Schadenfreude, and seven other reactions to Trump’s illness

Of all the things I hold against Trump, this is the one I will have the hardest time forgiving: He has made me realize how spiteful I can be.

Schadenfreude and karmic justice. I wish I could report that when I heard about Trump testing positive for the coronavirus, I felt a wave of human compassion. Because politics is one thing and life is another, and we’ve got to hang on to our humanity.

But what I actually thought was: “Maybe there really is a just God.” It wasn’t exactly schadenfreude, which would be more like “I’m glad that bastard is suffering.” (Coincidentally, Merriam-Webster reported a 305-times increase in the number of searches for schadenfreude on October 2.) But it’s close: Hearing about his diagnosis made the Universe seem like a safer, saner place.

This is the kind of thing a good person would never say about another human being, but (in both a karmic and a practical sense) nobody had this coming like Trump. Practically, he has been ignoring precautions, running around the country maskless, not enforcing sound workplace hygiene practices at the White House (which The Atlantic’s Peter Nicholas presciently described as “a petri dish” in August), and doing everything he could to discourage others from taking precautions (like berating a White House reporter for wearing a mask to a briefing).

Karmically, nobody — or at least no American — bears more responsibility for the spread of Covid-19 than he does. He consistently pressures state and local governments to relax their health restrictions too soon, encourages his followers to flout mask mandates, pushes the CDC to relax its guidelines, advocates for less testing, pushes misinformation about the virus, promotes quack “cures”, and even travels around the country holding super-spreader events, one of which seems to have gotten Herman Cain killed (just to put a face on a larger phenomenon).

How many of America’s 214K-and-counting coronavirus deaths are Trump’s fault? It’s impossible to say precisely, but here’s how I think about it: Culturally and economically, the country that best resembles the US is Canada. Canada currently has 251 Covid deaths per 100K people. The US has 647. If our government could have handled the virus as well as Canada’s, and kept our deaths-per-100K down to 251K, we’d have only 39% of the deaths we currently have, or 83K rather than 214K.

That calculation would say that about 131K American deaths are on Trump. That’s about 33,000 Benghazis or 44 9-11s. If you make Germany or Australia the reference country, the number gets even bigger. If you use Japan, practically all the deaths are his fault.

So, am I rooting for him to suffer and die? No. But a Universe where he skates along unaffected by the damage he causes just feels wrong to me.

BTW, if you find yourself feeling guilty about your own lack of sympathy for Trump, take a look at how he responded during the 2016 campaign when Hillary came down with pneumonia.

The philosopher Aaron James has defined a technical term to describe people who want to claim the benefits of rules governing politeness and propriety, while always holding themselves exempt from the duties, inconveniences, and sacrifices those rules impose: They are assholes.

Is he really sick? On Friday, just about everybody I talked to was asking this question, and wondering if the Covid thing was a play for sympathy or an excuse for ducking the rest of the debates or a way to divert attention from his taxes or keep Biden out of the headlines. It’s crazy that we even have to consider the possibility of a presidential health hoax, but we do. Trump has lied about everything else, so why not this?

In general, though, I don’t believe in big conspiracies, and the longer this goes on, the more people would have to be in on it. So by now I’m pretty sure that he really is sick.

But even Friday morning the hoax explanation seemed unlikely, because catching Covid undermines so many things Trump has been working to accomplish. For months, he’s been trying to induce voters to think about anything else. He’s been telling his rallies that the pandemic is fading. Plus, he wants to present an image of larger-that-life strength. Trump aims to inspire awe and love in his supporters, and hate and fear in his enemies. People like me wondering if we ought to feel sorry for him is the last thing he wants.

His scandalous response. It’s not a scandal that Trump caught the virus, but what he did next is: After he knew he had been exposed, he continued to meet people who were not warned about the risk. (What the Wall Street Journal is reporting is even more damning: He had already seen a positive test before phone interview with Sean Hannity Thursday evening, but pretended he hadn’t.)

There’s been a lot of controversy about the timeline, but we do know this much: Hope Hicks was diagnosed Wednesday, so by Thursday afternoon Trump knew that he (and probably a lot of his staff) had been exposed and might be carrying the infection; his positive test was announced several hours later. Nonetheless, he went to a fund-raiser at his club in New Jersey and schmoozed with his donors. He traveled there with his staff on Marine One, a close-quarter helicopter without proper ventilation.

The fund-raiser included a round-table photo op with 18 quarter-million-dollar donors, few (or perhaps none) of whom were wearing masks. A larger photo op was held for mere $50K donors, and there was an outdoor event for the low-rollers who may have only given a few thousand. In all, we’re talking about hundreds of people. They aren’t his enemies; they’re the people he’s depending on to get him a second term.

