It never fails. Any time someone expresses approval of a protest, a nice liberal will come along and declare that it’s counterproductive because it makes Trump (or whichever right-wing figure) look like a victim, further legitimating him in people’s minds. This cliche really came into its own after Richard Spencer was punched, but now it’s being trotted out in connection with the protesters who prompted Betsy DeVos to flee a public school. And it’s wrong-headed concern-trolling at its very worst, on every conceivable level.
First, these moves were not counterproductive. Both cases represented powerful symbolic actions, memorably and vividly demonstrating that people passionately oppose the targets and are willing to put their bodies on the line. And both actions carry possible concrete consequences — Spencer has complained that he feels less comfortable speaking in public and acknowledges that that hurts his cause, and billionaire Betsy DeVos could conceivably discover that her vanity cabinet appointment isn’t worth being constantly hassled by protestors.
Second, they do not make their targets look like victims. The punch made Spencer look like the buffoon he is, and the protestors at the public school made Betsy DeVos look like a coward.
Third, even granting that the targets look like victims, how is this legitimation effect supposed to work? I wish someone would find me the person who said to himself, “I used to oppose Neo-Nazi ideology, but once I saw that some guy got punched for espousing it, I gave it a second look” or “I was a big supporter of public schools, but after seeing that Betsy DeVos fled from five or six protestors, I now advocate liquidating them and privatizing the education system.” But they can’t, because there is no such person.
And that’s because perceived victimhood does not automatically grant authority. Sometimes perceived victimhood can be instrumentalized to reinforce authority, but it can just as easily be explained away — ask Black Lives Matter about the latter phenomenon. And claiming victim status is always risky, because you could wind up looking like a pathetic whiner and undermining your own cause. Like, say, if you espouse an ideology claiming you’re part of the master race but are scared to go out in public because you might get punched. Or if you’re a billionaire who doesn’t even try to engage with what is objectively a really, really small group of peaceful protestors. Or if you’ve been installed as President of the United States and spend all your time complaining about perceived sleights.
But this post is probably self-undermining, because by subjecting liberal concern-trolls to such a harsh critique, I’m just making them look like victims and legitimating their position.