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17 January 2024

Donald Trump and the politics of retribution

After his emphatic victory in the Iowa Republican primary, the former president believes he is destined for a second term. What can stop him?

By Sarah Baxter

Donald Trump’s favourite Hollywood role model is Sylvester Stallone. At every one of his campaign stops, there is 2024 “Make America great again” (Maga) merch on sale – flags, posters, T-shirts – showing the 77-year-old Trump as Rambo wielding his bazooka with the message “No Man, no Woman, no Commie can stump him”. Another superimposes Trump’s head on to the ripped torso of Stallone’s boxing champ Rocky, a meme the former president has admiringly reposted on social media.

As Rocky says, “It ain’t how hard you hit… it’s how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” It’s an all-American narrative that fits Trump’s defiant campaign persona: a man hell-bent on revenge, channelling his grief and fury at losing the 2020 election into an all-too-plausible comeback story. And Americans can’t seem to get enough of his angertainment.

After his emphatic victory in Iowa’s primary on 15 January, Trump’s progression to the Republican presidential nomination looks unstoppable. He won 51 per cent of the vote, more than double the runner-up Ron DeSantis’s 21 per cent and Nikki Haley’s 19 per cent. DeSantis has blown through $250m to end up below where he started. Haley – successfully caricatured as the Republican establishment version of Hillary Clinton – is losing what little momentum she had ahead of the New Hampshire primary on 23 January, before her campaign surely judders to a halt in her home state of South Carolina a month later.

According to G Elliott Morris, data analyst for ABC News, Trump has already wrapped up the Republican race. “He is at 61 per cent… No non-incumbent presidential candidate has ever done that well in the polls and gone on to lose,” he told CNN on 13 January. All this while facing four criminal trials (in federal and state courts) for allegations of election interference, concealing classified documents, and paying hush money to a porn star.

We don’t know whether Trump can generate enough steam to propel him to the White House on 5 November – but it could be payback time if he wins. Trump has vowed to seek vengeance on his political enemies, on behalf of his most faithful supporters. “I am your warrior, I am your justice and for those that have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution,” Trump proclaimed last March.

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It was tempting to laugh. The idea that a self-obsessed billionaire who shamelessly peddles lies about having won the last election could embody the assorted grievances of millions of Americans seemed preposterous. But who doesn’t dream of revenge and redemption? Voters are angry about the lost years under Covid, the 2.4 million immigrants apprehended at the southern border last year, and the high inflation – now curbed at 3.4 per cent – that has led to punitive borrowing costs and mortgage rates of around 7 per cent. For his fans, a Trump restoration would present a stirring climax to the greatest political show on Earth.

When his supporters stormed the Capitol on 6 January 2021, many US liberals cheered on the rioters from their armchairs. As Barbara Walter, author of How Civil Wars Start, explained to me, she felt “really happy” that day because she assumed “this was the gift that America needed to wake up because those of us who were sounding the alarm had been getting nowhere with it”. She was not alone in supposing every borderline normal person would realise Trump was a dictator-in-the-making, willing to destroy the fabric holding the nation together in his pursuit of power – and reject him decisively.

This was magical thinking. A Washington Post poll on the third anniversary of the insurrection found that US voters were more likely to downplay or excuse the violence than before. Twenty-five per cent of respondents agreed with the conspiracy theory that the FBI “probably” or “definitely” provoked the attack. Michelle Obama said on an American podcast earlier this month that fear of Trump’s return was keeping her up at night. “I’m terrified about what could possibly happen… We cannot take this democracy for granted.”

Fantasy-casting aside, however, the former first lady will not be volunteering to replace 81-year-old Joe Biden at the top of the Democratic ticket. Barring a major health disaster for either Trump or Biden, the battle of the ageing gladiators is heading for a rematch. It’s impossible to predict, but a lack of enthusiasm for Biden did not stop him winning in 2020 and Trump has never been able to persuade a majority of the US electorate to back him. Third-party candidates such as Robert F Kennedy Jr and the Green Party’s Jill Stein could complicate the picture, peeling much-needed votes away from the two main candidates.

At the end of 2023, the Daily Mail asked 1,000 likely US voters to sum up in one word what Biden and Trump would want in a second term as president. For Biden, the most common response was “nothing”, followed by “economy”, “peace” and “democracy”. For Trump, it was “revenge” (the next-most frequent words were “power”, “economy” and “dictatorship”).

