Oct 11, 2020
Over the past week, many people have wondered how we should feel about President Trump testing positive for COVID-19.
One important question here has been how this event will impact the November election and the US in the future. It has been argued (persuasively, to my mind) that if Trump were to succumb to the virus, this would be catastrophic, as it would rob Americans of the opportunity to vote him out in record numbers and so silence his mob.
But there is another important question here: how should we feel about Trump getting the virus in itself, independently of its political consequences? For many people, this question is especially salient because they have found themselves taking pleasure in Trump's diagnosis (or at least not feeling sad about it). They want to know: is this wrong?
A popular answer that has been given is that Trump's suffering, like anybody's, is a bad thing, and so the appropriate or fitting response is sadness. It might be psychologically hard to feel sad about it right now, given the suffering of so many others and Trump's role in this. And so, we might forgive or excuse those who do not feel sad. But strictly speaking, one should feel some sadness here. Someone without any psychological limitations, say, Jesus, would feel sad about it (among other things).
A different answer is that of the retributivist, according to which Trump's despicable actions and character make his suffering less bad than a normal person's, and possibly even a good thing.
I find both answers unsatisfactory. Retributivism is wrong that the suffering of bad people is less bad or even good. Everyone's welfare is equally intrinsically valuable. Suffering is always a bad thing (in and of itself). But at the same time, I agree that it is very hard to accept that we should feel any sadness at Trump's diagnosis. There is even something mildly ridiculous about those whom it saddens.
I want to suggest a non-retributivist account of why Trump's diagnosis does not call for sadness. It is because his having COVID-19 is not all that bad for him relative to his condition more generally. Trump's soul is hugely disordered. While he has the outward trappings of well-being -- in particular, material wealth and career success-- internally he is suffering greatly. This is not to say that he feels bad necessarily. I doubt very much whether he cries himself to sleep at night, experiences pangs of emptiness, or anything like that. It is to say rather that, as Plato would put it, he has allowed the base or appetitive part of his soul to govern or rule the rational part. He is enslaved by himself. At the very least, he is cut off from truly close and enriching relationships. Because of his fakeness and refusal to show vulnerability of any kind, he is unable to enjoy the great goods that come with showing to others who one really is and being accepted or even loved for it.
Trump is, for these reasons, like Tom Ripley at the end of The Talented Mr Ripley, whose lies upon lies have led him to be metaphorically trapped in a basement. In his concluding soliloquy, Ripley says "I'm lost...I'm going to be stuck in the basement, aren't I, that's my--terrible and alone and dark--and I've lied about who I am, and where I am, and now nobody will ever find me...I suppose I always thought it would be better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody." The difference is that Tom, at the end of the film, is aware of where he has ended up and how bad his position is for him. I do not think Trump is aware of this in his case. But he is still there, alone in his basement.
This, I believe, is something that many of us (including especially those who regard feeling sadness at the thought of Trump's COVID-19 mildly ridiculous) are implicitly aware of. This is a person who is in fact very poorly off. We shouldn't want to be him, for all his material wealth and success.
Catching COVID-19, then, is the least of Trump's problems. It doesn't significantly add to them. It is trivial compared to being in the basement. And this is why it is odd to say that one should feel sad for him, and indeed ridiculous to actually feel such things. It is odd or ridiculous because it neglects the fact that there is so much else that is going badly for Trump himself. It is like feeling badly for someone who has terminal cancer if they get an itch. It is like feeling sad for Tom Ripley if he were to contract some physical illness.
So, I think we should feel sad for Trump, but not for his catching COVID-19. We should feel sad for him that he is so utterly monstrous: that his soul is in turmoil, that he is cut off from many of the best things in life, which require showing who one is and one's own vulnerability. Trump is, I want to suggest, one of the worst-off people on the planet. Let's pray for him indeed, as Biden and Obama have said. But not for his COVID-19. Let us pray that he somehow finds his way out of the dark basement that he is in, and, in Plato's metaphor of the cave, manages to glimpse some light.
© 2023 Sydney Morning Herald
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