It’s Fun To Be a Victim!

What Trump-mania tells us about Ahmed Mohamed

When Donald Trump tasked the two (and a half) Hispanophones on last week’s Republican debate stage to justify their bilingualism, Marco Rubio stepped in and had the defining moment of his campaign.

Rubio told us about his conservative immigrant grandfather: a man of irreconcilable paradox to many on the left, a man of inalienable alienness to the far right, and to those few of us who aim to deploy even an iota of reason this election cycle, a man entitled to his own worldview.

His grandfather loved Ronald Reagan and America, but he expressed this love to Rubio in Spanish. It was also in Spanish that the Cuban émigré informed his grandson that by working hard, even he—the son of a bartender and a maid—could aspire to, say, one day run for president. And it’s in Spanish that Rubio relays his grandfather’s message to families like his, because the virtues of free enterprise and limited government know no lingual bounds.

Really, Rubio's grandfather could have said all this to his grandson in Elvish for all Trump should have cared—the fundamental values of our nation that Trump and his apologists ostensibly subscribe to transcend language and race. But it’s actually important for Trump that Rubio (and Jeb Bush) speak Spanish, because it allows him to continue milking his narrative of white-nationalist victimhood. Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric—calling out Bush and Trump for speaking Spanish is a fitting example—is meant to cut the whole rigmarole of fair, rational debate over illegal immigration and instead lay out the issue in racial terms that appeal to the people’s most visceral paranoia of having their country taken away from them.

We saw Trump indulge the victimist narrative of the populist fringe in another context this past weekend. In a campaign event last Friday, a man donning Trump apparel lamented to the candidate, “We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims. You know our current president is one...Anyway, we have training camps growing where they want to kill us. That’s my question: When can we get rid of them?”


Trump’s response was risibly evasive: “We're going to be looking at a lot of different things. You know, a lot of people are saying that and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening. We're going to be looking at that and many other things.” Cue applause. Perhaps Trump really is meant to be a politician.

A meme began circulating this weekend contrasting this encounter to John McCain’s vehement dismissal of a similar question posed to him in 2008—an interesting look at how striking a moment this is in post-millennium American politics. We were past the point when the presidential front-runner could pander to unadulterated American id and get away with it—when compassionate conservatism would give way to a vocal population of mainly well-to-do white Americans who consider themselves victims of ethnic infestation.

But then again, this makes perfect sense. Trump’s appeal to victimhood is the inevitable response to a concurrent culture of victimhood arising on the other end of the political spectrum, one that gives us microaggressions, trigger warnings, and a host of other authoritarian tools to make one population categorically in the wrong, and another categorically in the right.

Conor Friedersdorf writes in The Atlantic about a new study by sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, who mark the advent of a “victimhood culture,” especially among young Americans. This culture encompasses people who are “intolerant of insults, even if unintentional, and react by bringing them to the attention of authorities or to the public at large.” For them, “domination is the main form of deviance, and victimization a way of attracting sympathy, so rather than emphasize either their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization.”

Victimhood culture departs from fundamental American values because the unyielding need for sympathy and public vengeance is not in the name of self-betterment, but of the divisive need to publicly estrange others. Fridersdorf focused on an infamous incident last year, when a Latina student from Oberlin College posted a stern open letter in response to a joke from a teammate that she found microaggressive. But perhaps a more timely example would be the recent media and political firestorm over young Ahmed Mohamed—the 14-year-old boy from Irving, Texas who rose to fame last week because he got arrested for building a clock that officials mistook as a bomb.

To be fair, Ahmed was a victim—a victim of ineptitude, courtesy of the Einsteins who work at the Irving school district and police department, too asinine too, I don’t know, call Ahmed’s parents or talk to his engineering teacher before arresting him. And once they rather quickly gathered that the clock was in fact a clock, one would think handcuffs and a one-on-five police interrogation would be superfluous. It’s easy to assume based on these facts that there were racist intentions behind these acts.

But far more plausible is the alternative that Ahmed was arrested for the same reason as the 14-year-old kid from West Virginia who wore an NRA t-shirt at school. Or for the same reason as why the six-year olds from Maryland were suspended for making “finger gun” gestures at each other. Or the seven-year-old boy from Maryland who was suspended for biting a Pop Tart into the shape of a gun. 21st-century disciplinarianism knows no skin color.

Many wanted more, however: a narrative of real victimhood, a connection between Ahmed’s arrest and something structural. Muslim Americans and their advocates used this as a platform to air their tangentially related grievances of Islamophobia and racism through hashtag campaigns and laughable polemics. A writer at The Daily Beast even wrote a piece aptly entitled “Ahmed Mohamed is the Muslim Hero America’s Been Waiting For,” a clear admission as any that Ahmed exists only to scratch an itch that the American left couldn’t quite reach until now.

Everyone likes to be a victim, and in this election cycle, it’s easy to be one. But victims exist only insofar as their victimhood does. Trump and Ahmed supporters will have their moment and relinquish the soapbox to tomorrow’s offering in the altar of grievance. What will remain timeless though is the story of Marco Rubio’s grandfather, a man greater than the narrative thrust upon him, a man to whom adversity is not a ticket to fame, but an obstacle to overcome.

Shubhankar Chhokra ’18, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.


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