A 2023 Column Contest grand-prize winner, Laurence Pevsner’s Sorry Not Sorry investigates why we’re sick of everyone apologizing all the time—and how the collapse of the public apology leaves little room for forgiveness and grace in our politics and culture.
Imagine, for a moment, a world where President Trump apologized for defaming E. Jean Carroll.
No, really, try to visualize him on Fox or Newsmax or in a grainy vertical video on Truth Social. See, in your mind’s eye, his sly grin transformed into sincere sorrow, while he says, “I am truly sorry to E. Jean Carroll, whom I raped many years ago and have defamed many times since then. I did something horrible back then and have only made it worse ever since. I know you may never forgive me, but I will regret what I have done to my dying day.”
The exercise I just asked of you is, of course, impossible. Trying to imagine Donald Trump apologizing sincerely is like asking you to picture the edge of the universe. You can describe it in theory, but it’s impossible for our puny minds to process.
It’s not a coincidence or aberration, though, that the leading Republican presidential candidate is the antithesis of apologetic. We often think of Donald Trump as exceptional in American politics, but when it comes to his policy on apology, he is the logical conclusion of a conservative trend we can trace at least as far back as Eisenhower and Nixon.
In May of 1960, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down while flying through Soviet airspace right before the Paris summit, where the Soviet Union and the Western powers were set to discuss a détente. The spy plane’s invasion of airspace was akin to an act of war. But Premier Khrushchev had publicly committed himself to a “peaceful coexistence” with the United States—if Eisenhower apologized and denied personal knowledge of the spying program, the summit would likely have continued. But Eisenhower refused to apologize. He not only knew about the spy plane program but approved and oversaw each and every mission, and he said so. In fact, Eisenhower declared he planned to continue the spy missions. Predictably, Khrushchev railed against American aggression on the first day of the peace summit and stormed out.
As this was an election year, the U-2 incident was the first question posed to John F. Kennedy at the second televised presidential debate. Should the United States have apologized? Kennedy said yes, insisting that “expressing regrets” was just good foreign policy. He declared, “It’s not appeasement. It’s not soft.”
Nixon, naturally, disagreed. He did, however, defend the idea that apologies theoretically had their place in foreign affairs. “The United States is a strong country,” said Tricky Dicky. “Whenever we do anything that’s wrong, we can express regrets.” “Whenever” being the key wiggle word. We should apologize when we do something wrong; we just happen to never do anything wrong.
But what if you have absolutely, dead to rights, been caught doing something wrong? At the climax of the 2008 film Frost/Nixon, the movie portrays the reporter David Frost as having extracted an earth-shattering apology from Nixon. But in real life, while Nixon said that he “let the American people down,” he never really apologized or said sorry. In fact, in the actual interview, Nixon said: “If they want me to get down and grovel on the floor, no. Never. Because I don’t believe I should.”
Republican leaders seized that stance and ran with it. After the Iran-Contra affair, Reagan gave the model non-apology. “A few months ago, I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages,” he said from the Oval Office. “My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.” A beautiful dodge. Reagan said he took “full responsibility” for his actions while making sure to note repeatedly how much was done without his supposed knowledge or consent. He ended the famous speech by telling the country they ought to simply turn the page: “Now, what should happen when you make a mistake is this: You take your knocks, you learn your lessons, and then you move on.” Apologizing was not part of Reagan’s formula for seeking forgiveness.
Reagan’s vice president, George H. W. Bush, decided to do away even with Nixon’s wiggle word, declaring on the campaign trail, “I will never apologize for the United States—I don’t care what the facts are.” His son embraced the same ethos. President George W. Bush has never apologized for the invasion of Iraq, and on the twentieth anniversary of the war, the New York Times reported that Bush told his advisors he still believes he made the right choice (to violate international law and start a war that killed over 4,600 American troops and more than 200,000 civilians and that spurred the creation of ISIS).
Even Senator Mitt Romney, who now occupies the lonely leftward lane of the Republican Party, has a strong anti-apology record. During the 2012 campaign, his main line of attack against President Obama’s foreign policy was to call it an “Apology Tour.” And then there was Romney’s campaign book, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness. That’s a title begging for Trump’s byline.
Why, though, do Republican leaders reject apology, especially at a moment when the rest of our public leaders are apologizing constantly? In the past few weeks, we’ve seen high-profile attempts at public apologies in academia (Harvard President Claudine Gay), sports (Superbowl-bound 49ers linebacker Dre Greenlaw), and business (Kyte Baby CEO Ying Liu and Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg). Why do these people and institutions feel the need to apologize, but Republican leaders do not?
The answer is simple: while many Americans increasingly demand apologies for public wrongs, the core conservative base rejects them. Republican politicians can disavow apology because that’s what their constituents now want and expect them to do. We can try to psychoanalyze how that came to be the case—one thought is that machismo has become a part of the Republican brand, and apology has been labeled in conservative culture as weak and, therefore, feminine. In his excellent book Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology, the linguist Edwin Battistella traces “apology as weakness” back to a 1949 Western film She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, where a character played by the manliest of men John Wayne kept repeating his motto: “Never apologize, it’s a sign of weakness.” The film portrays this as a foolish attitude, but finance bros look up to Leo’s character in The Wolf of Wall Street, so nothing ever changes.
Since then, the Republican axiom has steadily been aligning itself with John Wayne: never admit weakness, never admit you’re wrong, never apologize.
In 2015, Jimmy Fallon went off-script. He asked Donald Trump, in a moment of bewilderment, “Have you ever apologized? Ever? In your lifetime? Close your eyes, think back to Baby Donald, when you were little Donny Trump, did you ever, did you ever apologize?”
Trump’s first response was disapproval of the question: “That was not supposed to be one of the questions… we had a very nice sequence of questions.” But then he did, surprisingly, drum up an answer. “I fully think apologizing is a great thing, but you have to be wrong,” he said. “I will absolutely apologize, sometime in the hopefully distant future, if I’m ever wrong.”
Squint closely at Trump’s smirk, and you’ll see Nixon’s scowl.