With Sarah Palin back in the headlines, the whole specter of conservatives (who used to claim to be members of “the party of personal responsibility”) as victims is front and center again. Peter Beinart did a good job of capturing how Palin did that in her endorsement speech for Trump.
She began by reasserting her own victimhood. When considering endorsing Trump, Palin said she was “told left and right, ‘you are going to get so clobbered in the press. You are just going to get beat up, and chewed up, and spit out.’” But she wasn’t fazed because the media has been trying to do “that every day since that night in ‘08, when I was on stage nominated for VP.” Then she connected her own victimhood to the crowd’s, declaring that, nonetheless, “like you all, I’m still standing.” And she linked both back to Trump: “So those of us who’ve kind of gone through the ringer as Mr. Trump has, makes me respect you even more.”
After that, Palin expanded the circle of victimhood to include American sailors who were made to “suffer and be humiliated” by Iran, forced to “kowtow” and “apologize” and “bend over and say, ‘Thank you, enemy.’” And she added workers who suffer so the “campaign donor class” can have “cheap labor” by ensuring that “the borders are kept open” and who lose their jobs when those rich donors endorse “lousy trade deals that gut our industry.”
Of course, the very next day Palin went on to say that her son’s problems with domestic violence were the result of PTSD and were therefore caused by President Obama.
That prompted this tweet, which became my favorite of the day:
The next time a Palin takes responsibility for something will be the first time @SarahPalinUSA…
— Malcolm Johnson (@admiralmpj) January 21, 2016
But if we simply see rhetoric like this resulting from an embrace of victimhood, we miss the power of how it is so often exploited in our politics. To get the whole picture, we need to see it as part of what Stephen Karpman called the Drama Triangle.
Whenever you see someone identifying as the victim, it is important to look at who is defined as the oppressor and who is the rescuer. That’s because the Drama Triangle is about more than an individual’s position. It is a world view. Anyone who embraces this world view uses it to define almost every social/political interaction. And all three positions are assumed.
In Palin’s world view, both she and anyone she finds common cause with are the victims. We’re seeing that a lot these days as the whole populist movement is fueled by those who are “aggrieved.” The role of the oppressor is primarily played by President Obama. But in other formulations it becomes the “liberal elite” or even (to borrow Ted Cruz’ language), the Republican cartel. For Palin, all of this was a set-up to define Donald Trump as the rescuer who could “make America great again.”
The reason this kind of formulation is so dangerous in politics is that it not only fuels the fear-mongering of the oppressor that we’ve seen so much of from Republicans lately, it sets the stage for the authoritarianism (or even fascism) of the rescuer. The entire Drama Triangle as a world view is set up to absolve everyone of any personal responsibility. Think about that anytime you notice a politician or activist use it as a way of framing the issues.