No matter how serious President Trump’s bout with COVID-19 turns out to be, his diagnosis has already revealed an illness in the country at large. Rather than rooting for the president’s recovery, some decided it was fitting to kick him when he’s down.
Almost instantly after Trump tweeted early on Friday that he and first lady Melania Trump had tested positive for the coronavirus, a series of insults, mean jokes and ill wishes began to appear on social media. They haven’t let up.
The combination of the unceasing partisanship of our times with the unending anger that sometimes seems to dominate social media has left at least some people incapable of expressing sympathy, or without any sense of shame about expressing malicious feelings toward the nation’s leader during a time of trouble.
On social media, people have expressed hope that Trump ends up on a ventilator, or worse. Many suggested that he might be faking his illness. Some have wished that he infect other Republicans. A tweet posted minutes after Trump’s announcement that read, “my tl (timeline) just turned into whatever the opposite of a prayer circle is,” has received more than 300,000 likes. One illustration showed the words "thoughts" and "prayers" tattooed on a pair of extended middle fingers.
By Friday morning, Merriam-Webster reported that searches for schadenfreude — the German word for taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune — had spiked by more than 30,000 percent.
Many threw Trump’s own past words back at him, parodying his past parade of insults. “Just saw thousands of muslims dancing on a rooftop in jersey city.” “I like people who don’t get covid.” “He demanded Obama’s birth certificate, I’m going to need to see his COVID-19 test… and his tax returns.”
There’s no question that Trump has routinely insulted his opponents — mocking a disabled reporter and a Gold Star mother, calling numerous women who have questioned him “nasty,” and suggesting that non-Anglo women members of Congress — all native-born or naturalized citizens — return to their countries of origin.
When Utah Sen. Mitt Romney announced in March that he had tested negative for the coronavirus — not long after casting the sole Republican vote in favor of Trump’s impeachment — Trump tweeted sarcastically, “This is really great news! I am so happy I can barely speak. He may have been a terrible presidential candidate and an even worse U.S. senator, but he is a RINO, and I like him a lot!”
If Trump has set a bullying tone, however, many Democrats have forgotten the celebrated admonition from former first lady Michelle Obama, “when they go low, we go high.”
Trump has been a polarizing figure, the fourth president in a row that roughly half the country couldn’t stand. With just over a month to go before the election, partisan tempers have been running high. For his critics, who have long criticized his often-dismissive response to the pandemic, there’s a sense that his own illness is just some form of karmic debt.
There’s been a lively debate in political science circles in recent years about whether the general populace is as polarized as political “elites,” such as elected officials and party operatives. The response to Trump’s illness suggests that average individuals may be more polarized than the professionals.
Elected officials, activists and prominent members of the media have remained gracious in a way rank-and-file Democrats have not.
Politicians who have been regularly insulted by Trump, including Romney, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, all extended good wishes for the Trumps’ health.
“Jill and I send our thoughts to President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump for a swift recovery,” tweeted Joe Biden. “We will continue to pray for the health and safety of the president and his family.”
It’s notable, however, that many of the responses to his tweet attack either Biden or Trump. Biden campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon sent a memo to campaign staff warning, “As this situation continues to unfold, we ask that you refrain from posting on social media unless otherwise directed by your manager.”
There’s a risk for people directly involved in politics in attacking an opponent on a personal level when he’s ill. In Georgia, Republicans expressed offense at a late-night tweet from state Sen. Nikema Williams, who chairs the Georgia Democratic Party. Given the timing, her tweet offered an implicit criticism of Trump: “Looks like somebody should be more consistent with wearing a mask like our next POTUS @JoeBiden.”
Georgia Democrats noted in turn that Republican Congressman Doug Collins tweeted on the night of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death condolences not for her but for “the more than 30 million innocent babies that have been murdered during the decades that Ruth Bader Ginsburg defended pro-abortion laws.”
Collins’ opponent in a U.S. Senate race, Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler, took to Twitter on Friday to score a political point. “Remember: China gave this virus to our President @realDonaldTrump and First Lady @FLOTUS,” she wrote. “WE MUST HOLD THEM ACCOUNTABLE.”
In his 1933 novel Miss Lonelyhearts, Nathanael West describes a group of cynical journalists drinking at a bar who make fun of someone’s religious experience. “They were machines for making jokes,” he writes. “A button making machine makes buttons, no matter what the power used, foot, steam or electricity. They, no matter what the motivating force, death, love or God, made jokes.”
Social media seems similarly to have trained people to make snarky or even obnoxious comments regardless of the seriousness or magnitude of the real-life events they’re commenting on. Many of the attempts at finding humor in Trump’s diagnosis were essentially mild, adapting tropes that have recurred all year, such as the idea that there’s something especially cursed about 2020, or that the “scriptwriters” of the reality show we all seem to be living in have pushed things too far.
But many posts were of the “couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy” variety, suggesting nothing would change about Trump’s work habits during quarantine as long as the remote for his TV is still working. Many people made either lewd suggestions about the closeness of his relationship with aide Hope Hicks, who was reported Thursday to be infected before the Trumps, or attempted plays on her name such as “Hope is contagious.”
“Would he lose any voters if he shot himself in the middle of Fifth Avenue?” asked novelist Gary Shteyngart.
Making fun of presidents is a time-honored tradition. Perhaps there was something irresistible about mocking Trump after he fell prey to the worst infectious disease to hit the country in a century, one that he suggested would soon go away as recently as Thursday. Debate footage from Tuesday of Trump saying that Biden had taken mask-wearing to an extreme has played repeatedly on television since his diagnosis.
“He failed to protect the country,” George Conway, a frequent Trump critic and husband to Trump aide Kellyanne Conway, tweeted as the news broke. “He couldn’t even protect himself.”
The alternatively angry and gleeful reactions to Trump’s illness, however, reflect something other than mere disagreement. They express disgust. They also suggest that politics is something more akin to war, with no sympathy or humanity involved. Trump himself has spent much of the campaign alleging that Biden is senile, while during Tuesday's debate belittling Biden's son's addiction.
No matter what happens to the other side is all fair game, because their loss is necessarily our gain. Not long ago, Americans recognized that even when they disagreed with a president, he represented the nation as a whole. During the transition between their presidencies, George W. Bush told Barack Obama, “Ultimately, regardless of the day-to-day news cycles and the noise, the American people need their president to succeed.”
The old expression was respect for the office, if not the man. In this century, no president can count on that kind of automatic respect, just venom.