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In a statement posted to Twitter on Monday, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany announced that she had tested positive for Covid-19. She also referred to herself as an “essential worker,” implying that she had contracted the disease in the line of duty in service to the American people.
The press secretary thus aligned herself with the millions of essential workers such as doctors and nurses, first responders, delivery workers, custodians, food supply workers, public transportation operatives, and others whose work has been necessary to keep society and life afloat during the pandemic and which put them at highly elevated risk of contracting the coronavirus. This is only the most recent example of public figures on the right co-opting the language of victimhood in a bad-faith attempt to cast the left as hypocrites and shift blame outwards.
By and large, public focus on essential workers and the risks they have incurred during this time has served as an indictment of systemic inequalities in the United States, exposing with clarity the ways in which society has failed so many communities and demographics. In counting herself among these workers, McEnany, who is a white woman in a position of immense power raised in a position of economic privilege, undermines the social justice crisis the pandemic has rightly spotlighted. This framing seeks to discredit calls on the left to address these inequalities by making an implicit claim that they are not applying their own principles fairly. If we are being called upon to honor and respect the sacrifices made by essential workers like grocery store clerks, musn’t we also offer McEnany that same respect, since she, too has served an essential function during the pandemic?
In a word — no.
In the first place, McEnany could have taken common-sense precautions to protect herself, such as wearing a mask during press briefings and encouraging others, including journalists, to do the same (McEnany did not wear a mask when addressing reporters on Thursday and Sunday). Secondly, and more egregiously, McEnany’s “essential” function was to obfuscate the truth during the pandemic; to massage, twist, misrepresent, and lie about the President’s statements in order to allow the White House to elide responsibility for its shortcomings; to cast doubt on the integrity of journalists and the free press; and to further the President’s crusade against mail-in voting and undermine faith in American democracy. McEnany’s feckless defense of President Donald Trump and his administration, rather than providing an essential service to the American people, caused demonstrable injury. Calling herself an “essential worker” and ranking herself among those most harmed by her work as Press Secretary is galling.
Conservatives in the United States have been using this “I’m the real victim” tactic for decades, though it has gotten an especially large degree of play lately.
Take the past few days since President Trump’s diagnosis as an example. Since news broke that Trump and many other members of his team tested positive, conservative commentators have argued for compassion for the president during his illness — even though Trump days earlier argued that the pandemic affected “virtually nobody” and mocked Democratic presidential candidate Vice President Joe Biden for his consistent mask use. Trump continues to be roundly and severely criticized for one of his most callous remarks on the Covid-19 death toll: “It is what it is,” which has become something of a ready-made campaign slogan for the Biden camp. If Trump is to be criticized for this statement, the argument seems to be, shouldn’t everyone else extend that same compassion to Trump himself as he suffers from the disease?
Similarly, Trump’s nominee to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett, who is as close to a direct inverse to the late RBG as it is possible to be, has been framed as a conservative’s version of a feminist. Barrett has been vocally opposed to core feminist political aims such as the right to abortion and is closely involved with a Catholic sect whose extreme religious beliefs include the fundamental submissive position of women in relation to men. And yet because she is, as Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted, a “working mother,” it is somehow supposed to be anti-feminist to oppose her nomination.
Black Lives Matter, the racial justice movement that first gained traction in response to the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO in 2014, asserts the humanity of Black people precisely because their humanity has been, and continues to be, treated as having lesser value than that of white people. In response, white Americans have argued that Black Lives Matter is racist because the phrasing does not include them, treating the slogan as an attempt to denigrate white lives rather than uplift Black ones.
This kind of framing has old roots. “Men’s rights activists" claim feminism is really sexism against men. The term “reverse racism” first took hold in the 1970s in response to affirmative-action policies.
When privileged communities attempt to assume the language of social justice and reframe themselves as victims, they deliberately bypass the most essential point — which is the devastating impact inequality has on the disempowered. Racism matters because it harms people of color; reverse racism is a fallacy because it does not harm white people. Barrett’s personal beliefs, if codified into law, would close the very doors opened for her by feminists like RBG, making her the exact opposite of a feminist. McEnany, in calling herself an “essential worker,” lays claim to the compassion society has extended to those she herself has imperiled.
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As has been widely reported, essential workers in the United States are disproportionately represented by already marginalized groups. These positions, such as nurses or bus drivers, are more likely to be held by women, people of color, and immigrants. Black and brown Americans in particular have been most devastatingly impacted by the pandemic, with hospitalization rates at around five times that of white Americans with more than twice the amount of deaths. Kayleigh McEnany is not an essential worker in this vein at all.
Such arguments are the reaction of the powerful when their power is threatened. Rather than an attempt to see scales fairly balanced across the board, they are an attempt to keep the scales firmly weighted in their favor. They complain of an injury they first deny exists at all. In accusing the left of hypocrisy, the right exposes its own.