Friday, the campaign emailed attendees to tell them about Trump’s positive test. The email did not recommend that they quarantine or get tested themselves, but merely said they should contact their doctors if they developed symptoms.

If you ever need an example to back up the point that Trump cares about no one but himself, here it is. He doesn’t even care about his staff, or the people who give big donations to his campaign.

And if you need an example to make the case that Trump is typical of an entire generation of conservative assholes, use Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. Friday, he went to a fund-raiser after he had a positive test.

What if he can’t go on? One question on everybody’s mind: What happens if illness causes Trump to withdraw or die? The Washington Post has it covered:

The bottom line is that the RNC would determine who the replacement candidate would be, should it come to that unfortunate situation. And Republican slates of electors in states the president won, because he remains on the ballot, would very likely follow the RNC’s recommendation.

But one last possibility to ponder: If the RNC were deeply divided, and Republican electors then did not coalesce around a single replacement candidate, there might not be a majority winner in the electoral college. In that case, the House would choose the president from among the top three vote getters in the electoral college. In that process, each state delegation gets one vote.

The Atlantic surveys the same ground with more emphasis on the chaotic scenarios. That article also reveals history I didn’t know: Presidential candidate Horace Greeley died between the 1872 election and the date when electors cast their ballots, and VP candidate James Sherman died before election day in 1912. Both were on losing tickets, so the course of the nation didn’t hinge on how the rules were interpreted.

The White House cluster. After learning that the President and First Lady were infected, the next question was “Who else?” Many political movements fail by believing their own rhetoric, and Trump has been saying for a long time that the virus isn’t a big deal; we should all just get back to normal as fast as possible. Among Trumpists, mask-wearing and other good public-health practices are looked on as wimpy, as “living in fear“. (Packing heat at the supermarket, on the other hand, is just a reasonable precaution.)

Here’s a little more from that August article by Peter Nicholas:

when I arrived at the White House this morning, I was struck by the lack of safety protocols in place. The most famous address in America now feels like a coronavirus breeding ground. … Some of the West Wing desks are spaced so closely together, and some of the offices are so cramped, that it’s tough to see how people avoid exposure at all. In one small office today, two aides stood and spoke to each other without masks. Young aides sat at desks in an open bullpen-style space without masks. Walking through the hallways accessible to the press, I wore a mask, but I haven’t been tested for COVID-19; had I removed my mask for some reason and coughed or sneezed, there was no hint of a mask patrol prepared to whisk me out the building. The vibe was shockingly lax.

Apparently nothing is going to change. The White House is saying that CDC guidelines make mask-wearing optional, so that’s what they’ll stick with.

So, who else has been infected so far? Hope Hicks was the first person whose infection was announced. Subsequently: KellyAnne Conway, presidential assistant Nicholas Luna, RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel, campaign manager Bill Stepien, Senators Mike Lee, Thom Tillis and Ron Johnson, debate coach Chris Christie, and Notre Dame President John Jenkins, who attended the Rose Garden announcement of Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination. Barrett herself, it turns out, already had the virus during the summer.

How is he doing? This gets into the breaking-news area I try to avoid. (I can’t compete with CNN, and you shouldn’t get your breaking news from a weekly blog anyway.) But the striking thing about this weekend’s announcements was how much bullshit you had to wade through to find out anything. Had the President needed oxygen? The doctor kept dodging the question and repeating that he wasn’t on oxygen now. Had his x-rays revealed any pneumonia or lung damage? Another dodge.

Eventually we found out that he did spike a high fever at some point. (How high? They won’t say.) He had a couple of episodes of low blood oxygenation. He has received multiple cutting-edge treatments, some of which are only recommended for severe cases. That raises three possibilities:

  • He’s sicker than the White House is letting on.
  • Doctors are being super-aggressive because he’s the President.
  • Trump is a victim of “VIP syndrome”, where doctors yield to the judgment of an important patient rather than doing what they think is best.

Photo ops. Whatever energy Trump does have has been devoted to controlling the narrative, rather than getting well or running the country. He has released two Twitter videos from Walter Reed Hospital, and Sunday he had two Secret Service agents risk their lives to drive him around the building, so that he could wave to his fans.

George Washington University professor and Walter Reed attending physician Dr. James Phillips tweeted:

Every single person in the vehicle during that completely unnecessary Presidential “drive-by” just now has to be quarantined for 14 days. They might get sick. They may die. For political theater. Commanded by Trump to put their lives at risk for theater. This is insanity.

… That Presidential SUV is not only bulletproof, but hermetically sealed against chemical attack. The risk of COVID19 transmission inside is as high as it gets outside of medical procedures. The irresponsibility is astounding. My thoughts are with the Secret Service forced to play.

So file this with the other examples of Trump not caring about anyone but himself.

