Donald Trump has coronavirus and huge swathes of the internet could not be happier. After spouting off nonsense and dangerous treatments for the virus, lying about how deadly he knew the virus was, mocking his presidential opponent for wearing masks too often, and overseeing the deaths of over 200,000 Americans, you’ll forgive a momentary relishing of the irony and sharp sense of schadenfreude felt, not just in America, but around the world.
“Sic semper tyrannis”, a phrase tied and sullied by American history, translates as “and thus to tyrants”. It predates America, and goes back to ancient Rome, but is best associated with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Actor John Wilkes Booth claimed to have shouted the phrase as he killed the President for abolishing slavery.
“How can we claim to be morally sound and wish people harm and death?”
The association with violent white supremacy aside (it is also used on the state seal fo Virginia and it was the motto of the United States Colored Troops, who fought against white supremacy in the American Civil war), the phrase expresses the universal desire to see tyrants get what is coming to them. The more tyranny they enact, the greater the desire to see punishment.
But others (I should link to the likes of Piers Morgan here, but won’t because frankly, he doesn’t need more attention) have pointed out that apparent hypocrisy in those who, after pointing out the Presidents callous and uncaring responses to a deadly pandemic, are now happy he is sick and even wish him pain and death.
More than once I have joined this camp, and that was without him even being sick. The darker, primal, crueller (but still human), side of me has happily imagined him dropping dead of a heart attack or worse. This clearly presents a moral quandary. How can we claim to be morally sound and wish people harm and death?
“Our base urge to see wicked men punished is innate but not free from logic.”
The first thing to say is our desires and urges are not automatically our morality. Morality, in part, comes from the understanding and mediation of our urges. If I’m hungry and in a supermarket without any money, I might just take the food from the shelves to satisfy my urges. But I don’t because I have some morality that forbids me to act on my urge.
So, a wish is not strictly a statement of intention. We may want the President to die, but we are not about to kill him or attempt to suspend life-saving medical help. Our base urge to see wicked men punished is innate but not free from logic.
Secondly, the imagined death of a tyrant (and let’s not pretend Trump isn’t a corrupting force in America politics; he has repeatedly shown admiration for tyrants, turns the military against protestors, has placed children in camps without their parents, and he is currently trying to undermine the democratic process) is a simplified and personal means of problem-solving.
“…if we see Trump as the cause and manifestation of so many problems, his non-existence appears as an efficient solution.”
Behavioural psychologists, Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky identified this kind of counterfactual (as in, it literally has not or did not happen) thinking exists in us and focuses on exceptional over mundane effects — the death of a racist President is a greater focus of our minds than the death of an unknown racist down the road, for example. Kahneman and Tversky also discovered that we tend to look for the simplest solutions to counterfactual issues; “If he hadn’t got on the plane, he’d still be alive.”, “If I just won the lottery my money troubles would go away.”, “If Trump is dead than America will be saved.”
Simply put, if we want the world to be different, we imagine the simplest means that could have happened. Our behaviour psychology compels us to look at the world this way. So, if we see Trump as the cause and manifestation of so many problems, his non-existence appears as an efficient solution.
All this is to say that A) the urge for retribution for doing wrong isn’t morally aberrant, B) morality isn’t the defined by our urges and C) we can’t help but look for simple solutions. All of these means, the desire to see Trump die isn’t inherently wrong. The expression of that thought, however, is a problem.
If we are earnest and we have applied logic to our urges, put them through a moral test by applying some theory of “would I really enact this” while, despite the desire for a simple solution, having understood the real complexity behind the scenario (President Pence, a right-wing rallying martyr, a fresh wave of COVID-conspiracy, the GOP still stuffed with cowards, institutional racism continuing), and we still land on “I hope he dies”, we are confessing to an abandonment of morality over a dark, illogical pleasure.
“But, we don’t need to be Christian about this (unless you are a Christian, in which case, sorry). We needn’t offer Trump endless empathy or sympathy or hope. We don’t have to believe that sin exists in thoughts.”
That would be worrying and foolish. If we admit that saying “I hope he dies” is not going to fix everything and is merely an expression of our feelings, remember, not every feeling you have A) has to be expressed or B) is that interesting.
But, we don’t need to be Christian about this (unless you are a Christian, in which case, sorry). We needn’t offer Trump endless empathy or sympathy or hope. We don’t have to believe that sin exists in thoughts. It’s quite possible to understand your instinctive desires, while immensely satisfying, would not be the morally right thing to manifest, either in intention or conclusion.
It would be foolish to say, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything”. That would mean never calling out problems with society. It probably isn’t nice to say, and I’m just making this up as I go, “that man is a racist imbecile who is destroying freedoms while wanting to have sex with his own daughter.”
Any society that believed that to be a nice thing to say should be destroyed. But it (mostly) raises issues that we should seek realistic solutions to, rather than posit an imaginary solution to real issues.
“We can have and even enjoy private, horrible thoughts; understanding that just because we’ve thought them, we don’t need to make them come true…”
The urge for Trump's death does not make you a moral equivalent to Trump. It’s mistaken, but the general intention behind that feeling is that it would make things better for others. Trump only wants things better for himself. The imaginary sin of wishing death, while instinctual but with no place is a moral framework, is quite different than (mis)leading a country in pandemic and adding to the horrendous number of preventable deaths.
The one place it does make us similar to Trump, and to any other idiot who “tells it like it is” is that publically expressing this terminal wish, is speaking before thinking. We don’t need to be like that. We can have and even enjoy private, horrible thoughts; understanding that just because we’ve thought them, we don’t need to make them come true and that even if they actualise, they wouldn’t make it all better.
And besides, if he died, how the hell would America put him on trial?