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Taking the Trump Davidians Seriously
And: What does "Come Retribution" really mean?
Before we head off to the weekend, take a moment to consider this:
Former President Donald Trump opened his Texas rally in Houston Thursday night with a song by the Jan. 6, 2021 male prison choir featuring himself saying the pledge of allegiance as inmates sing the "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Following the song, called "Justice for All," Trump called those convicted and sentenced in the wake of the insurrection that included assaults on police officers “hostages not prisoners.”
Nota bene: If he wins next year, he’s going to pardon them all. He keeps telling us so. Over and over again.
But he keeps telling us other things as well. Perhaps attention ought to be paid, because his campaign gets no points for subtlety. This is, after all, not the first time he has performed the J6 prisoner anthem and praised the imprisoned Insurrectionists.
This wasn’t a gaffe — it has become a foundational theme in his bid to reclaim power.
When he launched his campaign, notes Jonathan Karl in his new book, Trump chose Waco, Texas for his first rally. The symbolism shouldn’t be overlooked.
Shortly after the rally was announced, I asked Steve Bannon, who had served as the CEO of Trump’s 2016 campaign and had once again emerged as one of Trump’s most important advisers, why the former president would go to Waco for his big campaign reboot. He wasn’t coy.
“We’re the Trump Davidians,” he told me with a laugh.
Even less subtle than the venue of the rally was how Trump kicked it off, standing silently onstage with his hand on his heart while he waited for “The Star‐Spangled Banner” to play. This wasn’t a traditional version of the national anthem. Trump’s campaign had queued up “Justice for All,” a rendition of the song recorded over a jailhouse phone by a group of about 20 inmates being held in Washington, D.C., for taking part in the assault on the U.S. Capitol. In the song, the so‐called J6 Prison Choir makes its way through Francis Scott Key’s lyrics while Trump’s voice interjects with stray lines from the Pledge of Allegiance, which he recorded at Mar‐a‐Lago. As the recording blared, video footage from the January 6 riot played on the massive screens flanking the stage.
“For seven years, you and I have been taking on the corrupt, rotten, and sinister forces trying to destroy America,” he told the crowd. “They’re not going to do it, but they do get closer and closer with rigged elections.”
“Twenty twenty-four,” Trump declared, “is the final battle.”
This wasn’t a campaign speech in any traditional sense. Trump echoed the themes of paranoia and foreboding that grew out of the Waco massacre. “As far as the eye can see, the abuses of power that we’re currently witnessing at all levels of government will go down as among the most shameful, corrupt, and depraved chapters in all of American history,” he said.
“They’re not coming after me,” he told the crowd. “They’re coming after you.”
The message seemed to resonate, but its brazenness was staggering. The folks cheering Trump had not taken boxes stuffed with classified documents out of the White House—and it’s safe to assume that none of them spent tens of thousands of dollars to cover up an affair with an adult‐film star.
There is also this extraordinary detail in Karl’s reporting:
When I spoke with Bannon a few days later, he wouldn’t stop touting Trump’s performance, referring to it as his “Come Retribution” speech.
What I didn’t realize was that “Come Retribution,” according to some Civil War historians, served as the code words for the Confederate Secret Service’s plot to take hostage—and eventually assassinate—President Abraham Lincoln.
“The use of the key phrase ‘Come Retribution’ suggests that the Confederate government had made a bitter decision to repay some of the misery that had been inflicted on the South,” William A. Tidwell, James O. Hall, and David Winfred Gaddy wrote in the 1988 book Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Lincoln. “Bitterness may well have been directed toward persons held to be particularly responsible for that misery, and Abraham Lincoln certainly headed the list.”
Bannon actually recommended that I read that book, erasing any doubt that he was intentionally using the Confederate code words to describe Trump’s speech.
Trump’s speech was not an overt call for the assassination of his political opponents, but it did advocate their destruction by other means. Success “is within our reach, but only if we have the courage to complete the job, gut the deep state, reclaim our democracy, and banish the tyrants and Marxists into political exile forever,” Trump said. “This is the turning point.”
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The Last Temptation of Mitt Romney
Mitt Romney’s journey from the party’s standard-bearer to its pariah is also a story of the dramatic transformation of the GOP. On yesterday’s podcast, McKay Coppins joined me to talk about his new book, “Romney: A Reckoning.”
Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:
Charlie Sykes: So, he runs for the United States Senate in Utah, he wins. What did he think the Senate was going to be like? What did he think his role in the Senate was going to be? Because as I recall, one of the first things that he did—I think, even before he was sworn in— was to write a piece for The Washington Post, where he said, 'I'm still a conservative. I'm gonna vote for Republican issues, but I'm also not going to hesitate to call out the character of the president.' He signaled right from the moment he walked in that he was going to continue to be outspokenly anti-Trump.
