“The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.”
– Marcus Aurelius, “Meditations”
The unfortunate developments in the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office recently have turned my attention to the use of revenge in our political system. The Allegheny County controversy stems from an email the district attorney, Steve Zappala, sent to his office staff in May saying they were not to make plea offers to an African American defense attorney, Milton Raiford. This came after Raiford criticized the justice system and the DA’s office as “systematically racist.” Legal professionals have weighed in that should these instructions from Zappala be carried out, this action would be unethical and retaliatory to criminal defendants.
On its face, the plea bargain ban by Zappala constituted revenge against one member of the bar for his unwanted comments. Under the best of circumstances, Zappala’s long career will be stained by this disclosure. It is possible he will be forced to resign in the face of mounting public pressure.
Revenge is defined as the act of committing a harmful action against a person or group in response to a grievance, be it real or perceived. The desire for revenge is a basic human instinct. It has formed the basis for innumerable Shakespearean plays, novels, television shows and movies.
In the political sphere, history has taught us that elected officials who are motivated by power and the desire for status tend to be more revengeful than most. They resent being challenged and losing face. Retaliation is sometimes an emotional overreaction as in Zappala’s case, but more often a calculated scheme to achieve retribution.
American politics is riddled with examples of powerful people taking revenge against their pesky opponents. Those who continue to look for a conspiracy in the JFK assassination see the revenge (take your pick) of the Cubans, Russians, Chicago Mob, CIA or Kennedy’s vice president as the motivating factor in his death.
When Lyndon Johnson became president, he loathed his predecessor’s brother, Robert Kennedy, and took actions to limit his political ambitions. Moreover, Johnson was not above using the Hoover-run FBI to investigate and disrupt any elected official or group that spoke out against his policies on the Vietnam War.
Richard Nixon doubled down on the politics of revenge. As president, Nixon’s deep resentment for those who opposed him brought out his worst traits. Watergate was more than a political caper; it was one part of a frequent, systematic abuse of power by Nixon and his staff to dole out punishment to opponents. To accomplish this goal, an “enemies list” was created that contained the names of hundreds of politicians, bureaucrats, intellectuals, Hollywood figures, reporters and others.
Most recently, revenge was a hallmark of the Trump presidency. Unlike his predecessors, Donald Trump was open and deliberate about his goal to cause political and economic harm to his detractors. During his years in real estate, Trump often stated that he was driven by revenge and that it was a basic tool to use in business. He admits he continues to be obsessed with payback. In 2016, at the second presidential debate, then-nominee Trump went where no major candidate had gone: He vowed that if elected he would prosecute and imprison his opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Following his defeat in November, rather than concede the election, Trump concocted “the big lie” that the election was rigged and that he remains the legitimate president. Trump retreated to his Florida fortress and began plotting revenge against Republican lawmakers who voted to impeach him for inciting the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection. Any Republican who has plans to gain a seat or remain in Congress must seek out Trump and “kiss the ring” in order to avoid a primary challenge from Trump voters.
The politics of revenge has taken a new turn in American politics. Millions of Trump supporters are now infected with the Trumpian instinct to exact punishment on those who disagree with their chosen candidate. The revenge is directed at any individual or group that challenges the version of the truth Trump chooses to adopt.
Most troubling of all, a majority of the Republican Party is caught up in the call for revenge. The Republican House membership removed uber-conservative Rep. Lynne Cheney from her leadership position for opposing Trump. All Republican efforts are now directed at leveraging Trump’s revenge-based politics into gaining majorities in Congress in 2022 and none toward advancing public policy.
What can be done to counter the politics of revenge? It is hugely destructive to a political system because it unleashes cycles of further revenge and potentially counter-revenge. In the case of Zappala, it can promote departure from legal norms.
Despite the recent polarization of U.S. politics, our political history tells us that moderation and restraint will usually prevail in the end. Well-thought-out policy actions will speak louder than noisy, hateful words. Empathy and common goals as a nation will win over more citizens with a positive vision for America.
This is why I have complete confidence in the path that President Biden has taken since assuming office. His administration does not engage with Trump and has no interest in revenge against him. The revenge cycle is being broken. The Biden White House has more important tasks on its agenda than punishing Donald Trump.
Gary Stout is a Washington attorney.
Originally Appeared Here