Bracing for Trump's Revenge

Some conservatives unequivocally opposed his election. Now he’s the president, with all the levers of government at his disposal.

David Segar / Reuters

Donald Trump has never made a secret of his penchant for personal vengeance. He boasts about it, tweets about it, tells long, rambling stories about it on the transcontinental speaking circuit. When, last year, he was asked to identify a favorite Bible passage, he cited “an eye for an eye.” And in his 2007 book, Think Big and Kick Ass, he devoted an entire chapter to the joys of exacting revenge.

“My motto is: Always get even,” he wrote. “When somebody screws you, screw them back in spades.”

For those who have crossed Trump, then, these are understandably anxious times. As he enters the White House and takes the reins of the most powerful government in the world, a small cadre of high-profile conservatives—the haters, the losers, the Never-Trumpers who never fell in line—has found itself wondering whether their party’s president will use his new powers to settle old scores.

“The question is not whether he’s vengeful,” conservative columnist Ben Shapiro told me. “The question is how willing he is to use the levers of government to exact that revenge.”

This is no idle question for Shapiro. The California-based commentator emerged in 2016 as one of Trump’s most vociferous—and most frequently targeted—critics in the conservative movement. He spent months relentlessly prosecuting the candidate on TV and Twitter, and in March set off a media frenzy when he abruptly quit his job at Breitbart and blasted the company’s then-CEO Steve Bannon for being a “bully” who had turned the site into “Trump’s personal Pravda.”

Now that Trump and Bannon are both in the White House, Shapiro says he has no intention of trying to make amends—but can’t help but worry about his standing with them. “Trump has an extremely long shit list … I don’t want to flatter myself and say I’m top 10, but I’m certainly top 50,” he told me. “I’ve been half-joking for almost a year that my IRS audit is already being drawn up.”

In fact, he’s taking the threat of retaliation from Trump and his allies quite seriously. A favorite target of the alt-right troll army that Breitbart helps marshal, Shapiro told me he’s already purchased a shotgun and installed a high-end security system in his home. When we spoke the night before the inauguration, he was deliberating over whether to delete his entire personal email archive before spies or Russian hackers could infiltrate his inbox.

He knows all this may sound a little paranoid, but he doesn’t want to take any chances. “They can fight very ugly and very nasty,” he said of Trump and Bannon. “And they do have power now, where if they feel like destroying you, they can.”

For Glenn Beck, there’s nothing new about the fear of payback from a power-crazed president and his minions. The right-wing talk radio host spent much of the past decade preaching against the tyrannical terrors of the Obama administration, and twitchily looking over his shoulder as a result. Now, it looks as if Beck—who spent the 2016 election bitterly feuding with Trump—is consigned to repeating that experience for at least another four years. He believes the new president is “dangerously unhinged,” and he travels with two bodyguards by his side, fearing the death threats he’s received from Trump supporters.

“It is not fun,” Beck told me. “I don’t cherish it, but I value the truth more than I’m afraid of retribution.”

Beck has spent recent months on an unlikely tour of the liberal media landscape—voyaging from The New York Times’ op-ed page, to Vice News, to Samantha Bee’s late-night talk show. At times, he has appeared like a refugee seeking asylum. He acknowledges now that much of his apocalyptic Obama rhetoric was overheated, and he’s apologized. Still, his anxiety hasn’t completely subsided.

When I asked Beck if he’d spent any time worrying about revenge from the Trump White House, he replied, “I’m a catastrophist, so I’m worried all the time.” He says the president has populated his inner-circle with some “disturbing people,” and he’s grown increasingly alarmed at Trump’s treatment of the press.

For now, he’s holding out hope that Trump will focus on more important things than feuds with media personalities. “I don’t think the president of the United States should worry about me and my voice,” Beck said. “I’m hoping the presidency weighs on him.” But in the event of a First Amendment crackdown, he says he’ll stand ready to link arms in solidarity with the press. “I will stand with anyone whose voice is being silenced.” He’s just hoping they’ll stand with him, too.

Though the record is fairly clear when it comes to Trump’s passion for vengeance, it remains an open question whether he actually maintains a comprehensive, up-to-the-minute catalog of the haters and losers he wants to destroy.  (A White House spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.) It seems unlikely — but, of course, it wouldn’t be a first. Richard Nixon’s aides famously compiled an “enemies list,” the stated purpose of which was to “use the available federal machinery to screw” political opponents. John Dean, the former Nixon White House counsel, told me recently that he’d be shocked if Trump didn’t have something similar on hand. "The envy these men have is blended with their desire for revenge.”

