Donald Trump really is 'crying out' for impeachment. It's the ultimate victim card.
Impeachment would help Trump paint himself as a victim of the system he oversees. Voters must reject this dangerous, self-serving rhetoric in 2020.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she’s concerned for President Donald Trump’s well-being. “I wish that his family or his administration or his staff would have an intervention for the good of the country,” Pelosi said at her weekly news conference. She suggested that “maybe he wants to take a leave of absence.” But she also suggested that he is “crying out” for impeachment, and that’s closer to the truth. It would be the ultimate way to portray himself as a victim.
This is Trump’s go-to strategy. At a campaign rally Monday in Montoursville, Pennsylvania, for instance, Trump repeated his false accusations that the FBI and the Democrats had committed treason by “spying” on his campaign. “And it should never be allowed to happen to another president again. Ever, ever, ever,” he said.
Trump’s penchant for this line of thinking is also reflected in his approving amplification of recent remarks and tweets by Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch (a conservative foundation with the ironic tag line, “Because no one is above the law!”)
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“.@RealDonaldTrump faces a criminal conspiracy against him....” Fitton tweeted Wednesday, with a video of himself expanding on the theme, and Trump promptly retweeted him. Last week, Trump tweeted Fitton's comments on the Fox Business show “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” in which Fitton accused Democrats and the Obama administration of “abuses of power” and attempts to “harass” Trump, and perpetuated the ridiculous claim of “an illegal coup” to overthrow the president.
Being the target of impeachment proceedings would give Trump dramatic fodder for his narrative of himself as a victim, which is exactly why Pelosi is not openly endorsing impeachment. A rhetoric of victimhood benefits the president in three principal ways.
President as victim of the system he oversees
First, it allows Trump, who has held the most powerful office in our nation for more than two years now, to continue to position himself as a Washington outsider under attack from establishment forces, namely the “deep state,” one of Trump’s favorite conspiracy theories. This is exceedingly appealing to Trump’s core followers who — having been fed a steady diet of propaganda by the president and Fox “News” — have lost trust in our most cherished democratic institutions, including a free and independent press, an independent judiciary, and a legislative branch responsible for oversight. Stunningly, Trump claims that he is the victim of the system he oversees.
Second, the rhetoric of victimhood allows Trump to continue to protect his overinflated ego in the face of overwhelming evidence that if he weren't president, he would be charged, at the very least, with obstruction of justice. As is typical of authoritarian and narcissistic leaders, Trump is incapable of admitting failures, shortcomings or wrongdoing. So, when confronted with direct evidence of criminal behavior, Trump lashes out at the credibility of those who have exposed his wrongdoing, going so far as to call for an investigation of the investigators. Trump will never admit he’s wrong, and so he plays the role of victim, and demonizes critics like Rep. Justin Amash, the only congressional Republican to call for impeachment.
Trump doesn't joke, he plants seeds
Third, playing the victim card allows Trump not only to avoid responsibility for his alleged crimes and misdeeds, but it also allows him to portray himself as a sympathetic figure to his base. By claiming that he is the subject of unfair and even illegal attacks, Trump is preparing his base to reject the results of the 2020 election should they not turn out in his favor. This, too, reflects the tendencies of an autocratic leader. Trump has gone so far as to suggest on various occasions that he should be given two additional years and that he should be president for life. He always frames these statements as jokes. But Trump does not make jokes; he plants rhetorical seeds that he hopes will grow into something bigger.
There is little question that if the Democrats begin impeachment hearings, Trump will double down on his rhetoric of victimhood. We have already seen that this language serves him well. But it represents a threat to our system of checks and balances, the rule of law, the peaceful transfer of power, and basic decency. Impeachment or not, come 2020, voters must reject this dangerous rhetoric and the self-interest that it serves.
Brian L. Ott, a professor of communication studies and director of the TTU Press at Texas Tech University, is co-author of "The Twitter Presidency: Donald J. Trump and the Politics of White Rage."