After Donald Trump was diagnosed with Covid-19, my Facebook feed became surprisingly empty, and I think I know why. People were having forbidden thoughts and feelings, and they weren’t about to put them in a public place. In the privacy of their own heads and homes, they may have even been feeling gleeful. Is this absolutely grotesque?
It’s not as if people were laughing about something that simply happened to Trump (as well as to dozens of people around him). This isn’t a situation like Ronald Reagan getting shot by John Hinckley, which I don’t recall people laughing about, no matter how much they detested Reagan. Trump has been flouting public health recommendations since the beginning of the pandemic and encouraging others to do so. His poor leadership is a big part of the reason why the US has the highest rate of infection in the world.
We also need to be clear about what people were laughing about. Not anyone’s suffering, I assume. Rather, people were laughing about an irony, an absurdity: the sheer fact that someone so contemptuous of safety precautions contracted the virus he refused to take precautions against. This is like laughing about someone who insists on the safety of an icy pond and then falls through the ice. It would be the irony that’s funny, not the fact that they’re flailing in icy water.
But now, laughter isn’t the only issue. People have had some grim thoughts, or so I hear. Some have wished Trump gone instead of wishing him well. In the days after Trump’s diagnosis, there was a great deal of talk about this online. It became clear pretty quickly that the esteemed stance was not to wish him ill, but to wish him well.
Several philosophers crafted arguments that backed up the well-wishers. For example, Sasha Mudd, writing in The New York Times, said that we must wish Trump well both because of his basic human dignity and because he can’t get his just deserts from the virus; those can only come from voters. Brendan de Kenessey made much the same argument in The Washington Post. Trump deserves to be punished for his many seriously bad actions over the last four years, he wrote, but the virus can’t impose justice. So we should wish for a scenario in which Trump recovers, but a recovered Trump gets his comeuppance.
It will not get me elected girl scout of the year, but I would defend ill wishes, particularly if Joe Biden were not way ahead in the polls. Setting aside wishes, first consider lucky or fortunate accidents. These are situations in which something normally bad occurs, without any wrongdoing, and it’s for the best. For example, it would have been a lucky accident if Hitler had choked on a peanut and died in 1930. Fortunate accidents aren’t just imaginary, of course; they occur, and we do think they’re fortunate, like when someone with a fatal condition gets pneumonia and dies quickly, instead of having to endure a protracted death.
Now, if you take Trump’s dangerousness as a leader seriously, then how could it be anything but a fortunate accident if he were stopped from having a second term by an illness? The illness would be a fortunate accident, provided you do think that Trump, in a second term, would go on to cause even more death from the pandemic, even more damage to the environment, even more misery for immigrants, even more problems for people in need of health insurance, even more problems for people trying to exercise their rights, even more erosion of basic norms.
And now we come to the question at hand. May we wish for a fortunate accident? Wishing is not intending or planning or making so. It’s just thinking “it would be better if” or “I hope.” Once you grant that Trump’s succumbing to the coronavirus would be a fortunate accident, it’s hard to see why you wouldn’t wish for it – assuming he’s not your friend or family member or business associate.
Now, the fact is that Joe Biden is way ahead in the polls. So we don’t have much reason to wish for Trump’s demise, and it would certainly be better if his going on to a second term were prevented through electoral defeat. But what about wishing him just a bit of a relapse? Trump recovered so quickly that in some eyes this vindicated his cavalier approach to masking and social distancing. A little relapse could make people take coronavirus more seriously, wear masks more, and socially distance. So a little relapse would be a fortunate accident.
May I wish him a relapse, instead of wishing him well? Privately, that is; the issue is not whether I may send him an “ill wishes” Hallmark card. Answer: I don’t think there’s a good argument that I can’t. Of course wishes are just wishes. What really matters is what we do. I already cast my vote with pleasure and can’t wait for November 4.