How Donald Trump Capitalized on America's Victimhood Culture

Donald Trump wins Michigan
Then-candidate Donald Trump speaks during his final campaign event, at the Devos Place in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on November 8. On Monday afternoon, he officially won Michigan in the presidential election. Rebecca Cook/Reuters

Mud-slinging. Negative campaign ads. Grandiose promises. These are all the typical tactics engaged by politicians in highly contentious elections. However, this year saw a new pandering tactic—capitalizing on victimization. Now that the smoke has settled, what kind of country will Donald Trump be president of? Sadly, he will not be the leader the strongest country in the world. Rather, he will be in charge of hundreds of thousands of victims—and not the refugees coming from Syria.

He will be the president of a nation of emotional refugees who have been conditioned to believe that they are victims of circumstances—and that "someone else" (Mexicans, banks, Muslims, police, capitalism, China, the patriarchy, white men, etc.) is to blame for their problems.

Welcome to America, 2016.

From honor and dignity to victimhood

What we're seeing in the U.S. in 2016 is a change in culture. Our country has gone through several cultural shifts since our founding, specifically with regard to conflict resolution.

Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic cites a paper by sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning , which suggests that in honor cultures like the Old West, when one party took offense to another, they might engage in a duel or physical fight. Honor cultures valued social status founded on the willingness and ability to use force. Honor can be won or lost.

Jörg Friedrichs, of the University of Oxford, defines honor as "the value of a person in his own eyes, but also in the eyes of his society. It is his estimation of his own worth, his claim to pride." While honor itself is an admirable trait, gaining it has not come without a price.

According to Campbell and Manning's paper, the turn of the century gave rise to dignity culture, a cultural ideology that prevailed during the 19th and 20th centuries and focused on reason, rationale, and perspective. For criminal offenses, people in a dignity culture will use law without shame, but will let minor transgressions slide.

While America long epitomized the dignity culture, it has shifted recently and a dignity culture is being replaced by a victim culture, a collective feeling of victimization that is the result of a perfect storm of media pandering, social justice ideology, and social media affirmation.

It is all but impossible to ignore America's new "victimhood culture" as Manning and Campbell refer to it. We have replaced celebrating achievements with celebrating being the biggest victim. A cursory glance at social media will find countless examples of stories of someone who was a victim of a "microaggression"—the woman who was purportedly body-shamed at the pool, the Oberlin college student who claimed cultural appropriation when a white classmate typed "futbol," or Harvard law students asking their professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or even use the word "violate" lest it cause distress.

Sadly, these are not just isolated incidents, bantered around the media as ridiculous news on a slow news day. Microaggressions are slowly becoming as trendy as the latest model of iPhone and being a victim is the new cause célèbre. Dr. Derald Wing Sue, author of Microaggressions in Everyday Life, defines microaggressions as "everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership." This definition guarantees that every single person will experience microaggressions throughout their lives.

And politicians know this. In 2015 Arthur C. Brooks of The New York Times wrote that "presidential candidates on both the left and the right motivate supporters by declaring that they are under attack by immigrants or wealthy people." So why is this political pandering bad for America? In a victim culture, nobody grows or wins. Brooks describes how victimhood makes it more and more difficult for us to resolve political and social conflicts and every policy difference becomes an argument "between good (us) and evil (them)."

Victimhood culture is a trap that seeks not to unite us, but to divide us. Additionally, there is a dichotomy between victimhood culture and one of America's greatest values: free speech. Victimhood culture generally seeks to restrict expression in order to protect the sensibilities of its advocates, essentially deciding who can and cannot speak.

When a body's cells stop reproducing, the body dies. When our ability to express differences is suffocated and Americans cease to aspire to greater levels than that of a victim, the American dream dies as well.

America cannot be great when its citizens, our greatest resource, are not being treated like valuable resources, but instead are treated like rather ignorant children who have little worth. America's history is filled with examples of people being told that they are worthless, that they could never accomplish a goal, and yet they overcame obstacles to achieve greatness.

We can learn from both the honor and dignity cultures of years past. Honor is the value we believe we have in ourselves—not tied to our social status, bank account, level of education, or any other external factor, but our right to have pride in ourselves; a right that is not explicitly written into the constitution, but that has been sustaining America's communal psyche for years.

This is not the first time in U.S. history that there has been a struggle between competing ideologies. Friedrichs points out that the early 20th century saw conflict between western countries professing allegiance to dignity and others who were bent on turning the clock back to honor. Over the 100 years since then, western cultures have come to see the very concept of honor as antiquated. He believes cultures are "sticky," but change is possible. The road to restoring America's dignity will not be led by whomever is sitting in the Oval Office. Trump can't take away our dignity and honor—no one can. Rather, it must be undertaken on a personal level by each and every American.

Zoe Zorka is a freelance writer and author of Turn Our Eyes Away. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @zoeshrugged.

How Donald Trump Capitalized on America's Victimhood Culture | Opinion