Now that Trump has contracted Covid, electrons are abuzz with pious proclamations wishing him a full and speedy recovery. So far at least, I haven’t encountered any statements to the contrary. I’d bet, however, that all this well-wishing — although politically well-tuned — is not shared by millions of Americans, not to mention people world-wide. And that much of it reflects blatant hypocrisy. So, at the risk of being “politically incorrect” (but not in the way that right-wing discourse represents such “incorrectness”), I’m going to dissent. Assuming that at least for now this really is a free country, which includes freedom of speech and not just of thought, here goes: I most assuredly do not wish President Trump well. Quite the opposite.
I do not wish him a full and speedy recovery. Some people, although probably very few reading this post, will be surprised, shocked, angry. I predict, on the other hand, that many more will be relieved to encounter in public what you and many of your friends and family have been thinking and saying in private. Regardless, I’ll say it again, adding more detail: I am delighted, downright over the moon that he is ill, and would be even happier if he became sicker yet, beyond the “mild symptoms” he is supposed to have been experiencing at present. If I believed in God, I would thank her for Trump’s illness, and if I believed in prayer, I would request that he be visited with more of the same.
No sympathy for this particular devil. As Chelsea Handler recently tweeted, “My sympathy and prayers are for decent kind people who would never think to put a child in a cage or separate babies from their parents—many for life. I’ll save my sympathy for people who care for the 210k Americans families who have lost loved ones. Not for a racist bigot.”
The question of well-wishing vs ill-wishing raises some interesting, general psychological issues, which to my knowledge have rarely if ever been explored. It also, of course, has specific resonance in Trump’s case.
First, the general: Are we really obliged to wish someone well? Even if we believe that this someone is — as Trump himself has had no hesitation in labelling others — a “very bad person”? It is widely assumed that there is something evil, (according to some people, downright sinful), even in harboring certain thoughts. Recall Jimmy Carter’s acknowledgment in a 1976 Playboy interview that “I've looked on a lot of women with lust. I've committed adultery in my heart many times.” He was nonetheless elected president that year, perhaps because of a widespread recognition that contrary to the proverb, the wish is not necessarily father to the deed.
Could it be that casting aspersions on wishing ill upon another is a societal effort to arm-twist the public into a more benevolent frame of mind? Or perhaps an unspoken belief in a kind of black magic, analogous to sticking pins in voodoo dolls, whereby thoughts and hopes are somehow made real as by a kind of paranormal influence. Maybe that is why expressing ill-will is so widely condemned, not just as a social faux pas (which it assuredly is), but also because it might somehow have a direct physical effect.
We would all do well to acknowledge that wishing doesn’t make reality (a distinction that Trump has yet to recognize, notably with regard to the pandemic itself). We might choose to wish upon a star, or to make a wish when blowing out birthday candles, and although it is generally assumed that such wishes are benevolent albeit often self-serving, tradition also assumes that they are kept to one’s self. Could this tradition have developed in order to shield those cases in which the wish is occasionally directed toward others, and is malevolent? Regardless, and as President Carter would doubtless affirm, it is possible to wish or imagine something without acting on it, and I submit that in their logical mind, nearly everyone recognizes that wishing harm to someone, even though it may not reflect well on the wisher, is altogether different from actually producing harm to the “victim.”
There are many reasons why a perfectly sane, sober, and moral person might wish harm to another, without acting upon such a wish. Schadenfreude is readily understandable, and is so widespread as to likely be universal. To fantasize is human and is typically pleasurable, especially when it involves picturing a positive outcome for self or others. But let’s face it: Fantasizing more darkly also occurs, and could well provide a harmless outlet for what might otherwise emerge as harmful acts toward another. The widespread belief in hell — found in nearly all of the world’s religious traditions — is likely founded not only on desire to control the behavior of others by threatening malefactors with eternal torture, but is also underpinned by a troubled awareness that people often get away with bad behavior, which in turn makes it satisfying to imagine that such individuals will eventually get their comeuppance.
The early church father, Tertullian, who wrote extensively about hell in the second century after Jesus, maintained that after death the pious would get to delight in witnessing forever the suffering of the damned— among whom Tertullian included essentially anyone who disagreed with him.
Back to Trump, someone with whom I and many others emphatically disagree, and who has, in my not very humble opinion, caused immense suffering to many. Why shouldn’t I imagine his suffering as a suitable comeuppance, richly deserved?
Moreover, there could be a practical, social benefit — beyond the satisfaction that “he deserved it” — if his illness is prolonged and painful. After all, here is a president whose actions have been immensely hurtful in many ways for the world generally and for the United States in particular, and whose egregious misbehavior during this pandemic is almost certainly responsible for the additional deaths of tens of thousands and perhaps more than one hundred thousand Americans. Regardless of the outcome of the forthcoming election, and assuming he survives his illness, he will, alas, remain in power at least until January 20, 2021.
Thus far, he has shown a breathtaking and hurtful failure of empathy, for people as well as for the natural environment. If, as I devoutly wish, he gets his comeuppance through a serious, painful, and debilitating illness, one that he has specifically downplayed, lied about, and indeed, abetted, is there a chance that he will emerge with some of the empathy, understanding, and respect for science that would serve the country well during his remaining time in office, however long that may be. Probably not: His despicable personality, revealed over a too-long life, pretty much guarantees that his pathological narcissism along with diagnosable sociopathy more or less guarantees that he is a hopeless cause. But I’d like to think that the country isn’t.
David P. Barash is professor of psychology emeritus at the University of Washington. His most recent book is Threats: Intimidation and its Discontents (2020, Oxford University Press)