The politics of persecution
By Charles M. Blow
After the FBI searched Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, on Monday — an extraordinary event in the history of the United States — the former president and his allies immediately began to howl that Trump was being persecuted.
Trump issued a statement that said his “beautiful home” was “currently under siege, raided and occupied” and “nothing like this has ever happened to a president of the United States before.” Left out of this victimhood framing was that this wasn’t so much an action but a reaction — a reaction to a president corrupt on a level this country has never seen before.
Trump wrote in his statement, of course referring to himself in the third person, that “the political persecution of President Donald J. Trump has been going on for years” and “it just never ends.”
The pivotal word there was “persecution.”
Persecution is a powerful social concept. It moves people to empathize with and defend those perceived to have been wronged. It rouses righteous indignation. And it produces the moral superiority of long suffering.
For instance, central to the story of the three Abrahamic religions — Christianity, Judaism and Islam — is the presence of persecution and the ultimate overcoming of it.
The origin story of America itself is of a country born of religious persecution as a group of English separatists searched for a place where they could experience religious freedom.
And many of the most celebrated historical figures around the world — Galileo, Joan of Arc, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela — were persecuted.
Throughout history, political persecutions of whole populations have led to ghastly crimes against humanity. Some continue to this day, like China’s oppression of the Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in the northwestern region of Xinjiang being subjected to internment camps and forced sterilization.
In January 2021, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called it an ongoing genocide, saying that “we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uyghurs by the Chinese party-state.”
But alongside these stories of actual persecution are scoundrels pretending to be persecuted, activating the same defensive human instincts in people that genuine accounts do.
American politics continues to be dictated by persecution. There are the historical and modern iterations of the persecution of women, LGBTQ people and racial, ethnic and religious minorities. Where advances have been made, they have often been, generally speaking, pushed by liberals and resisted by conservatives.
But with those liberal victories, conservatives came to see themselves as the new persecuted class, reversing the roles. Restricting their ability to discriminate was to them an undue burden.
They robed their supposed persecution in religion, what Barnard College professor of religion Elizabeth A. Castelli calls the “Christian persecution complex.” “There is no precise origin point” for the complex, she wrote in 2007, “though political activism organized under the sign of ‘religious persecution’ and ‘religious freedom’ has certainly grown substantially in the last decade and most pressingly in the post-September 11th context.”
As Castelli told me Wednesday, the presidential elections of Barack Obama on one side and Trump on the other have amplified the complex, instilling in conservatives even greater feelings of loss and of being under siege.
I would argue that the entire MAGA movement was born of Trump weaponizing the siege ideology held by many Americans — white replacement theory, immigrant invasion and loss of culture — and framing himself as their messiah and potential martyr.
Trump’s movement was propped up by what political theorist William E. Connolly calls the “evangelical-capitalist resonance machine.”
“What is the connection today between evangelical Christianity, cowboy capitalism, the electronic news media and the Republican Party?” Connolly asked in a paper he wrote in 2005. Pointing out that these groups do not always share the same religious and economic doctrines, he argued that a broader sensibility is what connects them. “The complex becomes a powerful machine as evangelical and corporate sensibilities resonate together,” he wrote, “drawing each into a larger movement that dampens the importance of doctrinal differences between them.”
Connolly theorized that these seemingly disparate groups are bound together by a kind of spiritual existentialism and wrote that “their ruthlessness, ideological extremism, readiness to defend a market ideology in the face of significant evidence and compulsion to create or condone scandals against any party who opposes their vision of the world express a fundamental disposition toward being in the world.”
I don’t think Trump understands this on an intellectual level or is even aware of it. I don’t believe the man reads. But in his own selfish, craven desire to pilfer and prosper, he understands the workings of the machine — and how to exploit it — on a gut level.
On Monday, Trump once again claimed that efforts to hold him accountable were evidence of political persecution, and his followers rallied to his defense.
In fact, reports like one from Reuters on Tuesday claim that the search of Trump’s home may actually have boosted him, placing him in his “political sweet spot,” allowing him to play victim of “institutional forces” — the deep state — “at a time when his grip on the party appeared to be slipping.”
For Trump, the politics of persecution is his security blanket and his weapon of choice.