Looking back at the last tumultuous year, to me, one of the saddest aspects of the Trump candidacy and presidency is that both in part were built from one of the basest of human impulses: revenge.
We’re taught that ideally, the desire to run for office should reflect a commitment to public service. And we know that the reality is far too often otherwise, running to slake a thirst for power and money that overpowers the greater good.
Yet to seek elected office for revenge, to use it to get back at someone or inflict harm on them or anyone associated with them seems in some ways even worse: shabby, petty and immoral.
Examine the roots of the Trump campaign and you see two men eager to use position to take revenge, to get even for insults, imagined or sometimes real, and to lash out at perceived conspiracies against them:
Donald Trump himself . . . and Vladimir Putin.
Whether or not there was active, knowing collusion, the two nonetheless joined forces to tap into decades of American fears and resentments not totally dissimilar from their own.
In Trump’s case, you don’t have to go to Vienna to figure out that much of his egotism and vainglory—and those tweets, God help us—seem aimed at getting back for slights that can go back just hours and minutes or sometimes even years. To be specific, remember the story of the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner when President Obama jokingly skewered Trump, who sat at his table in grim-faced, aggrieved silence.
Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker was in the Washington Hilton ballroom that night and wrote four years later: “[O]ne can’t help but suspect that, on that night, Trump’s own sense of public humiliation became so overwhelming that he decided, perhaps at first unconsciously, that he would, somehow, get his own back—perhaps even pursue the presidency after all, no matter how nihilistically or absurdly, and redeem himself.”
After the election, from each man there was feigned magnanimity toward the other but it didn’t last long. Like an uncontrollable tic, Trump continues to obsess over Obama, blaming any and all problems on his predecessor. Nothing, as we know all too well by now, is ever Trump’s fault.
In Putin’s case, the resentment is more geopolitical in nature and was aimed not so much at President Obama as at Hillary Clinton, particularly her tenure as Obama’s secretary of state. Here’s what Michael Crowley and Julia Ioffe wrote in Politico during the summer of 2016, when not as much was known or had been revealed about the extent of Russian attempts to hijack the American electoral process: “Former US officials who worked on Russia policy with Clinton say that Putin was personally stung by Clinton’s December 2011 condemnation of Russia’s parliamentary elections, and had his anger communicated directly to President Barack Obama. They say Putin and his advisers are also keenly aware that, even as she executed Obama’s ‘reset’ policy with Russia, Clinton took a harder line toward Moscow than others in the administration. And they say Putin sees Clinton as a forceful proponent of ‘regime change’ policies that the Russian leader considers a grave threat to his own survival.”
Confirming this in her book, What Happened, Hillary Clinton writes: “Our relationship has been sour for a long time. Putin doesn’t respect women and despises anyone who stands up to him, so I’m a double problem. After I criticized one of his policies, he told the press, ‘It’s better not to argue with women,’ but went on to call me weak. ‘Maybe weakness is not the worst quality for a woman,’ he joked. Hilarious.”
Clinton’s call for “fair, free transparent elections” in Russia led Putin to accuse Clinton of “interference in our internal affairs.” In retrospect, both statements are soaked in irony, as Putin’s revenge has taken the form of elaborate hacks and ruses via social media designed to interfere with and subvert free elections in the United States. Not to mention the ever-increasing evidence of Trump campaign team contacts with Russian government officials and apparent “cut-outs”—third party go-betweens used to pass information or to determine the likelihood of recruitment.
Of course, by most reports, Putin takes his revenge more bluntly against enemies at home and throughout much of the former Soviet bloc; political opponents and journalists simply die or disappear. But when it comes to the Internet, Russia’s techniques have been infinitely more subtle and ingenious. In many cases, the nation’s troll factories have been pitting sides against other sides with phony social media accounts that take every conceivable position on an issue.
The overall extent of these attacks is mind-blowing. The German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy reported, “While Russian Facebook ads reached up to 146 million Americans, nearly 30,000 Russian Twitter accounts produced 1.4 million tweets around Election Day.” And in early November, NBC News noted that more than 3,000 “global news outlets . . . inadvertently published articles containing embedded tweets by the confirmed Kremlin-linked troll accounts in over 11,000 news articles in the run-up to the 2016 election, separate exclusive reporting shows.”
Then there’s this: the Alliance for Securing Democracy’s Hamilton 68 dashboard, a web tool designed to monitor Russian disinformation, noted that as special counsel Robert Mueller’s initial indictments went down: “ . . . Kremlin-oriented accounts on Twitter employed the four D’s of disinformation: dismiss, distract, dismay, and distort. Outside of a day of fear mongering surrounding the terror attacks in New York City, the key words of the week (Clinton, Mueller, uranium, dossier, Tony Podesta and Donna Brazile) were all efforts to shift focus to Democratic scandals, both real and imagined. More importantly, over the past three weeks, the coordinated effort of Kremlin accounts to discredit Mueller and craft a narrative of Democrat-Russia collusion has moved from fringe websites to more credible outlets. What was once a conspiracy theory is now a mainstream narrative—and that is how a Russian influence operation works.”
And let’s add one more to the mix of those players who are motivated by revenge of one sort or another. Please welcome Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, the organization so beloved and touted by candidate Trump for its leaking of emails on Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee.
As reported by the aforementioned Julia Ioffe, this time in The Atlantic, despite its claims to be a nonpartisan dispenser of leaked documents, WikiLeaks—“a radical transparency organization that the American intelligence community believes was chosen by the Russian government to disseminate the information it had hacked”—was constantly shooting off messages to Donald Trump Jr., offering information and advice and making requests, including that Donald’s dad, by then the president–elect, suggest that Assange be named Australia’s ambassador to the United States. I’m not making this up.
Assange’s record of animus toward Hillary Clinton is well-known. He believed she wanted him indicted for WikiLeaks’ 2010 release of 250,000 diplomatic cables and wrote in February 2016, “She’s a war hawk with bad judgment who gets an unseemly emotional rush out of killing people. She shouldn’t be let near a gun shop, let alone an army. And she certainly should not become president of the United States.”
As per Ioffe, on Oct. 3, 2016, WikiLeaks wrote Donald Jr.: “’Hiya, it’d be great if you guys could comment on/push this story . . . ’ attaching a quote from then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton about wanting to ‘just drone’ WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
“’Already did that earlier today,’ Trump Jr. responded an hour-and-a-half later. ‘It’s amazing what she can get away with.’”
From such bitter nonsense, revenge unleashed, electors are swayed and empires fall.
Revenge, as the saying goes, is a dish best served cold. Putin the ex-KGB colonel apparently is taking his time, coolly mastering an operation effectively waging a cold cyberwar not only against the United States but Western nations in general.
As for Trump (who refuses to acknowledge that anything is wrong and who for whatever reasons will never criticize Putin) and right-wing media outlets like Fox News and Breitbart (which are further spreading the fake news ginned up by Russian bots), if they think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship, they are—surprise!—deluded.
Revenge is an ugly urge and a foul underlying basis for politics and government. It fogs the mind, disrupts equilibrium, crushes rational thought and too powerfully motivates our worst instincts. Further, at a time when fundamentalists and nativists seek to rule the land, revenge is distinctly, you should excuse the word, unChristian. That it has so infected the body politic, bursting to the surface after years of festering along with its helpmates bigotry, spite and ignorance, is a sad commentary on the state of the nation.
Revenge, another saying goes (or resentment or holding a grudge) is a poison you drink, hoping the other person will die. But in our current political nightmare, the poison affects us all: It envenoms and corrupts those who imbibe and while doing so murders society and democracy.
This is an emergency. We must find an antidote and fast.
Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship