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Trump Promised Retribution. He’s Not So Sure That’s What Iowa Voters Want.

6 minute read

At the beginning of his 2024 campaign, Donald Trump promised to avenge his enemies during a second term, telling a gathering of conservative activists: “I am your retribution.” But in the days leading up to the Iowa caucuses, the former President now says he might be a little too busy for vendettas. “We’re going to make this country so successful again,” he told a Fox News Town Hall in Des Moines. “I’m not going to have time for retribution.”

The reversal reveals a core tension for the former President’s bid to reclaim the White House. On the one hand, vengeance has been his most potent rallying cry. Trump’s criminal prosecutions have only galvanized the MAGA faithful and helped him become the far-and-away front runner for the Republican presidential nomination. With each indictment, he raised millions of dollars and steamed further ahead in the polls. On the other hand, his authoritarian pledge to punish political adversaries is what he needs to modulate if he is to attract moderate voters in swing states.

No campaign is about a single strategy. And Trump’s will necessarily entail making two contradictory pitches at once. By crafting a campaign theme of comeuppance, he’s turned his legal woes into a political advantage, mobilizing his most committed followers. That’s sure to be central thread in his rhetoric over the coming year, when he’s likely to spend more time in a courtroom than on the campaign trail. But to win over average Americans who are worried he’ll transform the nation into an autocracy, he’s suggesting that he doesn’t quite mean what he says.

“If you spend a lot of time on Rumble, you’re all about the retribution,” says David Kochel, a veteran of Iowa Republican campaigns who’s staying neutral, referring to the right-wing streaming service. “But that’s not most voters.” 

Trump will test that split strategy Monday night in Iowa, where Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley are dueling it out for second place and the chance to winnow the field to a two-person race. An NBC News-Des Moines Register poll released Saturday has Trump with a nearly 30-point lead among likely Iowa caucus goers. Haley came in second, with 20% support, and DeSantis in third, with 16%. 

The two have each tried to draw a contrast between themselves and Trump by saying the former President is preoccupied with the past while they are looking toward the future. “I don’t have vengeance,” Haley said at the last debate. “I don’t have vendettas.” 

The outcome in Iowa will be the first concrete indicator of the Republican voter appetite for a pay-back presidency. The caucuses have historically attracted the most committed base voters. Because of the state’s demographic makeup—mostly white Evangelical Christians—and because the caucus process requires more of the voter than simply casting a ballot the traditional way, it’s a race decided by GOP activists and high propensity voters.

“The Iowa caucuses are sticking a thermometer into the body politic, to check the temperature to see how warmly or coldly party activists view particular potential presidential nominees,” says Dennis Goldford, a Drake University politics professor.

Trump’s opponents recognize the pull of Trump’s call for retribution, especially as he’s facing 91 felony indictments and the possibility of decades in prison. “I think they really feel government’s been weaponized against him,” says Bob Vander Plaats, the influential Iowa Evangelical leader who endorsed DeSantis. “If it's weaponized against him, they believe it will be weaponized against them.”

The popular right-wing radio host Steve Deace says when callers complain about him backing DeSantis, they usually make the same point. They want the populist rabble rouser, the fighter who will pulverize the Washington elites they feel have waged war on their way of life. “That’s why Trump wants to appear in all those courtrooms,” says Deace. “That’s his campaign: ‘They’re persecuting me because they hate you. I’m your conduit. I’m your way to get back at them.’ That’s his most powerful message.”

Some Trump supporters want him to get even with enemies—but it depends on the target. “I want him to take retribution on China, Ukraine, North Korea, and Iran,” says Garry Leffler, who was sporting a white “Trump Caucus Captain” hat at the Fox News Town Hall. “You’re doggone right I do.” But when asked if he wants Trump to punish his domestic foes, the 62-year-old from West Des Moines demurred. “A lot of things get said in the heat of the campaign,” he says.

Others aren’t taking Trump’s promise seriously. “I don't think he will,” says Mike Tullis, a 72-year-old retired grocer at a Trump faith event in Marion, Iowa. “He’s gonna be quite busy trying to get the country turned around.”

Across the state, where Trump’s rivals are jostling to solidify their status as the only alternative, voters specifically cited revenge as a preposterous, even infantile, political goal. “Retribution? That’s not what the office is for,” says a red-faced Sanford Owens braving frigid temperatures outside a Haley event in Iowa City on Saturday. Owens, 62, lives in Portland, Oregon, but trekked to snowy Iowa to volunteer for Haley. “We’ve got to move forward. We’ve got to let that go. We can't be stuck mired in the past.”

The competition between Trump and his rivals is, at its core, about whether the party wants to litigate the past or to turn the page to a new era in Republican politics. It’s a question that DeSantis’s supporters recognize may be answered soon. “If he doesn’t win here,” Deace says, “it’s because the people aren’t ready to move on.”

For his part, Trump seems only marginally committed to moderating his tone. One day ahead of the Iowa caucuses, Trump rallied America First diehards through a rally in Indianola, Iowa. Outside, it was 12 degrees below zero. In an hour and forty minute speech, he resorted to the kind of incendiary rhetoric that has defined his political persona: vowing to close the borders on day one and enact the largest deportation program in American history. He called the U.S. Capitol a “rat-infested, graffiti-infested s—hole” and told his supporters to brave the weather Monday evening, which is expected to be the coldest night in Iowa caucus history. He didn’t give his enemies a pass. At one point, Trump took aim at the New York judge presiding over a $370 million civil fraud case against him. “I am going to that funeral,” Trump said, to rapturous applause. “This judge, whatever the hell he wants to do, let him do it. We’re going to that funeral.”

—with reporting by Mini Racker/Des Moines, Iowa

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