Whether or not such a list exists today, there are clear signs that Trump and his team are keeping track of their enemies. Last month, The Washington Post reported that more than 100 national-security veterans in the GOP establishment are said to be “blacklisted” from administration jobs because they signed a public letter during the campaign opposing Trump’s candidacy. In another episode, the president-elect aggressively campaigned behind the scenes to unseat a state party chairman in Ohio who had fought him during the election.

Trump also spent weeks during the transition publicly weighing two of his most stubborn 2016 foes—Ted Cruz and Mitt Romney—for top cabinet posts, only to unceremoniously dump them once they’d been seen cozying up to the president-elect. Transition officials insisted these meetings were all in good faith; Trump’s longtime adviser Roger Stone claimed otherwise.

“Donald Trump was interviewing Mitt Romney for secretary of state in order to torture him. To toy with him,” Stone said on the Alex Jones Show. “And given the history, that’s completely understandable. Mitt Romney crossed a line.”

With Trump’s surprise victory last fall, meanwhile, some in the professional political class have suddenly transformed into enthusiastic boosters, hoping the new president will forgive (or at least forget) their heat-of-the-campaign criticism. But not everyone has that luxury.

Katie Packer, a Republican consultant who led a conservative anti-Trump super-PAC, told me Trump’s election prompted her to take a break from politics. “I kind of stepped away from it all,” she said. “I just made the decision that he’d won, he’s the president now, and I’m really not interested in banging my head up against the wall for the next four years.” She said she’ll likely return to the political fray at some point, but for now she takes comfort in the belief that she’s no longer on Trump’s radar. “I think they’re focusing their attention on other targets.”

Rick Wilson, a Florida-based GOP strategist who appears frequently on cable news as an anti-Trump taunting head, told me his flamboyant opposition to his party’s new leader meant that he would likely miss out on many of the “perks” enjoyed by his more conciliatory colleagues in the consultant class. “But the comfort of this is that I don’t have to vary in what I believe,” Wilson said. “I don’t have to lie, and get up every morning and say, ‘Why yes, the emperor is resplendently robed!’ when the guy is buck naked.”

For many Republican politicos who were critical of Trump during the campaign, the fear of personal retribution from the leader of the free world is softened somewhat by their unwavering conviction of his incompetence. Several consultants and operatives, who requested anonymity so as not to provoke the president’s wrath, said Trump would likely be too overwhelmed and disorganized in office to keep working his way down the enemies list.

“I don’t think anybody’s too worried about Trump death-starring their business, because he’s still struggling to even make the Death Star operational,” cracked one strategist.

“When you’re really dealing with Putin and Turkey and Syria, is that county chair in Iowa who turned on you gonna get the attention of the president of the United States?” asked another. He paused and then added with a laugh, “Of course, that’s what staff is for.”

Indeed, Trump’s administration is not lacking for enforcers who share his instincts. Reince Priebus, now the White House Chief of Staff, publicly threatened Republicans who were withholding their support from the nominee in the final weeks of the election. And according to two knowledgeable sources, White House press secretary Sean Spicer used to maintain a “bad reporters” folder in his inbox to keep track of journalists he believed had treated him or the RNC unfairly.

But if consultants are worried about their contracts, and party officials about their positions, some of Trump’s opponents harbor deeper and more serious concerns. For Evan McMullin—who quit his job as policy director for House Republicans to launch a long-shot indie bid in 2016 under the #NeverTrump banner—the question of how President Trump plans to get even from the Oval Office is a singularly important one. Petty partisan punishments are one thing, McMullin told me. But as a former CIA officer, he has witnessed firsthand the rise of despotic regimes abroad. “If Trump uses state power to exact revenge on political opponents, that will be a very clear sign that he is a true authoritarian.”

During the election, McMullin’s candidacy unexpectedly threw his native Utah into contention, sending the Trump campaign on a frantic last-minute scramble to lock down the deep-red state. By the end, Trump managed to eke out a plurality win there, but he was left seething at McMullin’s meddling. The future president lashed out repeatedly at McMullin in the final days of the race, calling him a “puppet” for moneyed establishment interests. And the attacks only intensified once Trump won and embarked on his post-election victory tour.

McMullin told me that watching the president-elect rail against him at raucous rallies was a “chilling” experience. “I remember at one of his rallies when he was attacking me, he said something like, ‘He’s sort of a bad guy, this guy.’ I immediately recognized that as something I’d seen before overseas in places where authoritarians takes power. They try to criminalize their political opposition. They tried to do it with Hillary Clinton… and they could do it with more of us.”

When we spoke before the inauguration, McMullin made clear that it was still too early to know whether Trump would cross that line.* “Despite my concerns, I genuinely still have hope that he will not govern in the way that he said he would during the campaign,” he told me. “At least, I hope that’s the case, because it would certainly make my life a lot easier.”

* This article has been updated to reflect that Evan McMullin’s comments were made before Donald Trump’s inauguration.