The Revenge Cycle, On Repeat
Politics, like the people involved, is a funny thing.
Presidential elections, and national elections more generally, usually have a cycle to them, a rhythm and flow accounting for all the many factors involved and interests that coalesce around the most powerful executive position in the land. With an incumbent president seeking re-election, usually the theme would be the electorate’s verdict on how the previous four years have gone and the potential for the next four. Poll after poll of registered voters shows that the top two issues, by healthy margins, are the economy and healthcare. The normal, everyday American voters are pretty much concerned with the same issues they always are.
But not the most dedicated members of the politically active. They want something else.
They want revenge.
Revenge is the most bipartisan of things. Its base alloys of hate and resentment fit really well into the hearts and minds of those crusading for the greater good they believe is being prevented by the dastardly “them”. Politics is the perfect furnace to forge such things into the weapons of change, and if that weapon doesn’t work, clearly it isn’t the fault of the cause but only that the perfect instrument of destruction has yet to be wielded. The fire of that forge never dies, constantly fed by the stokers of aggrievement shoveling the latest real or perceived slight to keep the process going.
The beauty of it is, like other forms of aggrievement, the one-upmanship is nearly limitless. Or, bottomless might be a better way to put it. The degrees of separation from the latest controversy to those which came before are only a Google search away now. In a very real sense, most of our political arguments have new names and faces but are fought over the same lines established for a generation now. Us vs Them never gets old, is never resolved, and always has willing participants.
The past few days have highlighted the ugliness and made it abundantly clear that the spirit of revenge will be an undertow to all other concerns as we approach the 2020 elections. Many on the right were in extreme celebration mode the last few days– not because of the perceived benefits the Mueller Report’s conclusions meant for the country — but for the weeping and gnashing of teeth, they expected from the left. President Trump and his allies have made it very clear they not only feel vindicated, but are going on the offensive and will seek retribution against any and all peoples found to be involved in what they feel was a witch hunt. As reported by The Atlantic, RNC campaign sources disclose that the once dreaded Mueller Report will now be the cure to all kinds of PR ills:
Trump allies see Barr’s letter as a kind of Swiss Army knife — a tool useful in all kinds of situations. Not only is it exculpatory, they say, but it also implicitly rebukes the press for its coverage of the Russia investigation, inoculating Trump from any future scandal that reporters might unearth. According to a source familiar with internal discussions at the Republican National Committee and the pro-Trump super PAC America First, both organizations are “geared up for any nonsense to come.”
They’re already prepared to attack reporters. “Any reporter who tries that will be hit with 30-second spots of all their ridiculous claims about collusion,” said the source, who, like others interviewed for this story, requested anonymity to describe private conversations. “Their tweets have all been screencapped. It’s all ready to go.”
Notable that the old “Lock her up” chant formerly directed at Hillary Clinton has gone gender neutral and plural, so there is progress for you. Apparently being simply relieved that, at least as far as we know, the sitting President of the United States did not break any laws according to the special counsel’s investigation is an insufficient reaction. Your mileage on how to respond to the 37 indictments, seven guilty pleas, and four prison sentences to others may vary.
Meanwhile, the Resist! folks, denied the one-shot kill to the Trump presidency they hoped the Mueller investigation would be, will not be going quietly into the good night. Now even more determined to right the wrong of escaped justice by any means necessary, many are doubling down on their belief that wrongdoing sufficient to finally get Trump is there if they just persist.
Yet even as House Democrats make a clear pivot away from the collusion question, they continue to rally around Schiff — who refuses to let the matter go until lawmakers can assess the investigative materials that informed Mueller’s findings.
“Undoubtedly there is collusion,” (Rep. Adam) Schiff said in an interview this week, after Attorney General William P. Barr submitted a four-page letter to Congress summarizing key aspects of Mueller’s report. “We will continue to investigate the counterintelligence issues. That is, is the president or people around him compromised in any way by a hostile foreign power? . . . It doesn’t appear that was any part of Mueller’s report.”
At the risk of being accused of skepticism, I’m somewhat unconvinced congressional hearings will do better than what the individual widely proclaimed for the last two years as the best investigator America could produce with a particular mandate and nearly unlimited resources.
