Vengeance Is Trump’s

The former president is threatening retribution. What we need, instead, is forbearance.

A photo of Donald Trump's eyes with flames in the foreground
Daniel Zender / The Atlantic; Getty

At the Conservative Political Action Conference on March 4, Donald Trump gave a speech that my colleague Tom Nichols called “long and deranged,” adding that it was, “even by his delusional standards, dark and violent. Much of it was hallucinatory.” And revealing too—not just of Trump’s worsening state of mind but of the attitudes and temperament of MAGA world, which Trump has, for seven years, personified. He remains the GOP’s apotheosis.

That doesn’t mean that Trump is unbeatable in the Republican presidential primary. He’s viewed throughout much of the party as a loser; his presentation is noticeably more lethargic than when he ran in 2016; and his obsessive promotion of lies about the 2020 election is exhausting even some of his loyal supporters. He’s also having trouble drawing large or enthusiastic crowds, which he never had a problem with in the past.

Despite that, at this early stage, Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis are polling as the overwhelming favorites to win the Republican nomination. And although individual surveys are scattered, two recent ones, from Emerson and Fox, show Trump leading DeSantis by 30 and 15 points, respectively. (An Emerson poll from New Hampshire earlier this month showed Trump with a 41-point lead over DeSantis in that early-primary state.) But what the polls can’t measure is just how much the party’s sensibilities have fused with Trump’s, or how many imitators Trump has spawned. His imprint on the Republican Party is almost impossible to overstate. Which is why Trump’s remarks at CPAC are instructive.

One section of the nearly two-hour speech particularly caught my attention, and not mine alone. The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman and Shane Goldmacher devoted an article to the implications of these comments:

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. I am your retribution.

“This is the final battle,” America’s 45th president said. “They know it, I know it, you know it, everybody knows it. This is it. Either they win or we win. And if they win, we no longer have a country.”

To understand the modern Republican Party, you must understand the intense sense of fear and grievance that drives so many of its voters, which has in turn given rise to a profound desire for retribution and revenge, for inflicting harm on Democrats, progressives, and other perceived enemies. Those negative emotions existed before Donald Trump ran for the presidency, but he tapped into them with astonishing skill.

In September 2015, I had an email exchange with a person who worked for a theologically conservative church. In the course of sharing thoughts on the early stages of the Republican primary, I described my views and concerns: “I consider Mr. Trump to be in an entirely different category—wrong not just on the issues and philosophically unanchored, but alarmingly erratic … wholly untrustworthy, a flippant misogynist, crude and vulgar, and downright obsessive. As president, he would be unstable and dangerous. As leader of the Republican Party, he would be an embarrassment. As the de facto face of conservatism, he would be a disaster. That’s why I would not vote for him under any conceivable circumstances.”

Although Trump was not this person’s first choice in the primary, his response was instructive. “I am fed up with our side rolling over.” He then said: “I think we have likely slipped past the point of no return as a country and I’m desperately hoping for a leader who can turn us around. I have no hope that one of the establishment guys would do that. That, I believe, is what opens people up to Trump. He’s all the bad things you say, but what has the Republican establishment given me in the past 16 years? First and foremost: [Barack Obama].”

Note the line of argument: My interlocutor agreed with all of the negative things I said about Trump—misogynistic, untrustworthy, erratic, psychologically unstable, and dangerous—but in the end, they didn’t matter. Trump was, to use a word I heard repeatedly to describe him, a fighter. The negative aspects of his character were assumed to be essential to that pugilism. Over time—and it wasn’t much—most of those on the right who had reservations about Trump made their peace with his flaws. Some even quietly celebrated them.

A year later I participated in an event at Stanford University with the sociologist Arlie Hochschild, the author of the acclaimed book Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. Hochschild spent five years immersed in a community around Lake Charles, Louisiana, then a Tea Party stronghold. What was important to understand about the rise of Trump, Hochschild told me during one of our offstage conversations, was that it was tied to feelings of being dishonored and humiliated. Trump supporters feel they have been disrespected; Trump is their response, she said, their antidepressant. Hochschild understood the power of emotion in politics, how reason is so often the slave of the passions. And the passions of people who feel unseen, who feel they have been treated with contempt, are destructive and dangerous.

Since the Trump era began, we’ve seen a particularly toxic mix of passions on the right: fear and desperation, anger and indignation, feelings of betrayal and victimhood, all of which cry out for vengeance. Whether the nominee is DeSantis—who bills himself as a God-given “protector” and a “fighter”—or Trump, or someone else, the MAGA wing of the Republican Party will demand that the leader of the GOP seek vengeance in its name. Donald Trump has energized a movement and a propaganda infrastructure that will outlast him.

Vengeance is different from justice. The psychologist Leon F. Seltzer puts it this way: Revenge is predominantly emotional, while justice is primarily rational; revenge is, by nature, personal, while justice is impersonal and impartial; revenge is an act of vindictiveness, justice an act of vindication; revenge is about cycles, justice about closure; and revenge is about retaliation, whereas justice is about restoring balance.

“With revenge,” William Mikulas, a professor of psychology at the University of West Florida, told ABC News, “you are coming from an orientation of anger and violence or self-righteousness: ‘I want to get him, I want to hurt them … I want to make them pay.’ You’re coming from a place of violence and anger and that’s never good.”

