The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The GOP primaries are all about ‘retribution’ against MAGA’s enemies

Former president Donald Trump speaks on the final day of the Conservative Political Action Conference on March 4. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
4 min

As Donald Trump rambled his way for over 100 minutes through a stream-of-consciousness speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference last weekend, there was at least one moment of clarity. “In 2016, I declared I am your voice,” the former president said. “Today, I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”

“Retribution” wasn’t an explicit catchword in Trump’s previous two campaigns, though the idea was implicit in much of the argument he made to voters. Now it might as well be the campaign’s explicit slogan: If you want revenge, vote for Trump.

The vow of “retribution,” which is now everywhere in right-wing politics, is another sign the Republican Party has put victimhood at the center of its identity, perhaps to a greater extent than ever before. To be on the right today is to believe yourself oppressed by impossibly powerful forces, including the government, the news media, the education system and a changing society that increasingly rejects your beliefs.

Every part of who you are — your race, gender, religion, ideas about the world — supposedly makes you a victim. Every “Happy Holidays” sign is an attack, every openly gay person an affront and every election you don’t win a theft of what is rightfully yours.

Enter the vow of “retribution.” This does not mean wrongs will be righted, that conditions will be improved or that if you’re hoping for concrete, material benefits from the next presidency, you’ll be satisfied. It’s not about you at all. Retribution is about the enemies who oppressed you. It’s about making them suffer, at least as much as you think you have suffered, if not more.

It takes a strong person to be victimized (even if only in their own mind) and not want to make the ones they blame suffer. But is it enough to build a presidential campaign on?

Trump has always been a curator of people’s darkest impulses, their resentments, bigotries and rage. But focusing on retribution might be an admission that after a chaotic term in office and the emergence of smarter rivals with serious potential to win over the GOP base, he doesn’t have much else to offer.

That’s not to say it couldn’t be effective. While Trump always got the most attention for his most repugnant beliefs and utterances about immigrants, members of minority groups and women, he made an argument that powerfully resonated with large swaths of the country: You have been wronged by an economic and political establishment that didn’t care about you. Vote for me and we can do something about it.

Retribution was the mostly unspoken part of that argument. First, Trump would bring boundless prosperity to neglected small towns and rural areas. Next, he would “drain the swamp” of entrenched elites so the interests of ordinary people would prevail. And if the “establishment” that never did anything for you was appalled by him, that was proof he was your best choice.

Even if he didn’t bring boundless prosperity and even if draining the swamp turned out to mean installing grifters and cronies in the federal government, you might count his presidency a success, at least on a symbolic level, if revenge was what you were after. Trump was a giant middle finger thrust in the face of everyone you hate, and he continues to drive them to distraction. Isn’t that a kind of success?

Most of his voters thought so. Though he lost his bid for reelection, in many of the Trumpiest places he performed better in 2020 than he had in 2016. You could see it in rural counties such as Cimarron County, Okla., where he went from 89 percent of the vote in 2016 to 92 percent in 2020, or Garfield County, Mont., where he went from 91 percent to 94 percent. Some people were clearly happy to reaffirm the brand of retribution he offered.

But today other candidates have a clearer idea of the future they want to create — one where retribution takes concrete form. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis won’t just mock snooty intellectuals on Twitter, he’ll also engineer the ideological takeover of one state university and impose a right-wing agenda on the others. If you’re mad about an LGBTQ-friendly company, he’ll take away its cherished tax status. Take that, libs.

Other candidates can say they hate the same people the base hates. But the trick might be convincing them that, if given the opportunity, they’ll make them pay.

That’s one thing Trump can plausibly claim. This time he might not be able to credibly promise So Much Winning You’ll Get Tired of Winning again. But a promise to make his and your enemies suffer is one he just might be able to keep.