close
close

What connects Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin? Revenge.


Revanchism usually refers to a spirit of vengeance or retaliation that motivates and legitimizes the aggressive regaining of lost territory from a defeated nation.

Earlier this year, in a commentary in the New York Times, Carlos Lozada criticized Donald Trump’s apparent lack of political philosophy: “The difficulty with Trumpism is Trump himself, who makes any coherent ism impossible.” This assessment is consistent with the widely held belief that Trump is completely uneducated in geopolitical history or philosophy. While few would disagree with Trump’s scientific naivety, his political acumen may have been seriously underestimated.

Both Trump and Vladimir Putin actually embrace a very real and formidable political ideology – revanchism. Originally a French term, revanchism is derived from a common word in French and English: ‘revenge’. Revanchism usually refers to a spirit of vengeance or retaliation that motivates and legitimizes the aggressive regaining of lost territory from a defeated nation. Revanchism also applies to the forceful restoration of diminished political power. How does revanchism connect Putin and Trump?

Putin’s territorial revanchism

Putin has called the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century, a catastrophe that represents the total “disintegration of historical Russia.” These comments raised serious concerns that Putin was pursuing a revanchist plan to reconstruct the Soviet Union – concerns that were strongly borne out by Russia’s unprovoked military attack on Ukraine. Moreover, do not believe for a moment that re-annexing this former Soviet republic would mean the end of Putin’s expansionism. History shows that leaders of revanchist powers are not known for their appetite suppression.

Trump’s political revanchism

As noted earlier, revanchism is not limited to regaining lost territory, but also to regaining lost political power and restoring a previous status quo. Trump is fully aware that political dominance in the United States was first exercised by white people (especially white Christian men). Granting full citizenship to all Americans after the ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868 and the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 thus posed a double existential threat to white supremacy. Hedging these threats was Barack Obama’s assumption of the presidency in 2009. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign can therefore be seen as a revanchist attempt to turn back the political clock to an earlier halcyon era of white sovereignty to “make America great again.”

Additional forces threaten America’s white hegemony. Here another, originally French expression is relevant: demographics is destiny. For years, it was predicted that the demographics of American society would become a “minority-majority nation,” with people of color outnumbering the white population. Add to this inexorable trend the escalating numbers of non-white migrants entering the country and the central tenet of Trump’s political philosophy comes into focus – what scholars have called “racial revanchism.” Indeed, Trump launched his 2016 campaign by vilifying those migrants: “They bring drugs. They bring crime. They are rapists.”

Over the past eight years, Trump has commandeered the Republican Party and proposed strong policies to curb immigration and limit access to the ballot box, especially in urban centers where mostly non-white citizens live. Trump’s other revanchist priorities have sought to undo Obama’s legislative successes — most notably the Affordable Care Act, colloquially known as Obamacare.

Revanchism 2024

The 2024 presidential elections are in full swing. Joe Biden has discredited Trump’s promulgation of an American narrative of “resentment, revenge and retaliation.” Such sharp rebukes are routinely dismissed as mere political hyperbole. In this case, however, Trump himself has enthusiastically embraced that characterization, proudly and repeatedly declaring to his acolytes, “I am your retaliation!”

Among all the other factors that may connect Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, we should not ignore their decidedly revanchist philosophies. Revenge remains a powerful political force in both the United States and Russia.

Edward A. Wasserman is Stuit Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Iowa. Contact: [email protected].