Doonesbury and the Nature of Payback

Welcome to From Insults to Respect. Today’s topic, “payback.” There are a couple of definitions for payback, so to be clear, I’m referring to a tactic involving punishing someone, or a group of people, for something done in the past. Synonyms include revenge, reprisal, retaliation, retribution, and vengeance.

When discussing a topic such as this, it helps to utilize a vivid narrative that is not only illustrative, but also provides some emotionality to the topic. G. B. Trudeau, with his Doonesbury comic strip, is a master at this. Recently, he has been turning his impactful colorful art to President Donald Trump’s style of dealing with people.

For example, in this panel from a recent comic, we see a caricature of Trump insulting several news outlets. Whenever the president has been asked why he has been utilizing these types of insults, he claims that the other side started it. He’s just getting back at them, he explains, because they insulted him first.

After that caricature of Trump, Trudeau published the following:

Now, before we move on, I want to make it clear that I am not here today to claim that the above comic scenario is a factual depiction of anything currently going on in President Trump’s administration. Sure, Trudeau probably believes the scenario does capture something of the president’s style of leadership, but whether or not he is correct is not the point of today’s discussion. Let’s just utilize the narrative to help us seek out what lies deep below the surface of the “payback” tactic.

On the surface, of course, all that many people see is a simple understanding that can be stated thusly: “It is proper to do something bad to anyone who does something bad to you, for that is only fair.” But, there is considerably more to see if only we are willing to look a little deeper.

In the comic, TRFF, the guy with a mustache and cigar, views himself as an authoritarian and is just delighted that he has been appointed Deputy Director of Payback. Let’s begin our exploration below the surface with a quick discussion of what it means to be an authoritarian.

What Does It Mean to be an Authoritarian?

According to Wikipedia,

“An authoritarian leadership style is being used when a leader dictates policies and procedures, decides what goals are to be achieved, and directs and controls all activities without any meaningful participation by the subordinates. This leader has full control of the team, leaving low autonomy within the group.[1] The leader has a vision in mind and must be able to effectively motivate their group to finish the task. The group is expected to complete the tasks under very close supervision, while unlimited authority is granted to the leader. Subordinate’s responses to the orders given are either punished or rewarded.”

Now we can contrast this authoritarian leadership style with one that may be referred to as an “authoritative” approach. There are several very different descriptions of an authoritative leader, so, to be clear, what I mean by this is the following:

An authoritative leader provides a vision of the group’s goals, somewhat like an authoritarian leader, but there is a distinctly more willingness to engage in verbal give and take with regards to how the common goals are to be articulated and achieved. Moreover, the leader is far more likely to be forgiving of shortcomings as the group operates, viewing them as an opportunity to problem solve how best to move forward. Authoritative leaders are less controlling as authoritarians, allowing group members to explore more freely, thus having them make their own decisions based upon their own reasoning. Authoritative leaders seek to encourage more independent and self-reliant group members.

Nelson 1Perhaps one of the best known leaders who embodied the authoritative style of leadership was Nelson Mandela. After serving 27 years in jail for seeking justice for the majority of South African people, he had plenty of reasons to seek payback. But in a speech delivered to the European Parliament in 1990, he stated:

“Great anger and violence can never build a nation. We are striving to proceed in a manner and towards a result, which will ensure that all our people, both black and white, emerge as victors.”

Throughout his leadership as the president of South Africa, he advocated forgiveness toward his former oppressors, and served his country with a smile full of wisdom and kindness.

Back to the Payback Tactic

In contrast to the image that many people have of Nelson Mandela’s leadership style, take another look at the caricature in the Doonesbury comic of a authoritarian in charge of payback for the president’s administration. As a response to some guy who is disloyal to the administration, TRFF says that if it was up to him, he’d throw the guy out of a plane. TRFF is just loving the fact that he gets to demean, threaten, or fire people every day.

How effective are punishments of this type? In the short run, there are people who are willing to Kowtow to them, but there is a spirit within that slowly begins to get riled, and danger lurks below. It is not always easy to see this in the muddy complexity of large organizations, but search your own heart and you will know of its existence.

Doing scientific research to demonstrate the problems involved in using the payback approach has always been challenging. Real life is so much more complicated than the types of approaches that can be systematically studied scientifically. However, when such studies contrast punishment with a reward, the results indicate that people view those who use a reward approach as both more attractive and more likely to gain compliance.