Revenge creates a cycle of retaliation. It “keeps wounds green, which otherwise would heal,” in the words of Francis Bacon. Vengeance is insatiable, and in any society, over the long term, it can be deeply damaging. The desire for revenge reduces the capacity for legislators to work together across the aisle. It creates conditions in which demagogues can successfully peddle conspiracy theories and call for a “national divorce.” It leads Americans to see members of their opposing party as traitors. And exacting revenge tempts people to employ immoral and illegal methods—street violence, coups, insurrections—they would not otherwise contemplate. (The defamation lawsuit against Fox News by Dominion Voting Systems revealed that a Fox producer texted Maria Bartiromo, a Fox news anchor, saying, “To be honest, our audience doesn’t want to hear about a peaceful transition.”)

White evangelical Christians have been a driving force in creating the politics of retribution and revenge—maybe the driving force. White evangelicals are among the GOP’s most loyal constituencies, and if they declared certain conduct off-limits, candidates and elected officials would comply. But no such signals were ever sent. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2020—after all the lies, misconduct, and deranged conspiracy theories we saw unfold during the Trump presidency—85 percent of white, evangelical Protestant voters who frequently attended religious services voted for Trump. Most of them became more, not less, tolerant of Trump’s misconduct over the course of his tenure.

Human emotions can be dominant and even determinative in distorting and deforming people’s judgments. Individuals who honestly believe that the Bible is authoritative in their lives—who insist that they cherish Jesus’s teachings from the Sermon on the Mount (blessed are the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, and the pure in heart; turn the other cheek; love your enemies) and Paul’s admonition to put away anger, wrath, slander, and malice and replace them with compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, a spirit of forgiveness, and, above all, love, “which binds everything together in perfect harmony”—find themselves embracing political figures and a political ethic that are antithetical to these precepts. Many of those who claim in good faith that their Christian conscience required them to get passionately involved in politics have, upon doing so, discredited their Christian witness. Jesus has become a “hood ornament,” in the words of the theologian Russell Moore, in this case placed atop tribal and “culture war” politics.

One recent example: Jenna Ellis, a former attorney for Donald Trump who has made much of her Christian faith and worked for several different evangelical associations. “My mission is Truth, my God is the Lord Jesus Christ, and my client is the President of the United States,” she tweeted in 2020. But last week she admitted in a sworn statement that she had knowingly misrepresented the facts in several of her public claims that widespread voting fraud led to Trump’s defeat—and she posted a video on Twitter mocking an injury from a fall that sent 81-year-old Senator Mitch McConnell to the hospital. (McConnell, although a Republican, has been a critic of Trump, earning the enmity of MAGA world.)

The antidote to the politics of retribution is the politics of forbearance. Forbearance is something of a neglected virtue; it is generally understood to mean patience and endurance, a willingness to show mercy and tolerance, making allowances for the faults of others, even forgiving those who offend you. Forbearance doesn’t mean avoiding or artificially minimizing disagreements; it means dealing with them with integrity and a measure of grace, free of vituperation.

None of us can perfectly personify forbearance, but all of us can do a little better, reflect a bit more on what kind of human beings and citizens we want to be, and take small steps toward greater integrity. We can ask ourselves: What, in this moment, is most needed from me and those in my political community, and perhaps even my faith community? Do we need more retribution and vengeance in our politics, or more reconciliation, greater understanding, and more fidelity to truth?

The greatest embodiment of the politics of forbearance was Abraham Lincoln. With a Civil War looming, he was still able to say, in his first inaugural address, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have been strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”

Those bonds were broken; the war came. By the time it ended, more than 700,000 lives had been lost in a nation of 31 million. But the war was necessary; Lincoln preserved the Union and freed enslaved people. And somehow, through the entire ordeal, Lincoln was free of malice. He never allowed his heart to be corroded by enmity or detestation.

In his 1917 biography of Lincoln, Lord Charnwood wrote, “This most unrelenting enemy to the project of the Confederacy was the one man who had quite purged his heart and mind from hatred or even anger towards his fellow-countrymen of the South.”

Another Lincoln biographer, William Lee Miller, said of America’s 16th president, “He did not mark down the names of those who had not supported him, or nurse grudges, or hold resentments, or retaliate against ‘enemies’—indeed, he tried not to have enemies, not to ‘plant thorns.’” Lincoln’s previous failures did not leave scars or resentments, Miller says; he was an unusually generous human being, lacking in ruthlessness, disinclined to make himself feared, explicit in disavowing vengeance. Some believed he was too sympathetic to be a great leader. He turned out to be our greatest leader.

Lincoln was unique; we will never see his kind again. But the contrast between America’s first Republican president and its most recent Republican president is almost beyond comprehension. Each is the inverse of the other. One cannot revere Lincoln and embrace the political ethic of Trump, his many imitators, and the MAGA movement.

Sensibilities and dispositions can be shaped and reshaped; the “ancient trinity” of truth, beauty, and goodness can still inspire the human heart, even among cynics. The burning question for each of us is what we aspire to, for ourselves and for our leaders, and the kind of political culture we will help build. We are citizens, not subjects, and so it is within our power to write magnificent new chapters in the American story. But that requires letting go of hatred and vengeance and to be again touched, as we surely can be, by the better angels of our nature.