Revenge harms both parties in the transaction. That's why Confucius wrote, "When you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves." It's also why both the Old and the New Testaments make clear that vengeance belongs to God, not to men. A world full of revenge hurts everyone-it creates violence, injustice, and chaos.
Similarly, forgiveness benefits both the forgiver and the forgiven. It's a central tenet in both Eastern and Western religions, and in Christianity it is literally embodied in the person of Jesus. Forgiveness helps everyone--it sets the foundation for a world of peace, justice, and order.
On November 4, no matter who wins the presidential election, I fear that America will face a moral crossroads involving revenge and forgiveness. This is especially troublesome if President Trump loses to Joe Biden, which appears increasingly likely.
Our rampant polarization, fueled by new media and too often fanned by Trump, could easily flare up in the kind of retribution sometimes seen in less developed nations where political violence is common. The recent spectacle in state capitals of heavily armed pro-Trump protesters flying Nazi and Confederate flags, while surely not representative of the vast majority of Trump's supporters, suggests an ugly underbelly of anger and militarism that must be taken seriously. That Trump used the language of extremism to encourage such protesters to "liberate" three battleground states with Democratic governors attests to his recklessness, lawlessness, and hyperpartisanship. And it shouldn't be forgotten that Trump refused to condemn the neo-Nazi provocateurs whose protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, led to the murder of an innocent woman in 2017.
Trump is well known for his vengeful nature. He celebrates it in his books, and we've seen it played out in literally hundreds of tweet storms and angry statements in response to any and every slight. This is nothing new for Trump, and it's demonstrably pathological. When his late brother's family challenged the will of Trump's father, Fred, in 2000, Donald responded by cutting off medical care for his own nephew's critically ill infant son. Perhaps the most blatant example of this is his decision to cut funding to the World Health Organization during this pandemic. What motive could he have other than deflecting blame from himself and punishing that body out of pure spite?
For Trump, revenge is routinely taken to unconscionable extremes.
Trump has hardly worked to heal the divisions in our country. On the contrary, he seems to take a perverse pleasure in demonizing not only his political opposition, but anyone who criticizes him-even if it's the Pope, whom he called "disgraceful," a disabled reporter like Serge Kovaleski, whom he physically mocked, or an autistic teenage girl like Greta Thunberg, whom he derided with sarcasm.
He's made the press the "enemy of the people" to such a pathological degree that he's excoriated FoxNews and the Wall Street Journal, both conservative stalwarts whose criticism of Trump is rare and mild, while reserving his praise for One America News Network, whose owner openly mandates positive coverage of the president.
The message is clear: oppose Donald Trump, and he'll make you pay, often in ways far out of proportion to your opposition. He's clearly a man who likes to be feared. Having been involved in approximately 3500 lawsuits before the 2016 campaign, it's also clear that Trump has no qualms about using the legal system as a tool of revenge. His suits against author Tim O'Brien for underestimating his wealth and against comedian Bill Maher over an off-color joke attest to the frivolous way he views the courts as instruments of revenge.
There's no denying that Trump made himself the candidate of disruption in 2016, and the degree to which he's disrupted our institutions can hardly be understated. When he thought he'd lose in 2016, he undermined our elections by repeatedly calling them "rigged," and even after winning, he falsely claimed that 3-5 million illegal votes had been cast. When the Russian plot to aid his campaign was investigated, he undermined our intelligence agencies despite their unanimity on that point, and later, as that and other investigations hit closer and closer to home, he undermined our law enforcement officials. Spotless reputations like Robert Mueller's and Marie Yovanovich's fell victim to Trump's insatiable need to retaliate even against people who've simply done their duty. When Trump fired Lt. Col. Alex Vindman from the White House earlier this year in retaliation for testifying in the impeachment hearings, he also fired Vindman's twin brother, Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman, for no apparent reason. What can possibly justify such behavior?
Trump was also the candidate of division in 2016, and he's done nothing to heal the divisions that threaten to rip open the social fabric. His vitriolic attacks on "The Squad"-four minority Congresswomen-and on immigrants, "shithole countries," Democrats, Muslims, and progressives have routinely deepened racial, religious, and political divisions. Granted, some elements on the far left have behaved with equal disregard for unity, but according to a survey of experts by the non-partisan Brookings Institute, no president in our history has been more polarizing than Trump.
Considering the damage Trump has done to faith in our institutions and to our national unity, especially among his hardcore supporters, it's not far-fetched to think that his defeat in November could prompt the increasingly dangerous elements of the far right to violent action. Perhaps more disturbingly, it could exacerbate the already critical schism between left and right that he's exploited to the point of fomenting a cold civil war.
Expecting a gracious Trump to smooth the way for Joe Biden seems naïve at best. More likely, he'll take defeat as an affront and an excuse to brazenly violate yet another norm-the one that has prevented all other previous presidents from undermining their successors.
The only way to forestall and mitigate the damage an outgoing Trump could foment is to forgive and forget. Even though he wouldn't want our forgiveness and would view it with contempt, and even though he infamously said he's never even asked God for forgiveness, we must put the future of the country first and put an end to the electoral temper tantrum that swept him into the White House four years ago. We can't let Trump pull us into the sewer with him.
Only once in our history has the need for forgiveness been so great, and back then it took no less a figure than Abraham Lincoln to appeal to the better angels of our nature.
Here's to hoping Joe Biden-along with progressives, Democrats, moderates, independents, and disaffected conservatives and Republicans-can rise to the challenge and forgive this president for the damage he's inflicted on our country.