So how did he think it was going to go?
McKay Coppins: Well, he had this idea—and one of the things he gave me was the 'pros and cons' list he had written out for himself when he was considering whether to run for Senate. And you can imagine, you know, a lot of the cons were lifestyle considerations: He'd be away from his wife and family. And the pros were issues that he wanted to address.
But in that pros and cons list, he wrote out a line from the Yeats' poem, "The Second Coming," that he felt kind of embodied or captured what the Republican Party in the Trump era was, and he wrote, 'The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.' He believed that if he got to the Senate—he was, you know, this elder statesman of the party, the former nominee of the party—that he could get there and kind of empower and embolden the best in the party, who still were good people—they were just sort of afraid of Donald Trump and didn't know what to do.
And he had this idea that he could steer the party away from Trumpism just by being there to encourage them. And what he found out once he got to the Senate was that the problem was much more dire than he realized.
The situation was much worse.
These senators did not want to be steered away from Trumpism. They were so desperately clinging to their seats, and their power, and the trappings, and their offices, and their staffs—that they weren't willing to do anything that might compromise their reelection prospects. And that was really dispiriting for him.
Charlie Sykes: And then he ended up being the man alone, sitting by himself at lunch.
McKay Coppins: He talks about going into those Senate Republican caucus lunches, especially as he became more and more of a target of Donald Trump's, and became more outspoken about his fellow Republicans. He said it reminded him of the high school cafeteria.
He would walk into the Senate caucus, and he'd look around and be like, 'who am I going to sit next to?' He often felt when he like raised his hand to make a comment that people were rolling their eyes, or sort of like whispering about him. He actually became a little paranoid during the first impeachment trial, because he would write in his journals that he would see people kind of gesturing in his direction and talking, and he would imagine what they were saying about him.
It really was just a deeply unpleasant situation for him—and I imagine continues to be so because he's only become more outspoken especially since this book has come out.
Charlie Sykes: And of course, the key decision, and maybe the defining decision of his political career, when he became the only Republican senator to vote to convict Donald Trump in that impeachment trial. He had to know at that point that he was going to be a pariah, that he was going to be excommunicated.
Talk to me about that decision, how hard that decision was for him….
McKay Coppins: He agonized over it. I mean, I have his journals from that first impeachment trial. He wanted so badly, to vote to acquit Trump and just kind of be in the mainstream of the Republican Party.
He would often write about the worst-case scenarios of what would happen to him and his family if he voted to convict Trump. He was worried about the safety of his family. He was worried about his various sons getting audited or getting targeted in some way by the Trump administration.
McKay Coppins: But, you know, in the end, he just couldn't live with himself knowing that Trump was guilty. He had pored over the evidence. He had taken it very seriously. He felt there was no question Trump was guilty of abuse of power, and he was at a point in his career where he just said, 'I can't take another vote that I don't believe in. I can't keep doing this, right? The way that every other Republican has just sold themselves out. He decided to do what he thought was right.
And I think you're right that he knew that was sort of the end of it for him. In the Republican Party.
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1. Defeatism or Hope in Ukraine?
ON TUESDAY, ANDRIY YERMAK, chief of staff to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, recommended on Telegram that “everyone read” a “very important report” about Zelensky in Time magazine, summed up in the money quote that also became the headline: “Nobody believes in our victory like I do.” Just a few minutes later, though, Yermak took down his post. During those ten minutes, he apparently realized that the cover story by Time’s Simon Shuster was nothing to cheer for or to brag about.
The article, which opens with Zelensky’s frustrating visit to the United States in September and then follows him back to Kyiv, portrays the Ukrainian president—only recently hailed as a Churchillian figure—as angry, embittered, and exhausted, waging a supremely difficult battle not only against a ruthless foreign invader but against corruption at home.
2. The Progressive Left Is a Paper Tiger
Large segments of the progressive left disgraced themselves by indulging in demonstrations and statements that, directly or indirectly, excused Hamas’s terrorist massacre. For that, they were rightly condemned across the political spectrum, including by many Democrats. But the progressive left has not given up on pushing their “decolonialist” perspective within the Democratic Party, demanding that Biden soften his support for Israel and calling for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire in the conflict. This policy recommendation is backed up what is essentially a threat: if Democrats don’t move in the direction recommended by the progressive left, “their” voters, especially young voters, will fail to be “energized” in 2024, endangering Biden’s re-election and Democratic electoral prospects generally.
But is that really true? Leaving aside the question of whether that would be a responsible use of their power (I don’t think so), do they even have that kind of power? I doubt it. In fact, I think the progressive left is more of a paper tiger, claiming power and influence way above what they actually have.