Cue a split screen in your head. It’s a picture of the Republican party past on one side and Republican party today on the other. Not yet on the screen is a brighter picture of the future, one that all Americans who love democracy can work for and vote to create.
Much has been made of Donald Trump’s takeover of the GOP and of the willingness of Republicans up and down the party to bow to his will and whim. But amidst all that commentary what has been lost is the extent to which the party has embraced vengeance and retribution as its most important political product.
As The Atlantic’s Peter Wehner reminds us, “Vengeance is different from justice…. 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.”
Such a politics turns opponents into enemies and turns legitimate political combat, into a fight to the end. It destroys democracy and feels like what the eminent historian Richard Hofstader once labeled the “paranoid style” of politics.
Events this week in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Nashville, Tennessee have shined a bright light on the depth of the MAGA Republican Party’s paranoia and preference for revenge over justice for anyone who dares to defy the MAGA political theology.
Here the Republican Party is aping Trump’s own thuggish brand. After all, last month the former president unabashedly proclaimed to an audience of admirers in Texas, “I am your warrior. I am your justice…. I am your retribution.”
To get a full measure of the Republican Party’s current descent into a politics of revenge and retribution let’s go back to the split screen, it’s August 7, 1974, and Republican Senator Barry Goldwater and Republican House Minority Leader John Rhodes walk into the White House.
The day before, in a last desperate effort at damage control, the White House had released a cleaned-up version of the damaging White House tapes that the Supreme Court had ordered disclosed to Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski. The tapes recorded the conspiracy to cover up the Nixon Reelection Campaign’s involvement in the Watergate burglary and fueled a drive for Nixon’s impeachment and indictment.
Nixon, famous for his “enemies list,” expected Republicans to line up behind him and ensure that his Watergate tormentors were made to pay. But Goldwater and Rhodes delivered a different message, even though plenty in Nixon’s conservative base were sticking by him.
They told Nixon that he either had to resign or face impeachment and conviction. Nixon decided to resign to avoid that historically humiliating fate and with his departure, the Republicans of fifty years ago rejected the politics of revenge and retribution.
Now for the other side of the split screen.
It’s 2023, and there’s not a Republican to be found to stand up publicly to a former president who, unlike Nixon, has actually been indicted.
Even as members of his party in the House of Representatives threatened Alvin Bragg, Manhattan’s Democratic District Attorney, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy tweeted that the indictment was, “an outrageous abuse of power by a radical DA…” McCarthy even practiced Trump’s tactic of accusing others of doing what he himself has done when he accused Bragg of pursuing “political vengeance against President Trump.”
Perhaps the worst of the bunch has been House Oversight Chair Jim Comer. He proudly made offense the Trump defense by elevating the retaliatory threats of local prosecutors in MAGA states puffing their chests with revenge.
Comer went onto Fox & Friends to say he had taken phone calls “from county attorneys in Kentucky and Tennessee who are eager to “go after the Bidens to retaliate for the Trump indictment.”
While that may turn out to be an empty threat, in today’s MAGA Republican Party it is the threat that counts. Promising revenge and retribution demonstrates the kind of protection of an errant party leader that Rhodes and Goldwater refused to show to Nixon.
Vengeance is, as one commentator rightly noted, “not the fascist’s final, last-gasp option: it’s their first.”
And if we needed another reminder, in Tennessee, Republican leaders in the House of Representatives used the politics of revenge and retribution in an unprecedented, kangaroo court procedure to expel two Democratic legislators who peacefully protested against the Republican majority’s refusal to consider gun control legislation.
The larger point is this: We’ve come a long way since Republicans like Goldwater and Rhodes were willing to face reality, call a party leader’s egregious misconduct cause for him to step down, and preserve our constitutional Republic or when there was such a thing as a moderate Republican.
We need a viable, democracy-loving second party, committed to justice not vengeance in our country. The route back there will be bumpy, but it’s already paved.
Voters have laid out the roadway with bright markers in the last three national elections, rejecting Trump and his MAGA followers. That happened because ordinary citizens, exhausted by extremism and a constant stream of threats, organized and gave Trumpists three elections in a row, a thumbs down in nearly every Senate race and non-gerrymandered House district, and in the 2020 presidential election.
The politics of revenge and retribution does not play well in contested elections. Defending Trump, a serial rule breaker and violator of norms and laws who threatens those standing up for the rule of law does not play well with the sensible majority.
Threats of retaliation like Comer’s will do worse in the election to come.
Republicans need to learn the lesson that generations of American high school students learned from reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic, The Scarlet Letter: sooner or later vengeance always destroys the avenger.
To date, MAGA Republicans are too frightened of Trump’s base to learn that lesson. Inevitably, however, over time they will get tired of the losing that Trump has produced.
For all those Republicans who care to notice, the emperor of electoral maladies and the king of vengeance politics has no clothes and no future.