Donald Trump’s chilling remarks this weekend were widely reported, but they haven’t gotten the attention they deserve—probably because Trump says so many problematic things all the time. Yes, Trump spews crazy thoughts a mile a minute. But in my estimation, this instance was different… more troubling.
In case you missed it, he uttered the following words at the Conservative Political Action Conference: “In 2016, I declared, ‘I am your voice.’ Today I add: ‘I am your warrior, I am your justice, and for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution!’”
Vengeance is his, says the Lord of CPAC.
The crowd ate it up. Imagine that. A candidate who clearly believes that the main motivator for his supporters is not patriotism, not a call for lifting all Americans, not a strong national defense—or even even tax cuts—but… revenge. He’s basically saying, “Vote for me, and I will smite your enemies!”
To be sure, politicians have always utilized revenge. Supporters are rewarded. Opponents are punished. But in modern America, rewards have usually come in the form of jobs. Punishment usually looked something like not getting the committee seat you wanted.
Regardless, this was something done behind the scenes. This was a byproduct—the making of the sausage, not the sausage itself.
Recently, however, these negative spoils of political war have become more akin to a campaign promise: Elect me, and I’ll screw your enemies.
Congressional Republicans tapped into the revenge theme by suggesting that handing them the gavel in 2022 would lead to Biden’s impeachment and a Hunter Biden/Dr. Fauci investigation. This was done very overtly.
After the Mar-a-Lago raid, Kevin McCarthy warned Attorney General Merrick Garland to “preserve documents and clear your calendar.”
This was performative, meant to inspire MAGA votes as much as to intimidate Democrats.
Since House Republicans lacked any real proactive policy platform to implement, it might have been the only tool at their disposal.
I’m reminded of an episode of Seinfeld:
JERRY: What is the point of all this?
JERRY: Oh, the best revenge is living well.
GEORGE: There’s no chance of that.
From a “show about nothing” to a party without a platform, the use of retribution is becoming a trend.
Indeed, former Vice President Mike Pence specifically cited the r word in a CNBC interview, regarding Ron DeSantis’s attacks on Disney. “[T]here clearly was retribution politically against them,” Pence said. “I think it’s empirical what happened. [DeSantis] said as much when he did it.”
Guess what? It has worked. Thanks, in part to his tough image, DeSantis is the only Republican popular enough to pose a threat to Trump. Come to think of it, Trump’s CPAC declaration makes me think that he is attempting to steal one of DeSantis’ central (if unstated) arguments for election: the fact that he’s willing to use the coercive power of government to go after woke corporations, local political leaders, and others who do not bend to his will.
The deeper cultural problem is the fact that retributive justice is in high demand these days. Among the MAGA base, this style is popular, which explains why the populists are employing it. The truth is that this development is incredibly dangerous, mainly because the audience is clearly thirsty for it.
It wasn’t always that way. A true Christian conservative, circa 2007, would likely respond to Trump thusly: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay’ saith the Lord.” As Ross Douthat said, “If you dislike the religious right, wait till you meet the post-religious right.”
Absent transformational leadership, voters are left only with transactional motivations. Delivering retribution is a transaction.
The appeal is understandable; if you believe you are a down-and-out victim, it probably feels nice to imagine that someone—your ex-wife, your landlord, the “media,” liberal politicians, Mitt Romney, John McCain’s ghost, THE DEEP STATE—will be smited.
As is almost always the case, the definition of a victim is open to interpretation, and Trump’s rhetoric can also theoretically be dismissed as figurative (not literal!) by his defenders.
But I wouldn’t be concerned if Trump said, “Voting is the best revenge” or “Annoy The Media, Re-Elect Trump.” By any reasonable interpretation, Trump is suggesting that he will use the power of the presidency to exact revenge for his tribe.
Are Trump’s words just bluster, or would he, if elected, actually go after his side’s ostensible enemies? The kind of guy responsible for inciting an insurrection would never stoop to such a thing!
We are still a long way off from the 2024 presidential election. The question is: How low will this go, and where does this end?