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A Closer Look at Donald Trump’s Rhetoric of Retribution
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A Closer Look at Donald Trump’s Rhetoric of Retribution

The former president is running first and foremost to punish his enemies.

Former President Donald Trump gives remarks at the South Texas International airport on November 19, 2023, in Edinburg, Texas. (Photo by Michael Gonzalez/Getty Images)

Happy Monday! We hope you all had a pleasant holiday—Christmas and the Iowa caucuses are just around the corner!

Up to Speed

  • Former President Donald Trump is poised to blitz television airwaves in Iowa and New Hampshire beginning Friday. The advertising will constitute the Trump campaign’s first ad buys of the 2024 Republican nominating contest in these two, key early caucus and primary states, respectively, according to Medium Buying, a firm that tracks political advertising. The Iowa caucus is January 15. The New Hampshire primary follows eight days later.
  • Rep. Dean Phillips, the Minnesota Democrat mounting a longshot primary challenge against President Joe Biden, will not seek reelection to Congress in 2024, he announced over the extended Thanksgiving holiday weekend. “To my colleagues in Congress: serving with you has been the honor of a lifetime – particularly during some of the darkest days in our nation’s history,” Phillips said in a statement. He represents a Democratic-leaning district in suburban Minneapolis.
  • The Democratic National Committee raised $13.1 million in October, outpacing the Republican National Committee, which collected $7.1 million, according to Federal Election Commission filings reported by The Hill. The DNC additionally reported more cash in the bank ($17.7 million) than the RNC ($9.1 million) to spend on the upcoming 2024 elections. The DNC for years struggled to raise money, especially compared to the RNC, but has enjoyed a renaissance under President Joe Biden.
  • It doesn’t get much attention, but the U.S. Virgin Islands is holding a Republican presidential nominating caucus February 8, and the top GOP contenders are competing for the island territory’s 9 delegates to the 2024 convention. On Saturday, representatives for three candidates—former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and former South Carolina governor and ex-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley—called into a local party gathering and made their case to members, the St. Thomas Source reported
  • Following his interview with Dispatch Politics last week, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie appeared Sunday on ABC News’ This Week to continue making the case for why he remains the best alternative Republican candidate to Trump. Christie criticized DeSantis and Haley for failing to make a consistent case against Trump. “If all three of us would go after Donald Trump, well then the most credible amongst the three of us in terms of those critiques would wind up winning this primary, I believe,” Christie told host Jonathan Karl. Christie also told ABC News he plans on expanding his campaign to South Carolina and Michigan, whose nominating contests follow close behind Iowa’s and New Hampshire’s.

Have You Seen This Man?

Since we launched this newsletter, we’ve generally tried to shy away from too much granular coverage of former President Donald Trump’s trademark inflammatory remarks and wild tirades. Yet after nearly a decade occupying the center of our politics, Trump has lost a little of his capacity to shock. And because he’s arguably the single biggest known commodity in politics, we’ve wanted to spend the bulk of our time thus far fleshing out our coverage of the lesser-known pols trying to give him a run for his money.

But there’s a good case to be made that this line of thinking is a mistake—and that in fact that very “known commodity” reputation has screened many Republican voters from paying attention to the grisly details of Trump’s own reelection message, a very different one than the one he rolled out in 2016 and 2020. 

We don’t mean that in the sense of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who’s started to argue in recent weeks that Trump is too old for the job and has lost his fastball. We mean that the strongman tendencies that have always run through Trump’s political worldview and rhetoric have surged to the surface, forming the heart of the promise he’s currently making to his base: that when reelected in 2024, he will unleash an orgy of retribution on the political enemies who (he falsely claims) stole the election from him in 2020 and grind the American left into extinction.

“We pledge to you that we will root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country that lie and steal and cheat on elections,” Trump said during a Veterans Day speech earlier this month. “The threat from outside forces is far less sinister, dangerous, and grave than the threat from within.”

This kicked off a predictable response. Media critiques—not without reason!—zeroed in on the word “vermin,” noting its similarity, as the New York Times put it, to the “dehumanizing rhetoric wielded by dictators like Hitler and Mussolini.” This, in turn, drew sneers and eyerolls from many on the right—there you go again with the Hitler talk! “This is a classic mainstream media move,” presidential candidate and ostensible Trump opponent Vivek Ramaswamy scoffed on CNN. “Pick some individual phrase of Donald Trump, focus on literally that word without actually interrogating the substance of what’s at issue.” This is comfortable turf for many Republicans: approaching every story as a media-criticism story where the main matter at hand is the extent to which the press was unfair to a Republican politician. 

But to those actually interested in unearthing it, the “substance at issue” in Trump’s remarks could hardly have been plainer even to those lacking Ramaswamy’s Ivy-League credentials: America’s gravest enemies are left-wing Americans, and he pledges to stop at nothing if reelected to annihilate them. The Mussolini comparisons might be appropriate or they might not, but who cares? Surely this would be plenty concerning, even if no historical politician had sung a similar tune before.

This is just one recent story, but Trump has not bothered to hide his disdain for any institution that might serve as a check on his consolidation of political power for months. Late last year, he suggested that the supposed fraud perpetrated on him in 2020 “allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution” to restore him to power. In September, he insinuated that a top general who had resisted his stolen-election attempts deserved to be put to death.

He has long since abandoned any pretense that he disapproved of the actions of the violent mob that stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021, in a vain attempt to prolong his grip on power. He has taken to calling those convicted of crimes for their actions that day “hostages,” implying imprisonment by a completely illegitimate authority. He embarks on daily tirades against the various state and federal legal systems that have indicted him on dozens of felony charges related to his attempts to steal the 2020 election, his alleged mishandling of classified documents after leaving office, and other matters.

With a month and a half to go before states start voting, Trump’s opponents are dozens of points behind and seemingly preoccupied with the task of coming in second in this or that early state. Both DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (and, of course, Ramaswamy) have said on national TV they would still support Trump as their party’s nominee even if he were convicted of crimes. And all the while President Joe Biden continues to sag in the polls, highlighting the possibility that America could very well send Trump back to the White House. 

Notable and Quotable 

“That’s stupid.”

—President Joe Biden, responding to a reporter’s question on whether he’s too old to run again, November 26, 2023

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.

Michael Warren is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was an on-air reporter at CNN and a senior writer at the Weekly Standard. When Mike is not reporting, writing, editing, and podcasting, he is probably spending time with his wife and three sons.