders responding to attacks. There is also the psychological comfort in portraying oneself as the victim. But there is another, darker possibility.

When the right associates itself with Jews in the Holocaust, it is appropriating the space reserved for victims. It is, in a sense, pushing the rightful victims out and attempting to absorb the sympathy and compassion they are owed. It is a form of re-victimization, which has as its goal negating, relativizing or erasing real suffering.

There seems to be no small degree of projection (conscious or unconscious) at play here. While we cannot perhaps characterize Trump conservatism as inherently antisemitic, many of its fellow travelers are. The pushback against critical race theory also attempts to recenter victimhood away from those actually suffering. In this instance, a predominantly White demographic is uncomfortable recognizing the suffering of minorities - because it is a mirror to their own complicity. In reaction, they forcefully try to insert themselves into the narrative as either the only victims or an equally victimized group. As one Twitter commenter noted about the Youngkin ad objecting to “Beloved,” “If your son was traumatized by reading a novel about slavery imagine how the actual enslaved people felt.”

The danger here is that playing the victim (as opposed to being the victim) can be both addictive and energizing for the perpetrators. The Republican establishment is actively playing into this economy of victimization. Nearly the entire Republican Party attempted to scuttle any investigation into the causes of the Jan. 6 insurrection. This is the first step in turning extremists into victims and then into martyrs.

Allowing the right to weave pernicious counternarratives and to create saints from sinners will only embolden future Ashli Babbitts and spawn more violence. This is not an unreasonable prediction. Last month, a man was arrested in a molotov cocktail attack on the headquarters of the Democratic Party in Austin. The problem with creating martyrs is that they are too often born of violence and death and then used to perpetuate more violence. The cycle, as history has shown, is very hard to break.

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