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Romney's Victim Identification: What Really Drives Right-Wing Politics

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One of the most interesting things about Mitt Romney's belief that Obama voters are parasitic victims is that for the last fifty years, a key strategy of the Republican party has been to represent wealthy elites as victims. Not only do rich conservatives see themselves as victims of high taxes and government regulation, but they also feel that they are under attack by liberal culture, the mainstream media, and higher education.

We can trace the birth of this movement to the Southern Strategy and the Republican realization that if they wanted to dominate American politics, they would have to turn Southern Democrats into members of the GOP. Republicans knew that many Southern Whites were unhappy with civil rights and the fight for racial equality, but most conservative politicians did not feel that they could run campaigns based on explicit racism, and so instead, they concentrated on getting tough on crime, which often translated into getting tough on black criminals.

As Michelle Alexander illustrates in her The New Jim Crow, the constant media representation of African-American criminals set the stage for an unconscious symbolic association between crime and black people. Southern politicians knew that if they pushed the tough-on-crime rhetoric, they could also employ implicit racism, while at the same time denying any use of prejudice and discrimination. A side effect of this rhetoric was that wealthy white elites could see themselves as victims of crime and by extension, victims of minorities.

This victim identification was heightened by the fear that the social movements of the 1960s would give power to women, blacks, and young people at the expense of older wealthy white males. Thus, in the case of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, a white male applying to medical school won a claim of reversed discrimination, and affirmative action was now seen as a public policy that turned the white majority into victims of special preferences for minorities.

The next stage in this victim reversal rhetoric was a broad tax revolt, which positioned wealthy people as the victims of high taxes. Starting with Prop 13 in California, wealthy whites argued that not only were high taxes bad for business, but they victimized the rich since the wealthy had the highest tax rates. In order then to justify the cutting of tax rates, conservatives had to take on "Big Government," which Ronald Reagan helped to turn into the Big Victimizer. In this important rhetorical reversal, government was equated with welfare, and welfare was equated with helping minorities; moreover, according to this fantasy logic, welfare victimized the wealthy by making them pay for public programs that gave preference and aid to minorities.

In order to argue that there was no need for higher taxes, Republicans had to prove that government could be reduced, and this was done by arguing that minorities no longer needed help in a colorblind society. One part of this fight was to claim that everyone in America, regardless of race or gender, has the ability to succeed on their own, and the other strategy was to argue that racism is only a figment of the imagination of liberal professors, politicians, and media. In other words, since racism and sexism no longer exists, the perception of racism and sexism must come from the Lefties who hate America and want to increase the welfare state.

It is important to note that Reagan's fantasy of the Welfare Queen accomplished several goals of this victim reversal rhetoric. Not only was a woman on welfare represented as the true victimizer of the wealthy taxpayer, but the marginalized status of minorities was at once evoked and erased: poor black women were seen as driving around in expensive Cadillacs because they were living off of over-generous government support.

Adding fuel to this rhetorical fire is the notion that Christians are under assault by gays who want to marry and women who want to use birth control or have abortions. From the perspective of this traditional religious ideology, secularism victimizes Christians for their beliefs. Of course, Christianity itself, like most other religions, is sometimes based on a victim identification, which is only heightened when religions have to counter other competing victim identities.

This combination of coded racism, defensive religion, and reversed rhetoric brings us to the psychology of victim identity. At first glance, it seems hard to explain why so many wealthy and powerful people would see themselves as victims, but victim identification provides many important social and psychological benefits. First of all, the victim is always right, and the victimizer is always wrong. Not only does this stabilize the identity of the victim, but it creates a clear ordering of the social world. Secondly, the victim is always justified in his or her reactions. This means that the victim feels justified in victimizing others, while still retaining a sense of self-righteous superiority.

It is also hard to criticize a victim or even correct one since any criticism will be interpreted as another victimization. For example, when Sarah Palin was running for Vice President, she interpreted any criticism of her lack of knowledge as a sexist attack by the liberal media. In turn, many conservatives rallied around her because she helped to both solidify the victim status of the Republicans as she presented the liberal press as the true victimizers.

As many psychologists know, one of the core fantasies of patients is their sense of being a victim, and while we should be careful never to deny the real pain and suffering of people, we need to distinguish between victim identification and traumatic oppression. In the case of contemporary conservative politics, we have witnessed a series of rhetorical reversals that have been employed to turn victimizers into victims and victims into victimizers.

Mitt Romney's foray into victim politics can be explained through the psychological process of projection. Instead of admitting that he sees himself as a victim who has relied on governmental programs and has avoided paying taxes, Romney sees his Other as embodying these attributes. After all, Romney has been criticized for paying very little income taxes, and his profits from private equity were in part generated by a huge governmental subsidy to wealthy investors through the carried interest tax break. Romney's own victim status blinds him from seeing how unequal and unfair our society has become, and therefore, Mitt can forget about half of the voters because he and his wealthy friends see themselves as the true victims of contemporary society.