The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s dark ‘I am your retribution’ pledge — and how GOP enabled it

Former president Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland on Saturday night. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
6 min

Even for a former president known for casting situations in the most apocalyptic terms possible, and his enemies as being as nefarious as possible, it was a remarkable rhetorical flourish.

“In 2016, I declared, ‘I am your voice,’” Donald Trump said Saturday night at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). “Today, I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed: I am your retribution.”

The line validates long-held suspicions that Trump’s 2024 campaign amounts to something of a “revenge tour.” Trump has disputed that his goal is to stick it to his enemies; now he’s admitting that it is a revenge tour of sorts — if not for him personally, then for his supporters.

But as much as anything, it reflects just how much the Republican Party, despite its apparent interest in turning the page in 2024, has enabled Trump to rise again. There is no “revenge tour” or “retribution” without the GOP playing into speculative and often-fanciful ideas about the wrongs supposedly visited on its base — and which accordingly demand such vengeance. And there is no 2024 hopeful better situated to capitalize on that sense of persecution and injustice.

In that regard, the party and its allies made a series of fateful decisions in the three months after the 2020 election.

When it was clear that Trump wouldn’t concede the election and lodged a series of ridiculous claims about voter fraud, they reasoned, in the now-infamous words of one GOP official, “What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time?

Few high-ranking Republicans publicly subscribed to Trump’s false, most far-flung claims of mass voter fraud at the time. But we’ve learned in recent weeks that Fox News proactively decided to credulously air such claims — despite many involved knowing better — because it concluded that that’s what its viewers wanted. By the same token, GOP officials offered watered-down claims about “irregularities,” process issues and mail balloting that didn’t rise to the level of Trump’s conspiracy theories, but still played into perceptions of a “stolen election.” Virtually nobody in the party directly undercut his claims.

Despite there remaining no evidence that the 2020 election was compromised, 6 in 10 Republicans still “mostly” agree it was stolen. A recent CNN poll showed that 65 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say the GOP should be at least “somewhat accepting” of candidates who believe the election was stolen. Just 8 percent of Republicans say they are less likely to vote for a stolen-election promoter.

The trend continued after Jan. 6, 2021. For a time, the GOP flirted with a break from Trump, acknowledging the reality that his claims were the catalyst for his supporters storming the U.S. Capitol that day. But just as quickly, Republicans decided that a full break would be too perilous. They defended Trump from impeachment — again, often on process if not moral grounds — and walked back the distance they had briefly sought from him.

Perhaps more important, though, is what has happened since then. Many of the most popular voices in the party set about questioning the official narrative of Jan. 6. Initially, it was conspiracy theories about antifa being responsible, which Republican leaders denounced. But soon it was undercutting the idea that it was an insurrection at all, and playing into the idea that Jan. 6 defendants had been persecuted.

The Republican National Committee pointed to “ordinary citizens” engaging in “legitimate political discourse.” Fox News’s Tucker Carlson and others will often speak in those terms, even about those who made their way into the Capitol. Perhaps most tellingly, Carlson got Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) to back off calling it a “terrorist attack” in a groveling TV interview.

The consequence: A poll last summer showed more Republicans viewed Jan. 6 as a “legitimate protest” (61 percent) than an “insurrection” (13 percent) or even a “riot” (45 percent). It was both of the latter, but the percentage who described it as such dropped by about 20 points from the summer of 2021, while the “legitimate protest” crowd grew to a strong majority.

These instances involved Republicans not necessarily echoing the most overwrought claims about the election and Jan. 6, but doing virtually nothing to correct them and often playing into them in various ways.

Similarly, the GOP has had little to say as Trump has rather transparently played to the QAnon crowd. (While few Republicans directly subscribe to the bizarre conspiracy theory, as many as 4 in 10 GOP-leaning voters have said it’s at least “somewhat good” for the country.)

And now, we’re witnessing the GOP’s growing effort to cast the federal government as “weaponized” against its allies.

Republicans leaped to criticize the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago, despite knowing very little about what undergirded it. More recently, the new House Republican majority has launched a select committee on the “weaponization” of the federal government.

The committee’s name itself is extraordinary, with its conclusion built in. Early focal points for the GOP include vastly overstated evidence that the FBI purportedly targeted parents who protest school boards, unsubstantiated claims that government officials were directly involved in censoring the Hunter Biden laptop story, and more dissection of a Russia investigation for which a years-long special counsel probe has largely fallen flat.

The American people as a whole have taken a dim early view of the “weaponization” committee, saying by a 56-36 margin that it’s more an attempt to score political points than a legitimately purposed committee. Those numbers reflect how much its focus is meant to service the party base rather than things Americans more broadly are concerned about.

But Republicans are pressing forward. After all, there are few things more powerful in politics than a sense of persecution and victimhood. And all the while, they continue to feed into themes that strengthen Trump.

An early 2022 poll showed that as many as 56 percent of Republicans believed President Biden to be a “puppet president” who was “controlled by a group of ‘Deep State’ elites.” Many Republicans might believe a candidate such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is able to wage the fight against those forces — and DeSantis in many ways speaks their language.

But nobody will match Trump’s rhetoric or years-long track record on this. National Republicans seem to largely understand that Trump’s electoral track record is poor and that it would be best to nominate someone else, but they’ve shown remarkably little interest in doing much of anything to steer the party away from him and his core issues.

And to the extent the 2024 primaries are allowed to be about emotion and “retribution” rather than a sober-minded review of their options, they’ll have paved the way.