The president’s opponents will no doubt use every jot and tittle of the reportedly 300-plus page Mueller Report to investigate anything and everything found within. Congress, unburdened with any illusions of passing major legislation with a Republican Senate and Democratic House, will have plenty of time to do so. The House will investigate Trump, the Senate will investigate Democrats, and nothing productive will be done by anyone.
Or at least, that is the official story.
With 72 years of book on how he operates, it’s safe to conclude that President Trump does indeed hold grudges and enjoy getting even. And yes, his supporters take their lead from him. It’s also fair to point out the many that feel completely justified in the scorched earth method of de-Trumping Washington. But that is almost the sideshow to the real reason the revenge narrative will get pushed good and hard for the next 20 months.
To the party heads, fundraisers, strategists, and opinion shapers, the real challenge of politics isn’t the ideology but the engagement. Keeping people interested and participating in what is essentially a carousel of constant movement going nowhere takes much effort, planning, branding, and work. How do you keep all those necessary volunteers working so hard for the cause, knocking on doors, convincing others, and — most importantly — sending in their hard-earned dollars as tithes to the political church of their choice? Emotional connections. Aggrievement. Anger. Hatred. Revenge. The one true way to becoming useful minions to those who know how to keep the melting furnaces going to bring in normal people and turn them into political Uruk-hai.
Money makes the world go round; politics requires money, vengeful people are motivated to donate and volunteer.
Sounds dire, doesn’t it?
But there is a downside to this method of political madness, and one that should give pause to those who think constantly stoking maximum engagement is going to work out in the long run.
The last “most consequential election of our lifetime,” before the 2018 one we just had, was of course 2016, the Donald Trump v Hillary Clinton election. We’d never seen an election like it, or candidates like it, or media coverage like it, or stakes that had ever been higher, the fate of the Republic never so precariously hanging on the pivot point of destiny like it was then…
…And the voter turnout was 56%.
44% percent of the registered voting electorate took a look at the proceedings and decided to sit it out. 86 million people. So many, in fact, that if you took all registered voters who abstained and ascribed them the vote of “nobody,” nobody would have won the electoral college in a landslide. While it is true that the 2018 midterm elections showed higher turnout, and in many cases generational highs, it was still only 49.3%, scarcely reversing decades of decline.
Which brings us to the new most consequential election of our lifetimes, 2020. To the resisters, 2020 is revenge for President Trump being elected in the first place, for losing the popular vote, for escaping justice, for any number of evil deeds. For MAGAland, it will be revenge for four years of resisters preventing their chosen one from achieving even more winning than they were already winning as the winners of the last most consequential election of their lifetimes, which Trump won. It will be an ugly, hateful, vengeful, no-holds-barred affair.
An affair that a good chunk of the American electorate doesn’t care for the least little bit.
People have limits, and if there is a limit to the coursing discourse it will probably be reached in the very near future. Of course, those who make a living off of politics probably don’t, but the normal folks who are trying to feed their families, work for a living, and try to leave life for their kids a little better than they have it don’t have time or patience for such things as revenge. But they do vote, but almost never on the political trends of the day. They vote mostly on what affects them directly: economy, healthcare, and their family’s future. They don’t read blogs, watch cable news, or otherwise marinate in the news cycle, and thus are often overlooked except after elections when again and again people who study such things wonder why voter participation is so low.
The warning here, to both sides, isn’t just that there are people hopelessly disillusioned by the current American political process, but that they vote 100% of the time in each election. And in elections they don’t like, between choices they don’t want to make, they will vote in droves by staying home.
When they do that, they leave it up to the revenge seekers to choose our elected leaders. The same folks who are never satisfied no matter the outcome drive the ones with the most to lose away from their only mechanism of being heard. It’s bad for everyone. It’s bad for our country. It makes people frustrated, angry, and vengeful.
And the cycle starts all over again, which is how some want it. But not all of us, or even a majority of us. The rest of us should resist that, to make America great. And revenge-free.
Originally published at ordinary-times.com on March 29, 2019.