September 14, 2018 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Don’t Underrate the Power of Revenge

What's powering the Trump backlash? Payback, pure and simple.

Share this article

Now that the president has said nearly 3,000 people did not die in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, it’s time talk about something few talk about because it’s taboo.

Political revenge.

Why taboo? Because no matter what they may say to the contrary, most liberals agree with Michelle Obama, who said during the 2016 Democratic National Convention that Republicans will go low. They always do. But when they do, we don’t follow them.

“We go high,” she said.

This was not a declaration of fact. Plenty of Democrats go low, too. It was rather an aspirational statement rooted in moral thinking of the ancients. The lust for justice, for the taking of an eye for an eye, is set deep in our human DNA. But we are not captive of it, or don’t have to be. We can choose a higher course, a justice that does not lead us to the depravity of those who caused us to seek justice.

Liberals have been debating Obama’s statement since before the 2016 election. How do you go high, for instance, when the Senate Majority Leader breaks decorum, thus stealing a United States Supreme Court appointee from the democratically elected president? The debate isn’t yet settled, but I tend to agree with Richard Yeselson, a contributing editor for Dissent, who said recently that one party maintaining norms while the other vaporizes them “is catastrophically wrong, normatively and politically. [The] only way to restore norms is if both sides suffer from their collapse.”

In other words, we may have arrived at a time when revenge is the only way forward. We might not want to seek revenge for its own sake, but then again, how can we avoid it? At the same time, revenge sounds so good, doesn’t it? I mean, who among us would not feel the cockles of her heart warming at the sight of the president getting perp-walked out of the White House? Indeed, we seem to have gotten one step closer to that today on the news that Paul Manafort, the ultimate crony, struck a plea deal to cooperate with Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Since the facts of the matter seem to be leading in the direction of revenge anyway, why not give in to it?

Certainly the Democratic base yearns for revenge. I can think of no other reason why Michael Avenatti would consider running for president. He’s Stormy Daniels attorney. As far as I can tell, he knows nothing about government, policy, or ideology. He may not even care. But he knows an audience and opportunity when he sees them.

As Eric Levitz wrote recently: “[Avenatti has] centered his nascent campaign on a call for tactical ruthlessness. His message is, in so many words: ‘I might not be the most eloquent or credible advocate for universal health care, criminal justice reform, or paid family leave—but I’m the one who will fight the hardest (and dirtiest) to win the American people a generous settlement on all those fronts.’”

I don’t think Dianne Feinstein was thinking about revenge when she referred a mysterious letter to the FBI that alleged that Brett Kavanaugh had, while a teenager, forced himself on a girl. That she was not seeking revenge doesn’t matter to those of us thrilled by his denying the allegation. Denying anything gives credence to allegations. Even if he’s confirmed (and he will be), Kavanaugh will walk to his place on the US Supreme Court with a severe limp and with the whiff of illegitimacy (for a host of other reasons, including the fact he’s lied under oath numerous times).

The kind of revenge that will matter most will happen at the ballot box. Think about it. We have a president who has not only exploited his relationships with women. He has bragged about it. He had a chance to stop to allegations—by telling us, for instance, that Stormy Daniels was right—but he didn’t. He doubled down. This is only a small factor is a larger treatment of women, which includes Hillary Clinton.

Let’s remember: the number of women running for offices high and low this year has shattered records. Why is that? It’s not just because women are suddenly angry. They have had good reason to be angry for as long as men have been around. I think hundreds and hundreds of women are running, and winning, because they saw what happened to the most competent presidential candidate in modern memory and said to themselves: that’s wrong, that so wrong that I’m going to do something about it.

Note to readers

The Editorial Board didn’t publish Thursday due to its editor having been struck down by fever and sweats. He promises to make it up to you over the weekend. Stay well.

—John Stoehr

Subscribe today!

What do you get for $5 a month? One edition sent to your inbox every day by 2 p.m.

That’s five a week! More than 20 editions a month!

The Editorial Board is for normal people trying to understand politics.

No ads. No sponsors. No “both sides.” Just straight talk straight to you.

Please subscribe today! —John Stoehr

Here’s what we published last week!

Brett Kavanaugh Is Why We Need Voting Reform
The 2014 midterms are the root of the constitutional order’s “breaking point.”

Is Brett Kavanaugh a Legitimate Nominee?
The question begins with Mitch McConnell and ends with Fred Guttenberg.

Anonymous Is Trump’s Fortuneteller
The center of power is moving away from the president. He’s too weak to stop it.

Kavanaugh and Mueller Are the Same Story
Kamala Harris revealed an apparent link.

Trump Exposed the Left’s Fault Lines
Leftist intellectuals are divided—over Russia, and more.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

Leave a Comment

Want to comment on this post?
Click here to upgrade to a premium membership.