Republicans are subverting crises narratives to portray themselves as victims. And it is literally killing the people most in need of our attention and aid.
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“Looks like Greg Abbott’s in hot water,” my dad mused, scrolling through his phone from the comfort of his East Texas lake house recliner. A devoted Fox News watcher who thinks it is funny to remind me about it, he was referring to recent news that officials with Abbott’s “Operation Lone Star” had ordered law enforcement officers at the border to push migrants in crisis away from Texas and back, through newly installed razor wire, into the Rio Grande.
Among those migrants: a 19-year-old woman experiencing a miscarriage while trapped in the wire, a 15-year-old boy who broke his leg navigating the brutal barrier, and a 4-year-old girl who passed out trying to make her way around razor wire in 100-plus degree heat. And last Thursday, a 3-year-old died on a bus from Brownsville, TX, to Chicago.
When I think of people in “hot water,” it is hard to imagine a person lower on the list than the thrice-elected governor of Texas. Especially when the actual water we’re talking about here is a river lined with razor wire and saw blades. But Abbott would have us believe—as plenty of people just like my father do—that he’s the real victim: of being criticized for his cruel and aggressive plan to maim migrants. In the wake of these horrific reports, Abbott has barely acknowledged the terror Operation Lone Star has unleashed on migrants, instead situating his program as a necessary and urgent act of “safeguarding and securing our border from people entering the United States illegally.”
Safeguarding and securing our border from women experiencing pregnancy loss.
From teenage boys.
From fainting 4-year-olds.
From distressed 3-year-olds.
This conservative and fascist political strategy of imagined victimhood is nothing new. It’s essential to the construction of an equally imagined threat—in this case, the murderous, drug-dealing migrant —that can only ever be dealt with on the most violent and abusive terms. The Right has scores of other imagined aggressors, including the leftist voter fraudster, the predatory trans woman stalking public restrooms, the school teacher or librarian scheming to turn America’s children gay, and the perennially non-existent Black “welfare queen.” In 2021, Texas added another cadre of aggressive specters to the list when it enacted a “bounty hunter” law that would allow anyone anywhere in the country to sue for cash damages over someone else’s abortion: people who support or provide abortions, and by extension, the people who have them.
It is, by now, a truism that conservatives’ imagined threats are more aptly described as projections of their own fantasies and behaviors, weaponized not to justify necessary defenses but instead state-sanctioned aggression and the rollback of human and civil rights. Voter fraud is a glaring example, having been shown to be a particular Republican specialty, but the evidence for everything else really adds up, both on individual and systemic levels. Cisgender men are more likely than any other group to assault people in bathrooms. Indeed, Texas Right to Life anti-abortion lobbyist Luke Bowen was charged last summer with actually grooming (“soliciting”) a young person. “Welfare” fraud is hardly a scourge, and more often, it is white people receiving entitlement benefits (and the only thing wrong with our social safety net is how inadequate it is). The powerful and devastating recent testimony of Texas women and doctors denied their right to access and provide abortion care shows definitively that they, not strangers seeking a payday out of someone else’s pregnancy loss, are the ones who have been victimized in our post-Roe landscape.
But the legitimization of imagined victims, and the demonization of people who not only pose no threat but are themselves genuinely being harmed, continues apace. Take the recent 6-3 Supreme Court decision in 303 Creative LLC vs Elenis out of Colorado, which empowers bigots in business to discriminate against LGBTQ clients— specifically imagined LGBTQ clients. As the New Republic reported, a woman who does not actually design wedding websites, and who had never even been asked to design a wedding website for a gay couple filed her lawsuit alleging she might someday be asked to do so. The example she provided of being commissioned to create a gay wedding website (and only after she filed suit) … was attributed to a straight man from San Francisco who’s been married to a woman for years. He’d never heard of 303 Creative nor the plaintiff, Lorie Smith, before he says he became unwittingly embroiled in the case. But the Supreme Court nevertheless ruled that Smith was entitled to discriminate against, as TNR’s Melissa Gira Grant put it, “phantom gays.”
Of course there are worse harms than being turned down by a homophobic wedding contractor, but the facilitation of this kind of discrimination by the nation’s highest court makes my blood run cold in light of proliferating attacks against trans and queer people. And it sets a terrifying precedent that treats right-wing fictions and fear-mongering as more legitimate, more believable, and more worthy of redress than the lived experiences of those navigating real harm. And it goes a step further to pave the way for people’s real experiences of trauma to be used not as a reason to ease or even acknowledge their suffering, but to exacerbate it.
In July, Florida made it a crime for trans people to use public facilities that align with their gender. And while a series of lower court victories have so far denied some right-wing assaults on trans folks, all it takes—as activist Erin Reed adeptly put it in her Substack newsletter, where she doggedly tracks such cases—is “one judge in an unfavorable circuit to drastically alter the landscape of transgender rights.” The reality, Reed writes, is that “anti-trans plaintiffs remain determined to find that judge.”
There’s no reason to think that bigots won’t find a friendly venue in a country where the most politically powerful and privileged among us continually pretend to be victimized by ideas with which they disagree, people they attack and oppress, and even bare facts. To wit: Ron DeSantis’s repeated claims that chattel slavery benefited enslaved Black people, which is now part of school curricula in the state. This is an awful enough erasure of historical reality on its own, serving to cast enslavers as benevolent and blameless patriarchs and matriarchs. But explicitly asserting that slavery benefited enslaved Black people does something much nastier than seeking to absolve white enslavers and shore up white supremacy in the year 2023. It situates the descendants of enslaved people as entitled bullies who, by rejecting and correcting anti-historical racism, are actually doing some kind of harm to the benighted white people of the 21st century, perhaps even more than the white enslavers of yore ever could have done to the people and families they enslaved. So much harm, in fact, that schoolchildren must be stopped from learning anything else.
What, then, does it mean to share, report, and relate stories of real trauma, harm, and oppression in a country where the obvious, evidenced, and awful legacies of slavery can be turned on their head to cast white people, and especially white children, as victims of “woke” history (and “woke” is always an anti-Black dogwhistle) who must be protected from historical fact? When the Supreme Court rules favorably for bigots on a lark of homophobic make-believe? When attorneys for the state of Texas argued in open court that women rendered infertile due to having been denied essential abortion care don’t have standing to sue the state over its abortion law—because they might never become pregnant again?
Again and again, the lived experiences of oppressed and traumatized people—even when resilient and defiant and righteous, as are so many of those that make headlines—are silenced and minimized in the service of privileging right-wing fictions of victimization. We see it every time a new cop body-cam or bystander video surfaces to show us the reality of police violence. We see it in the statistics around the effects of homophobia and transphobia on suicidal ideation rates among LGBTQ youth. We see it in the devastating effects of separating migrant families. We are beginning to see more of it in the stories of people compelled by the government to remain pregnant under abortion bans, though those stories too have always been with us.
As a journalist and writer and activist, I am compelled to revisit the role storytelling plays when the voices of those speaking truth to power are not only minimized or ignored, but weaponized in the service of doing even more harm. Can or will the institutional and systemic validation of faux victimization be rebuked by more storytelling? Or do we put ourselves and our families and our people— and for journalists, those who share their stories through our reporting—at risk of creating more phantoms and boogeymen and straw men for the Right to seize upon? It seems there must be a balance. I won’t accept silence as a solution. But we have to think seriously about how to move forward with thoughtfulness and community care. Because we know that those in power care about only one story—the one in which they win.
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