In 2024, Trump voters are motivated by one thing above all: Revenge

Americans typically frame their politics as a contest between “right” and “wrong.” In our two-party system today, voters usually believe both they and their party are completely in the right, while those on the opposite side are completely wrong. And this belief persists even after one side concedes defeat: Yes, my party lost the election, but your party is still wrong.

There’s nothing unusual about this. Americans have generally viewed elections that way since the founding of the republic. One side is invariably left unhappy with the result, but they’ll invariably lick their wounds, galvanize behind a new candidate, and try again next time. There’s usually been no burning sense of resentment, no designs of revenge held against the voters who repudiated their decision the last time around. When Barack Obama beat John McCain in 2008, Democratic voters didn’t want “revenge” on McCain voters. That was just the way things were in those halcyon days.

Until Donald Trump, that is. Trump himself has been soundly and decisively dismissed by most Americans. He was repudiated by multiple impeachments that he richly deserved, and emphatically rejected by an electoral and popular majority of American voters in the 2020 election. Now, in 2024—amidst a swirling maelstrom of serious legal and criminal charges against him—Trump has made revenge the central focus of his campaign.  He’s still insisting to his supporters that his 2020 loss was fake (it wasn’t), and that they’ve been insidiously victimized by some type of amorphous, pervasive fraud and Democratic chicanery that essentially played them for fools. It’s a con that Trump started cultivating well before the 2020 election itself, that only went into overdrive after his failed coup of Jan. 6, 2021. 

As Tom Nichols, writing for The Atlantic, observes, the Republican electorate has swallowed Trump’s fiction and internalized it. Republicans have transformed Trump’s embarrassments into an insult against their own personal identities and belief systems. It’s an offense that demands and necessitates revenge against those fellow Americans who dared to insult them.  

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As Nichols observes:

These voters are not settling a political score. Rather, they want to get even with other Americans, their own neighbors, for a simmering (and likely unexpected) humiliation that many of them seem to have felt ever since swearing loyalty to Trump.

A lot of people, especially in the media, have a hard time accepting this simple truth. Millions of Americans, stung by the electoral rebukes of their fellow citizens, have become so resentful and detached from reality that they have plunged into a moral void, a vortex that disintegrates questions of politics or policies and replaces them with heroic fantasies of redeeming a supposedly fallen nation.

It’s terribly difficult and gut-wrenching to admit that one’s choices were wrong. For some people, it’s impossible. For voters who fatefully cast their lot with Trump (and have been subjected over and over to glaring examples of his unfitness), there is no way to save face but by “plunging into that moral void,” as Nichols puts it.

They have to ignore Trump’s 91 criminal charges and his wholesale moral bankruptcy. They have to invent preposterous stories about President Joe Biden and his family. They have to believe, Nichols points out, that violence may be the only path to get their way—and it’s all to salvage their own sorry egos from the unforgivable slight of being wrong. So, egged on by their media bubble and abjectly Trump-dependent political leaders, these voters invent horrors that don't exist, imagine dire threats that they'll never personally face, and conjure up enemies they'll never encounter. It's all, as Nichols seems to imply, a coping mechanism to internally justify their own bad choice.

He wants revenge, and so do his supporters.

But, Nichols asks, against whom are they seeking violence and revenge? Why, Democrats, of course. Those neighbors who had that Biden-Harris 2020 sign have left them seething for four years, as has the local election board that processed all those mail-in votes. As Nichols observes, “When people talk about ‘resorting to violence’ they are, by default, talking about violence against their fellow citizens, some of whom have already been threatened merely for working in their communities as election volunteers.”

Unlike in previous elections, the motivation of these Trump loyalists isn’t really about policy, and it’s not really about “the border” or trans kids. It’s about a sense of revenge that Trump has cynically, deliberately cultivated in them. So they can finally come out on top.

As Nichols writes:

Much like Trump himself, these voters are unable to accept what’s happened over the past several years. Trump, in so many ways, quickly made fools of them; his various inanities, failures, and possible crimes sent them scrambling for ever more bizarre rationalizations, defenses of the indefensible that separated them from family and friends. If in 2016 they suspected, rightly or wrongly, that many Americans looked down on them for any number of reasons, they now know with certainty that millions of people look down on them—not for who they are but for what they’ve supported so vocally.

Nichols—a conservative, adamant “never-Trumper”—gets it mostly right here about Trump’s base, but he omits an important fact: that “what they’ve supported so vocally” is in fact quite telling about “who they are.” Still, he effectively dispenses with all the time and pixels wasted by major media in trying to “understand”—via visits to homey small-town diners and such—Trump voters’ motivations, ostensibly in the vain hope “that more listening and more empathetic nodding would put things right in a few years.”

That time has mercifully passed. Assuming Nichols is right, then there’s precious little to be gained by trying to understand Trump voters or ascribe any rationality to them. Revenge is a raw human emotion, not something that can be dealt with through discourse or reason. As Nichols cogently explains, more than anything, Donald Trump’s loyal base wants revenge “on their fellow citizens” for their attacks, critiques, and disparagement of Donald Trump.

No doubt they’ll be sorely disappointed when they don’t get it.