During the Trump Era we tend to forget that America has had previous presidents who behaved differently. But it’s worth thinking about that now. It’s not crazy for a president to want to reassure the country that he’s OK and that America is still in good hands. But other presidents would have used their limited energy to do work, not pull a stunt.

For a normal president, it would make perfect sense to, say, be on the phone lobbying senators to support his Supreme Court nominee, or urging members of Congress to work out their differences and send him a stimulus bill. Mark Meadows could tell us he was doing those things, and the people he was calling could verify how on-the-ball he was.

Instead, he had to leave the hospital and wave to his adoring public.

Political impact. Something you have to bear in mind is that prior to announcing his infection, Trump was losing the presidential race pretty badly. So anything that shakes up the race at least interrupts a story that was trending against him. 538’s national polling average has Biden up by 8%, and polling above the magic 50% mark that Hillary couldn’t get to, no matter far ahead she was. Ditto for the RCP average, which has Biden up by 8.1% at 50.6%.

Focusing on the Electoral College, 538’s most likely tipping-point state is Pennsylvania, where Biden is ahead by 5.3%, and its tipping-point status depends on Trump also winning Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, and Ohio, where Biden has smaller leads.

For comparison, Texas is closer than that: Trump is ahead by only 4%. So a landslide where Biden takes Texas (and Iowa and Georgia) is currently more likely than the narrowest possible Trump win.

If anything, the more recent polls, taken after Tuesday’s debate but before Trump’s positive test was announced, were even worse for Trump: Biden was up 14% in an NBC/WSJ poll released Sunday.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the short-term effect of Trump’s diagnosis is a small sympathy bump. But long-term I don’t see how it serves him. Anything that keeps the pandemic in the headlines is bad for him, because he has bungled our government’s response so badly. Anything that makes him look weak is bad for him. Cancelling rallies is bad for him. I don’t think his first debate performance did him any good, but cancelling the remaining two debates would remove opportunities for him to turn things around.

So no. Even if he recovers completely, I don’t think getting sick does Trump any good.

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  • George Washington, Jr.  On October 5, 2020 at 12:24 pm

    It’s ironic that the super-spreader event was the Dancing on RBG’s Grave party, excuse me, the Amy Coney Barrett nomination announcement. And to anyone who complains about the liberal response to this news, imagine the glee from conservatives if Joe Biden were to be hospitalized with COVID.

  • Lan Moshet  On October 5, 2020 at 1:24 pm

    Glad to see your opinions are so much like mine. Trump gets no sympathy from me: he aggressively courted his fate. If there is Divine Justice, this is it!
    This is mild punishment for one who is responsible for thousands of deaths and who has sought to destroy his own country.

  • JJ  On October 5, 2020 at 1:34 pm

    Stolen from another blog:
    “The last few days have been enough to make Democrats believe in God and Republicans believe in science.”

  • Bill Dysons  On October 5, 2020 at 2:56 pm

    If you buy into Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory, you’ll agree that conservatives believe far more strongly in retributive justice and karma than do liberals. “An eye for an eye” or “you do the crime you do the time” are common phrases among conservatives, while liberals are more likely to say “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” Liberals are obviously more sensitive to issues surrounding compassion.

    So I find it really interesting on this blog (and elsewhere) how liberals are struggling against or debating their own “conservative/karmic justice instinct.” If the shoe was on the other foot, conservatives would definitely not be having that internal struggle – they are much more comfortable with karma as a force in the world.

    This represents another major psychological difference between the two ideologies.

  • Ed Blanchard  On October 5, 2020 at 3:51 pm

    donald (use of lower case first name is intentional) is a living parasite contained within a petri dish of his own fabrication.

  • nicknielsensc  On October 5, 2020 at 11:17 pm

    More and more, I find myself responding to on-line correspondents with “May you receive from life that which you wish for others.” It’s particularly effective as a curse, as those I use it against are often unable to grok the message.

  • ccyager  On October 6, 2020 at 6:10 pm

    I confess, I was happy that he got the virus. I confess, I wanted him to get very, very ill, gasp for breath, have pain all over his body, and need a ventilator. I thought I was being a bad person for thinking this way, but then I thought of how HE would respond if I got sick. I understood that the doctors wanted to be aggressive in their treatment (they actually experimented on him by giving him the drugs they did so early) because he’s the president (or maybe they just wanted to get him out of the hospital and away from them) and he was probably demanding every imaginable treatment and privilege possible. Now it’s a waiting game to see if week 2 hits him as hard as it does most people.


  • By Trending Terms | The Weekly Sift on October 5, 2020 at 12:44 pm

    […] week’s featured posts are “Schadenfreude, and seven other reactions to Trump’s illness” and “About Those […]

  • […] from my cave again. I’m the very definition of underlying conditions. I do understand the Weekly Sift guy’s sense of Schadenfreude re IMPOTUS. I’m trying NOT to feel that way, I really […]

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