How Should We Feel About the Suffering of This Man?

Donald Trump enters a helicopter.
Donald Trump, seen on his way to Walter Reed Military Medical Center. Saul Loeb/Getty Images

The news that Donald Trump has been hospitalized due to the coronavirus has prompted a tangle of emotions in almost everyone I know. The whole story has unfolded with unbelievable speed—it was just after 5 p.m. on the same day we learned he was sick that we realized he was really sick, that he might in fact be closer to death than he has been at any other point during this presidency. We have all been afflicted, as Laurence Scott has written, by the “secondary infection” every citizen suffers when a head of state is ill—we all are touched by morbid excitement, we all ask “feverish, dead-end questions about the nature of sympathy.” How are we meant to feel about the suffering of a monstrous man? What does it mean to anticipate his death, to fear the ramifications of it or fleetingly fantasize about it?

From our candidates, of course, we expect public decency, and Joe Biden delivered, with a factory-standard set of thoughts and prayers. (Would Trump have behaved similarly under similar circumstances? It’s hard to imagine.) Social media has its own mores, which are constantly being bent and stretched, their ragged edges explored: Twitter has announced that users may not wish for the death of Donald Trump, to the anger of many users who for years have flagged tweets wishing death upon them in vain. On Facebook, it seems, you may wish for his death as long as you do not tag him. There are ramifications for publicly mulling these questions; it seems likely, for example, that right-wing media will seize on lines in this essay and replay them, absent of context, as evidence of liberal writers’ ghoulishness.

Am I a ghoul? That’s what I’m wrestling with. In a way, that’s what nearly everyone I know who despairs of Trump is wrestling with this weekend, as the president lies in a bed in Bethesda, Maryland, named for that place of grace and healing in Jerusalem. Sure, I have often hoped that bad things would happen to Donald Trump. But this bad thing? The next bad thing?

I suppose I first started wishing Donald Trump ill in the late spring of 2016, when it became clear he was going to win the Republican primary. Before that, I’d viewed him as a television buffoon, a celebrity who was essentially irrelevant to the daily life of anyone I knew. What effect could the fictional character whose brain had been implanted into the skull of Bill the Cat have on me or those I love?

The summer of 2016 was the summer of learning to hate Donald Trump: for his racism, for his horrific treatment of women, for his cozying up to dictators, and—undergirding it all—for the possibility, however remote, that he could take all these qualities into the White House. There was the knowledge, in the background, that if that happened, he would make life worse for millions of people. My ill wishes for him then were simple, in retrospect: I wished he would be revealed in public as a charlatan and that his fortunes would fall. And then he was revealed as a charlatan, many times, and his fortunes soared. It was only after the election, in that cold November morning, that things started to harden. It was only then that I started idly thinking, well, it wouldn’t be so bad if he, you know, dropped dead. If it happened, I mused, I wouldn’t be sad at all.

This felt new. I still remember the shock of hearing Elvis Costello singing about how badly he wanted to tramp the dirt down on Margaret Thatcher’s grave, and how that eventually led me to understand that it was commonplace among working-class Britons to wish the Iron Lady dead. That it felt new to me spoke not to some strength of moral character on my part but to my privilege, that I had never truly lived under threat. Politics has long been life or death for the vulnerable among us. Many gay men in the ’80s wished that a needle slip, a secret tryst, might render Ronald Reagan or George H. W. Bush HIV-positive, wished for the upheaval to the social order that that would instigate, because their very existence was in peril. They were fighting for their lives and the lives of everyone they loved against a government that didn’t merely ignore them but actively wanted them dead. But in my comfortable 40-plus years on earth, I’d never been in mortal danger, so my antipathy toward Republicans had always been passionate but abstract. It would never have dawned on me to wish Bob Dole dead.

My early, fleeting musings on Donald Trump’s demise weren’t even a product of being myself under threat. They were based, instead, on repugnance, and so reflected, I thought, something ugly in myself. An ugliness brought to the fore, perhaps, by the grotesquerie of Trump’s persona, coaxed into being by his incurious, hateful corruption—a willingness to be baited by his attempts to troll the libs. It still meant that something small was broken in me, and I viewed my emotions as a victory for him—a way he was beginning to drag me down, drag all of us down, into the mire. If this was the reaction he wanted, wasn’t it something to avoid?

