In 2006, Jeff Sessions rose in the Senate chamber to personalize a debate on immigration. He, too, had immigrant forebears, he said, including “my great-great-great-great-grandfather,” who made it to the United States in time for the Civil War.
And then, the Alabama Republican groused, “Lincoln killed one of them at Antietam.”
Keep this in mind about the people making up the new Washington power structure: They remember. America, always an aspiring democracy, is now also a grudgeocracy.
This goes beyond Sessions, recently nominated to serve as Donald Trump’s attorney general. There’s retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, who, nudged out of his post at the Defense Intelligence Agency, ascended to the highest ranks of the Trump campaign by blasting his former boss, President Obama, as a “liar”; now he has been tapped as national security adviser. There’s Stephen K. Bannon, who built a right-wing website into a thriving media empire by raging against the so-called elites he used to hobnob with; he’s set to become senior White House adviser.
And then there’s the president-elect himself, who welcomed television journalists to Trump Tower on Monday for what they probably assumed would be a post-election charm offensive. Instead, he berated them for months-old coverage he deemed unfair.
The spirit of resentment is bipartisan, and it’s everywhere. Hillary Clinton and her supporters are looking to blame anyone but themselves: The FBI! No, the Kremlin! The pollsters! The Bernie people are battering the Democrats with “if only’s” and “I told you so’s.” It seems as if half of Twitter users have “Deplorable” in front of their names — a badge that conveys a fierce grudge against Clinton and her characterization of Trump voters. White nationalists fling their ethnic grudges into the air with Nazi salutes.
Yet no one is setting the tone like the Trump team. The transition kicked off with the ultimate grudge match: the ouster of Chris Christie, who is himself the king of the Jersey-style grudge; two of his former staffers were convicted in connection with a scheme to retaliate against a mayor who didn’t endorse the governor’s reelection by creating a traffic jam.
Christie knew of — and laughed at — their grudgy scheme to close toll lanes on the George Washington Bridge, according to a state official who pleaded guilty. But days after Trump’s election, it was Christie’s turn. He was shoved out of his post heading the Trump transition team, reportedly at the behest of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, whose dad Christie once prosecuted and sent to prison.
Grudge karma! It seems to be on the president-elect’s mind the moment he wakes up. Trump tweeted at 6:16 a.m. Nov. 21 that he canceled a meeting with the “not nice” New York Times, whose approval he’s courted for 40 years. (Hours later, the meeting was back on, if grudgingly.)
Ted Cruz, a lawyer by trade, was invited to the president-elect’s Manhattan tower last week as Trump was openly considering his Cabinet picks. This invitation was probably not a courtesy.
“Did Trump bring Cruz to Trump Tower right before selecting Sessions for AG just to humiliate Cruz one final time?” tweeted the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza.
Seems quite possible, given Trump’s obsession with loyalty, defiance and showing up his opponents. In July, the senator from Texas stood onstage at the Republican National Convention and told a dyspeptic crowd to “vote your conscience” — essentially giving them license to defect from the imminent nominee. It’s possible Cruz held a grudge himself, after losing the Republican primary to a candidate who’d disparaged his wife’s looks and accused his father of colluding with Lee Harvey Oswald.
The shelf life of Trump’s grudges is long. In 1975, Richard Ravitch, a New York housing official, denied a tax exemption for one of Trump’s construction projects. Thirty-four years later, when New York Gov. David Paterson named Ravitch as his lieutenant governor in 2009, Trump wrote to him to complain that Ravitch was “extremely weak, ineffective and a poor negotiator,” according to the Washington Post book “Trump Revealed.”
But grudges — and the potential to overcome as well as act on them — certainly lend drama to politics. Could Trump possibly get over South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s campaign criticism of him? Why, yes! So his nomination of her as U.N. ambassador carried an extra bit of flair. But would he extend such forgiveness to Mitt Romney, who once called Trump a “a phony, a fraud,” only to emerge as a surprise contender for secretary of state?
Stay tuned . . .
The word itself goes back 700 years. The Middle English “grudgen” meant “to complain,” and the Middle High German “grogezen” meant “to howl,” according to Merriam-Webster.
“I have a grudge against England because she induced us to go into the World War,” the isolationist Sen. Robert Reynolds (D-N.C.) said in 1939.
“America has no time to waste on a long, drawn-out political grudge fight,” Vice President Gerald Ford said in 1974, as impeachment pressure on Richard Nixon intensified.
“When people treat me unfairly, I don’t let them forget it,” Trump said last year in Dubuque, Iowa.
Mike Pence, the next vice president, was booed at a performance of “Hamilton” and then lectured by the cast about diversity and “our inalienable rights”; Trump supporters responded to this cheeky exercise of free speech by calling for a boycott of the Broadway show, already sold out until the end of time, which is now how long the grudge against it will last. This is somehow fitting, given that the story of “Hamilton” hinges on Aaron Burr’s years-long grudge against the title character.
The cast and producers of “Hamilton” should “immediately apologize to Mike Pence for their terrible behavior,” Trump tweeted at 6:22 a.m. Nov. 20 as the boycott trended on Twitter, which is a perfect social-media device for nursing and publicizing grudges. The New York Times has kept track of Trump’s Twitter insults, a digital museum of grudgery that extends to critics such as Sen. John McCain (“has failed miserably”) and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (“her mind is shot”) and to inanimate objects such as the microphone at the first presidential debate (“very bad” and “really bad”).
Of course, neither a caustic one-liner nor a faulty microphone approaches the grudge-worthiness of being shot with a .22-caliber bullet. But the magnanimous Ronald Reagan, rather than smear his would-be assassin, had this to say in 1983 about John Hinckley Jr.: “I don’t hold a grudge or anything.”