People who voted for Donald Trump and feel warmly towards him tend to score higher on a measure of egocentric victimhood, according to new research published in the scientific journal Political Behavior. Those who exhibit heightened levels of systemic victimhood, in contrast, tend to be more hostile towards Trump.
The study provides new insights into the role of perceived victimhood in the American political landscape. According to its authors, the new findings indicate that victimhood “cuts across the social and political hierarchy.”
“Victimhood has increasingly being used by journalists and commentators to explain unexpected political happenings like Donald Trump’s election and Britain’s departure from the European Union,” said study authors Miles T. Armaly and Adam M. Enders, who are assistant professors at the University of Mississippi and University of Louisville, respectively.
“Yet, the ways that pundits referred to victimhood was inconsistent — sometimes the victimizer was specific, other times it was labeled as projection, and in some instances it seemed performative, indicating that the commentator understood that employing victimhood may be beneficial.”
“The people most often described as victims in these accounts were, at least in terms of historical political disadvantages, not victimized,” the researchers explained. “We became interested in determining whether feelings of victimhood actually manifested in these disparate ways (they do), whether they were concentrated among certain subsets of the population (they are not), and whether they meaningfully impacted a number of political attitudes, orientations, and choices (they do).”
For their study, the researchers analyzed data from a nationally-representative sample of 1,020 U.S. adults. Along with collecting demographic and psychological information, the survey included an assessment of two types of perceived victimhood.
Egocentric victimhood was assessed by asking participants how much they agreed with statements such as “I rarely get what I deserve in life” and “I usually have to settle for less.”
Systemic victimhood, on the other hand, was assessed by asking participants how much they agreed with statements such as “The system works against people like me” and “The world is ‘doing it’ to me and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
The researchers found that those who scored higher on the measure of victimhood tended to be less emotionally stable, more narcissistic, more conspiratorial, and more distrustful of government. Men were slightly more likely than women to feel victimized.
There was no significant difference between the level of victimhood between Democrats and Republicans overall. However, Armaly and Enders observed that increased egocentric victimhood was associated with increased support for Trump, while increased systemic victimhood was associated with reduced support for Trump.
This was true even after controlling for partisanship, ideological self-identification, religiosity, education, age, gender, race/ethnicity, and residence in the political South.
“Egocentric victims—Democratic and Republican, liberal and conservative—support Trump more than their less victimized counterparts. This is sensible. Donald Trump claims to work for these people by trying to restore America to a time before its people were victims; he tells them it is not their fault,” Armaly and Enders wrote in their study.
The researchers also found that the two types of victimhood were related to support for specific policies. Egocentric victimhood was associated with reduced support for government aid for Black Americans and increased opposition to political correctness, while the opposite relationships were found for systematic victimhood.
“Many people feel like victims, and the perception is not necessarily tethered to any ‘genuine’ victimization,” Armaly and Enders told PsyPost. “Those who are ostensibly not victimized (or at least not victimized in the ways they perceive themselves to be) still bring these feelings to bear on their political attitudes and choices. These political consequences include candidate support, racial attitudes, and support for redistributive policies — all salient political issues with tangible consequences for political life.”
However, the survey data only allowed the researchers to examine correlational associations. To tease out possible cause and effect relationships, Armaly and Enders conducted an online experiment with 513 individuals recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform.
The researchers found that participants who were asked to write about a time when they felt they “were the victim of someone or something in politics” tended to have heightened egocentric and systemic victimhood compared to those who didn’t complete such as task.
In addition, egocentric and systemic victimhood were both increased among participants who read an excerpt from a political speech that portrayed the middle class and working people as victims. Among Republican participants, the speech was attributed to Trump. Among Democratic participants, the speech was attributed to Joe Biden.
The findings indicate that “political elites can rhetorically weaponize victimhood, and actually instill these feelings in individuals,” the researchers said.
As with all research, however, the new study includes some limitations.
“One major caveat is that we cannot state with certainty how the dynamics of victimhood will continue to play out. Victimhood is both bottom-up, like many personality traits, and also top-down, in that elite rhetoric can amplify, perhaps even induce, feelings of victimhood,” Armaly and Enders explained.
“Thus, the dynamics of victimhood could change with new political leaders. The individual-level ingredients are there. The question is whether the other piece of the puzzle — legitimation from societal leaders — will manifest. While those who felt like egocentric victims voted for Trump because he made them feel that way during the campaign and his time in office, Joe Biden could also trigger feelings of victimhood.”
There are likely several other types of victimhood as well.
“While our study measures egocentric and systemic victimhood, we suspect there are other manifestations of victimhood. One that comes to mind is a projective, other-oriented variant, where individuals assess whether another’s victimhood claim is worthy of merit or eclipses their own. Although we expect that few individuals enjoy consciously identifying as a victim, they may still unconsciously feel like victims,” Armaly and Enders told PsyPost.
“This allows for competition for victim status — who is a ‘legitimate’ victim and who isn’t? This competition has implications for popular support (or lack thereof) for various political outcomes, as well as polarization and political strife.”
The study, “‘Why Me?’ The Role of Perceived Victimhood in American Politics“, was published January 2, 2021.
(Photo credit: Gage Skidmore)