Over the four years since that election, Trump has done untold damage to our country, to individual people, to the entire world. He’s done that damage gleefully, absolutely unconcerned with our dismay. He revels in it. Fuck our feelings, as the T-shirts say. And as he jailed immigrants and demonized Black people and vilified the press and enriched himself and his children, my feelings evolved. I didn’t want Donald Trump to die. I wanted Donald Trump to fail.

I wanted Donald Trump to face the consequences of his cruelty, his idiocy, and his greed. I wanted him impeached and convicted, brought low, disgraced so thoroughly that he could only slink away in shame. And that meant that what I really wanted was for him to be transformed, somehow, into a person with shame, the kind of person who could recognize his own evil. I wanted him to say, “You were right about me.” I wanted him to say, “I’m sorry.” That is to say, I wanted the impossible. That didn’t feel ugly. It felt righteous.

The burst of unseemly glee that accompanied the news of the president’s positive test was yet another salvo in this four-year war between my feelings, my intellect, and what I’ve always thought of as my morality. In 2020 the president’s malignancy has expanded. He now directly threatens the lives of every person in America. Over 200,000 of them have died so far, in large part because of his incompetence and cruelty. And so hearing that the virus he has spent months downplaying, lying about, and ignoring has, at long last, stricken him was a moment of such narrative perfection that its power was nearly overwhelming.

I’m not inclined to condemn people for finding the news of the past 36 hours, in addition to alarming and embarrassing, richly comic. To laugh at the shitstorm currently overwhelming the Republican Party, including Trump, is not to disrespect life, as the outraged tone police might insist. To laugh at what the Republicans and Donald Trump have brought upon themselves is to respect life, to understand that to take wanton risks with life was always a fool’s game. It may not reflect well on the state of my soul that I’m watching this entirely predictable panic in two branches of the government with mordant mirth, but we’ve all been damaged by the last four years, haven’t we?

But complicating everything is the fact that the diagnosis came in the very week it became inescapably apparent that Donald Trump’s reelection campaign was cratering. Trump bombed the debate—not merely performed badly but performed in a way that seemed designed in a lab to turn the few remaining swing voters toward Biden. The polls rolled in: Trump was down 9 in Pennsylvania. Trump was down 11 in Nevada. Trump was, somehow, only up 1 in South Carolina. He was taking Senate candidates down with him, and the light was shining on his planned election chicanery, and the wave was building—the wave that might not only defeat Trump once and for all, but repudiate him.

It’s this confluence of events—the very real possibility of Trump losing in a landslide and the very real possibility of Trump dying of COVID first—that has, once and for all, helped me understand how to feel about his illness. The reason not to root for Trump’s death isn’t about some high-minded respect for every human life. It’s not even about Trump himself. Though it’s impossible for Donald Trump to understand—though for some time now it’s been hard for me, in my rage, to remember—there are things more important than the fate of Donald Trump.

We’re headed for dark days no matter what happens in this election. A tight race due to electoral malfeasance is likely to result in a constitutional crisis and blood on the streets. Even a resounding defeat for Trump and Trumpism, the Reagan-vs.-Mondale–style landslide of my dreams, will probably lead to bad things in the short term. But Trump dying before the election is worse.

Trump dying would take away the chance to repudiate him through the vote—the first step in addressing, as a nation, our enormous errors, an opportunity for the country to decide this isn’t who we want to be. Yes, we’re going to have to deal with the great national schism, and for that matter our broken electoral system. But to survive the Trump presidency, the first thing this country has to do is defeat him, fair and square, even if he didn’t win fair and square the first time.

And so I hope Donald Trump doesn’t die of COVID, because beating him at the polls will be the best thing for the United States and for the world. I hope his battalion of doctors at Walter Reed give him the world-class health care he wants to deny us all, that he comes through this to the other side. That’s the high-minded way to think of it. I’m trying to be bigger than my hatred, bigger than my disgust; I’m trying to embrace humanity with an enthusiasm Donald Trump has never managed to muster.

I also hope Donald Trump survives for many years, a disgraced private citizen, a living example of the worst our country has to offer. I hope this because I am not perfect. I hope this because parts of me are, perhaps, smaller than they were before.