Published November 16, 2020
In the aftermath of the electoral defeat of Donald Trump, who has inflicted so much gratuitous harm on the United States—including making unfounded accusations of election fraud and declaring himself the victor, a malicious lie that is undermining the integrity of American democracy—there is an understandable temptation among those on the winning side to seek revenge and settle scores with Trump and Trumpworld.
It doesn’t matter that the president’s efforts to challenge the results of the election are comically inept and that he will be out of office in less than 70 days. After all, the argument goes, these individuals were complicit in all the pernicious things Trump has done. They stood by him when they knew better. Doesn’t accountability matter? And shouldn’t there be consequences for wrongdoing?
These are perfectly valid points. If laws were violated, there should be punishment. I don’t embrace antinomianism or what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” Nor should we pretend the past four years didn’t happen. And because Trump will remain president for nearly 10 more weeks, we can’t let our guard down.
My concern, though, is that instead of psychologically moving on from Donald Trump, many of his critics won’t let go of him. (Neither will many of his supporters, but that’s a different topic, for a different day.) The end of his presidency has inspired feelings of joy and relief, as you would expect, but it may also perpetuate a cycle of retaliation and bitterness toward the president and those who enabled him.
“It doesn’t mean that you don’t want to hold people accountable for their actions or that you don’t want to seek justice,” William Mikulas, a psychology professor at the University of West Florida, told ABC News. “With revenge, you are coming from an orientation of anger and violence or self-righteousness: ‘I want to get him, I want to hurt them … I want to make them pay.’ You’re coming from a place of violence and anger, and that’s never good.”
I haven’t felt the temptation of violence, but these other emotions aren’t alien to me. No major American political figure in my lifetime has triggered the moral revulsion I feel toward Donald Trump; it explains why I was one of his earliest and toughest critics. (I continue to believe that moral revulsion was the proper response to Trump’s tenure.) So I understand how, in the twilight of his presidency, with the president engaging in a series of final civic desecrations, it’s easy to react with indignation one more time. And the fact that Trump supporters like Lindsey Graham and countless others are complicit in those desecrations shouldn’t vanish down the memory hole.
But Trump has dominated too much of our thinking for too long; his transgressions, provocations, and sheer abnormality have made him an omnipresent figure in our lives. Time and time again, I’ve spoken with people who are not particularly political yet feel not only deeply unsettled by Trump but enveloped by him. He’s had too much power over too many of us. It’s time we move on from him.
This admonition, however, needs an important qualifier. There are people who have suffered real, tangible harm from Trump over the past four years that far exceeds what I and most others have experienced—parents and children who have been separated, victims of his cruel conspiracies, individuals whose careers were destroyed by Trump, people of color who have been the targets of empowered white supremacists, people with disabilities who were mocked by him, women who have accused him of sexual assault only to be derided by him, and those whose loved ones have died, or died alone, because of the president’s epic mishandling of the pandemic. To ask them to move on from Trump is asking far more than it’s asking of me, and it may well be asking too much. I know enough about the science of trauma to know that moving on from it before processing it can be unwise.
But for others of us—probably for most of us—a different approach may be best, because obsessing over Trump, even as he burns out like a dying star, is emotionally unhealthy. It is the political equivalent of mice pressing a lever to receive a dopamine rush, which leads to addiction. If over the past four years your days began and ended focusing on the latest Trump outrage, you may find the habit hard to break. For many cable-news hosts and commentators, Joe Biden—the president-elect, a calming influence, restrained and dignified—is almost an afterthought.
“My entire personality is hating Donald Trump,” Melissa Villaseñor’s character puts it in a Saturday Night Live political ad parody, “Trump Addicts for America.” “If he’s gone, what am I supposed to do? Focus on my kids again? No thanks.” (“You know he’s bad for you,” the ad concludes. “But it’s hard to imagine life without him.”)
Even after Trump leaves office, the desire to seek retribution, to nurse grievances, will remain. Those desires are corrosive to our political culture. America’s tribal warfare never ends; the anger never goes away; the affront is never forgotten. Some columnists on the right, for example, are justifying our current “postelection hell” because of what happened in Florida 20 years ago, when George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in a razor-thin election. It’s not healthy to live in a state of constant agitation; it almost always leads to escalation.
Different moments require different responses. Because we are a nation so fractured that each side barely comprehends the other, this is a time for magnanimity, by which I mean rising above the fray and letting go of slights and grudges. It is also practicing benevolence and openhandedness, a generosity of spirit, what Aristotle called “a greatness of soul.”
In our politics today, all of us need to do better at forgiving one another and giving more people the benefit of the doubt. We need to listen better than we do to the stories and experiences that shape the views of those with whom we disagree. And we need to strive for social peace, which is the product of forbearance, for the good of the whole.
I understand that some people will view this as hopelessly high-minded or out of touch. I think we must remain committed to justice, standing up for truth and calling out evil where we find it. We should fight the worst elements of Trumpism that remain even after he leaves office. But in the process, we must not get sucked into a vortex of hate or treat our opponents as subhuman, unworthy of respect, or beyond redemption.
“As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline,” Martin Luther King Jr. said in a 1956 sermon, “using only the weapon of love. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.”
King, who had far more reason than most of us to seek revenge against those who stood against him, went on to say, “In your struggle for justice, let your oppressor know that you are not attempting to defeat or humiliate him, or even to pay him back for injustices that he has heaped upon you. Let him know that you are merely seeking justice for him as well as yourself.”
King not only carried himself with grace and dignity; he was also shrewd and magnificently effective. But even if he had been far less effective than he was, he would have done the right and honorable thing.
A final historical reference that bears on these matters: It was said of Abraham Lincoln that when he was young and ambitious, he was fully aware of his “power to hurt” based on his polemical skills. He was not above utilizing those dazzling powers, but as he grew older, he became more generous, more respectful, and more sympathetic toward others. He grew in tenderness. And even as he did what he was called to do—extinguish the evil of slavery from our land at a horrific cost—he did not want the passions of war to permanently break our bonds of affection.
Some might argue that Lincoln, whose life was taken by an assassin’s bullet, was naive, that he underestimated the anger that Black freedom and equality would catalyze, including long after his death. I’m not sure, but even if he did, what he was attempting to do was elevate our sensibilities, give us a standard to aim for, and model how it might be done. In appealing to our better angels, Lincoln was fully aware of the demons that lurk within the human heart.
None of us will meet Lincoln’s standard, but all of us on every side of the political divide can do better than we have to purge our hearts and minds of anger and hate. There’s been enough of that over the past several years.
For everything there is a season, and in this season we might embrace the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach.”
Peter Wehner is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national-security issues, and he is the author of The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.