A while back, I heard about a company that had been having a hard time getting its workers to arrive on time. The company executives had a policy of punishing those who came late by docking their pay. Not only didn’t this work well, but the workers became bitter toward the executives, and many workers, after being trained at great expense, would soon leave for employment at competing companies.

When the company executives decided to discuss these problems directly with the employees, they came up with an alternative approach to the lateness problem. No longer would the employees be punished, but instead, each month an employee came to work without being late a single time, he or she was rewarded with a monetary bonus. This dramatically decreased lateness, and increased the respect the employees had for their executives, who became more open to involving the employees on how developing goals were to be carried out. The results were spectacular. An enormous amount of money was saved because of the decrease in the downtime of productivity from lateness and a reduction in recidivism.

Recently, President Trump advocated that the current US health plan be replaced with a new health care law. He was unable to get enough votes for its passage. Will he now unleash the dogs of payback? Should he?

Please let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment in the Comment Section at the bottom of this blog post.

In closing, here’s hoping you found some food for thought in today’s post, and you soon join us again right here at From Insults to Respect


Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on.  This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence.  To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.

Trump and the Nature of Hate
On Calling President Trump a Liar

About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.


  1. My thoughts? Well, a first for me, but I’d comment that this, dear colleague, is a very nice treatment of what everyone is buzzing about, from the hot-passion conversations (or cross-yelling) between once-more-civil-and-united families & citizenry to the intellectual and professional musing (or cries of alarm) specific to behavior, personality and diagnosis thereof. Deputy directors (or Emperors) of “payback” can be catalysts of world wars, while your drilling down to macro origins (the “authoritarian parent”) can take a discussion in many directions. I’ve been following “deep” discussions about issues of family and language and nationalism in the context of Russia/Ukraine, and have spent decades focusing on root causes of violence and hate, so the landscape today has some familiar dynamics.

    This essay appeals to my roots in studying social personality, and clinical psychology, probably easy to see why. Work in crisis and conflict resolution, too.. I think so many levels of individual and social experience are being touched on here, beyond parenting to some big elephants in the virtual room, like the current political scene and personalities “in control”, across all of “our government” and really “our world”. I’ll stop – it’s your blog! – but wanted to sound a note of appreciation for your “psychological” and systems approach (in this essay and a few others Ive read, including Trump-centric foci). There is so much “noise” and so much distraction (by design and by marketed toys) out there today, my focus has been on focus and helping in any positive way, amid a sea of 7-second or less distractions.

    Short version: Well stated. Pithy. Good grist for discussion. (Maybe it’s been done?) “Peace”

    Bonus: Perhaps you &/or readers interested in such topics as hate, bullying, evil, and personal vs. systemic violence might enjoy this. “Smarter than me” (and maybe even Trump?!) this was a historic conversation I find myself the keeper of (before everything was recorded; this from verbatim notes)-
    Two legends of psychology/psychiatry addressing “the nature of evil” and “why good people do bad things”. If you’ve not guessed, the latter is pure Phil Zimbardo, who explains much of what we see as social/systemic, where we do have some bad apples, and good apples, and then there are the barrel-makers too, who can tinker. Or another reference point is what he saw in the Stanford Prison experiment, repeated quite similarly in Abu Ghraib. How good people end up doing terrible things.
    And yes, there are some “bad hombre” apples and barrel-makers too.

    But how to conceptualize “evil”, understand hate, and try to get us out of some of these messes?!
    I think this is the most important thing I’ve observed (and over the years am happy to have documented), Aaron T. Beck and Phil Zimbardo, in discussion with “our Charlie Rose”, Frank Farley.

    Truly, my main purpose was just to see, thumbs up, lots of grist for the mill. But this is such an important topic, collectively, from the bullying to mental competency to divisiveness in society and (where Beck goes in this discussion) to the causes of hate, and (Zimbardo) the systemic press….
    Well. Thanks for the article, and others. I’ve only read a few (busy busy!) but really enjoyed them and commend you for putting this out there. Peace.

    • Hi Dr. Michael Fenichel,

      Much thanks for your kind words of support. Like you, I have found the work of Beck and Zimbardo helpful in understanding why good people do some pretty awful things. And, like you, I am concerned about the tone of the current administration and how it may become a catalyst for war.

      By the way, I like your style of writing, the way you eloquently weave in a variety of concerns into an overarching concern. Well done. Here’s hoping you’ll put in your two cents upon reading future posts. My Best, Jeff

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