Trump would have been thrilled. Asked by his shill Sean Hannity at a Fox News town hall event in Iowa before Christmas to confirm he would “never abuse power as retribution against anybody”, Trump demurred. “Except for day one,” he boasted, before citing closing the border against immigrants and drilling for oil as priorities. John Sauer, a leading Trump lawyer, has argued on his behalf that a president can claim immunity from prosecution even for the assassination of a rival – unless he were first impeached in the House of Representatives and convicted by the Senate. Trump has tried to distance himself from some of his most outrageous comments. “We’re going to make this country so successful again, I’m not going to have time for retribution,” he said at another Fox News town hall the week before the Iowa caucus. Perhaps he is preparing to pivot towards more moderate voters in the general election – a sensible strategy (if he can stick to it) that advisers have been urging.

Illustration by Mark Harris

But it is striking how few senior members of his former administration believe he can be trusted with power again. According to John Kelly, his former White House chief of staff, Trump often wanted the Department of Justice to prosecute those who crossed him, but his requests were ignored. “The lesson the former president learned from his first term is don’t put guys like me… in those jobs,” Kelly told the Washington Post in November. “The lesson he learned was to find sycophants.”

Kelly is supposed to be on an alleged hit list of critics Trump wants to prosecute, along with the former attorney general Bill Barr, who refused to accept the 2020 election was stolen. And, of course, the “Biden crime family” – Joe, son Hunter and brother James. Trump has been emboldened by the number of charges brought against him. “This is third-world-country stuff, ‘arrest your opponent’,” he said at a rally in New Hampshire in October. “And that means I can do that too.”

The Republican former defence secretary Mark Esper made an alarming forecast about a Trump second term on MSNBC in December. Referring to a dispute they had during the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, Esper said Trump “wanted to deploy active-duty troops on the streets of Washington DC and suggested actually that we shoot Americans in the street. That’s kind of more of what you [will] see.”

There are no constitutional handrails preventing a US president from using the military as a domestic political cudgel. In the event of unrest, there are fears Trump could invoke the Insurrection Act with the support of a compliant defence secretary, which would allow him to deploy US troops within America. One name being floated for that position is the former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was pardoned by Trump in 2020 for lying to the FBI about contacts with the Russian ambassador during the 2016 election. Flynn, who has supported the conspiracy theory QAnon, advised a defeated Trump on the eve of the Capitol riot to declare martial law, seize ballot boxes and rerun the election in disputed states. Stephen Miller, Trump’s former speech writer and an immigration hardliner, and Jeffrey Clark, a former justice department official and alleged co-conspirator in Trump’s federal trial for election interference, may also get plum appointments.

Clark has also been working with the Heritage Foundation think tank, a former bastion of Reaganism that has been taken over by Trumpists, and the Maga-inspired Center for Renewing America on “Project 2025”, a set of proposals for implementing policy and replacing government workers with pro-Trump personnel at every level of the federal service as part of an assault on the “deep state”. The Washington Post recently claimed that invoking the Insurrection Act on Trump’s first day in office was one of the project’s scenarios (a Heritage Foundation spokesperson responded blithely that there were “no plans”).

Project 2025’s website boasts: “Our goal is to assemble an army of aligned, vetted, trained and prepared conservatives to go to work on Day One to deconstruct the Administrative State.” Thousands of civil servants would be dismissed and replaced, going well beyond the political staff turnover typical of incoming administrations. Plans are so advanced that senior Trump advisers are growing irritated that so many think tanks, including the America First Policy Institute, are jostling to stuff a future Trump regime with their lackeys. The use of the word “army” in Project 2025 is no coincidence. Trump loves to describe himself as a warrior. Those who followed his advice to “fight like hell” at the Capitol have been compared to prisoners of war and – since the 7 October Hamas attack in Israel – to hostages.

If he loses the election in November, Donald Trump has plenty of hardcore supporters already flirting with the prospect of civil war. If he wins, he may never give up power voluntarily. It sounds absurd, but Trump has suggested the “stolen” election of 2020 entitles him to a constitution-defying third term in office. For him, revenge is a never-ending story.

[See also: Donald Trump: American vampire]

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This article appears in the 17 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trump’s Revenge