Always the Victim: A Century of Strongman Scams
Authoritarians pose as persecuted individuals to justify their violence and crimes
"I'm the most persecuted man in all of history," Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi claimed in 2009, just after Italy's constitutional court stripped him of immunity from prosecution, leaving him vulnerable as he faced yet another corruption trial.
Former U.S. president Donald Trump would disagree with the scope of this claim. "A friend of mine once said that I was the most persecuted person in the history of our country," Trump announced in July at the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit. "Certainly, there's been no politician or president treated like I've been treated."
The idea that the strongman is a victim is one of the more durable scams of authoritarianism. The August FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago, which was prompted by his storage of highly classified state documents in his private residence, has given new life to Trump's version of the con. It’s designed to vindicate his assertions that his enemies (codified as the "Deep State,") are out to get him.
New polls that attest to Trump's increased popularity since the raid within the GOP and among grassroots supporters demonstrate the power of posing as the victim -- a power strongmen leaders have long exploited to create lasting bonds with followers and justify their violent and criminal acts.
Ideologies of victimization are part of the toolkit of virtually every sitting authoritarian leader. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić is just one of many who depicts himself as under relentless attack by his enemies. Each leader who uses it taps into well-defined historical and cultural traditions of his country, as in Chinese state ideologies of "entitled victimization" and the Russian case.
Yet some qualities of strongman victimhood cults transcend time and place. They flourish in states where the leader is presented as not just representing the people (in the democratic tradition), but as physically embodying the nation.
His personality cult depicts him as omnipotent and yet vulnerable. He supposedly makes personal sacrifices on behalf of his people. He expresses the nation's dreams and sorrows as no other man can. And he avenges the injustices and humiliations that myriad foreign and domestic enemies inflict on his people, facing any consequences that may come his way.
This conception of the leader is why in authoritarian states attacking him is seen as attacking the nation itself, and why critics of the leader are labeled as enemies of the entire nation or even as terrorists, as happens in Russia under Vladimir Putin and Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Fascist regimes were the first to institutionalize victimhood and the idea of the leader as vulnerable to persecution because he was defending his people. Adolf Hitler took on the elites behind the Versailles Treaty, which “stabbed Germany in the back” by assigning it responsibility for all damages caused by World War One.
Before he came to power, Hitler also modeled a figure familiar among the right today: the insurgent who risks everything to get the "real facts" out and is punished for exposing the establishment's lies.
In 1926, when Hitler's hate speech got him temporarily banned from public oratory in several German states, a Nazi Party poster depicted him as the only person in the entire world forbidden to speak in Germany. This persona of the "rogue truth-teller who takes on the world for the greater glory of Germany" remained a source of his appeal as Führer.
Berlusconi, who exercised an autocratic form of power within a nominal democracy, updated the strongman victimhood script for the 21st century. Although he was so corrupt that his numerous trials and judiciary entanglements have their own Wikipedia page, Berlusconi posed as the target of liberal and leftist press and prosecutorial harassment.
In 2003, facing the charge that his holding company Fininvest had paid a 500 million Euro bribe to a Roman judge in 1991, Berlusconi announced he was a victim of a “witch hunt” and "an incredible judicial persecution." He used this same victim narrative to explain his forced resignation in 2011 due to the Eurozone crisis and his subsequent convictions for tax fraud, sex with a minor, wiretapping, and bribery.
Victimhood cults allow setbacks the leader experiences due to his own incompetence or corruption to be explained away to his faithful supporters. That's the core intuition of Trump's Big Lie, which claims his victimization on an unprecedented scale --a whole presidential election stolen from him!-- while allowing Trump's followers to avoid reckoning with his many failures as president.
The other major purpose of victimhood ideologies is to present state violence as defensive in nature. We can monitor their ebb and flow to anticipate domestic crackdowns or international aggressions in authoritarian states.
Erdogan's own longstanding cult of victimhood is expressed in his obsessive use of "insult lawsuits" to punish any perceived indignity against his person--his state investigated 129,000 people for this offense between 2014 and 2019, resulting in over 38,000 lawsuits from 2014 to 2020.
His identity as a persecuted leader has come in handy in leveraging the July 2016 military coup against him, justifying mass arrests. The anniversary of the coup is now a holiday in Turkey (the “July 15 Democracy and National Unity Day") that celebrates Erdogan’s vanquishing of state enemies while reminding Turks of the perennial danger their leader faces.
In Trump's case, being the coup leader has not stopped him from escalating his victimhood status. As the multiple investigations he faces continue, he will likely step up his attempts to return to power so he can continue to play the role of the persecuted while acting as the persecutor. That's the strongman way.