It was entirely predictable that the minute Donald Trump tested positive for COVID-19, a healthy subset of Americans would clamor for his death. It happened so quickly, in fact, and at such volume, that Twitter had to actively censor calls for the big man’s expiration. In turn, his supporters raged, though deep down they got what they covet most, which is a shot of justification for building their entire political worldviews on hating other Americans. It’s a harsh reality, but so be it—this is the world the polarizers wanted, and though Trump didn’t lead the vanguard in that movement, he is by far its best practitioner. He is the polarizing juggernaut; a flawless hero to his people, an arch-villain to everyone else, making good on the promise of the Republican cultural warriors that came before him. He has done his best to heighten the differences and widen the divide, and his best is incredibly good.
It’s simple math: if you belong to the party whose policies tend to benefit only the richest people, but you happen to live in a representative democracy, you better find a way to grub up some votes outside of the elite class, because the nature of the game is that there just aren’t enough of them.
Culture is the answer, and always has been. I live in Durham, NC, and if you trace the history of this town back far enough, you’ll run into the original post-Civil War tobacco barons. The leading families of the city, the Dukes foremost among them, stoked racial division in order to keep poor white factory workers separate from, and hostile to, poor black workers. Anything less, and those workers might have discovered they have more than a few shared class interests and a few good reasons for solidarity. That would be a disaster—strikes, higher wages, workplace safety, and god knows what other nightmares—and if a little instigated racism was the price of maintaining the hierarchy, so be it.
Every city in America has the same story, and Republicans are playing the same game nationally in 2020. Some of the identity wedges have changed shape over time, but the fundamentals stay the same. The only difference is that Trump eschewed any politeness, brought the conflict out into the open, and encouraged the kind of rage that blew the doors off any lingering notion of unity. There’s no hiding the fact that America is now two countries, at minimum, and those countries don’t like one another. For your run-of-the-mill liberal or leftist—i.e., not the kind who needs to do performative sympathy in public—we’re past the point of pretending to be upset if the leader of the powerful opposition gets sick.
Trump has done the same thing in the past. Just as there’s always a tweet, there’s always a handy bit of reverse history, and for that we only have to look back to 2016, when he mocked Hillary Clinton for having pneumonia. Of course, even cheerleading the potential death of a president isn’t new business. When Kennedy was assassinated, there were scores of celebrations across the south. Unofficial and “isolated,” of course, but no less real. And it goes without saying that many southerners were delighted when John Wilkes Booth took out Lincoln. Somewhere, somehow, there was undoubtedly a class of yahoos who danced a jig at the deaths of McKinley and Garfield too.
Still, we can admit that the modern scene is a bit more disturbing. The U.S. isn’t experiencing the aftermath of a Civil War, and these death-wishers aren’t isolated. So why is it happening at such volume, as though there’s a catharsis in throwing morality to the side and rooting on the demise of the president? The answer can be found in Trump’s method, and the method of his supporters. From a behavioral angle, the entire modus operandi of the Trump years, starting with his campaign in 2015, can be summed up in three words: Own the libs. A massive part of his appeal has been the way he antagonizes his detractors, infuriating them by flouting the rules, evading any legal or karmic comeuppance with ease, and then implementing blatantly indecent and cruel policies. His opponents want the norms to apply, and his supporters rejoice when it becomes clear, over and over and over again, that they do not. That swaggering defiance, and the rage it inspires on the left, is the ecstatic high, the visceral thrill, of supporting Trump. It creates a sense of power, a sense of superiority, and a sense that the emotions and anxieties and outright fears of your enemies are under your control.
It’s a sick business, but that’s how they get off. And it works—Trump Derangement Syndrome, used as a put-down, has roots in reality. If you’re a liberal who has watched this man chip at the foundations of your democracy for four years, and you’ve learned that there’s nobody with the will or the power to stop him and that half of the voting public gleefully encourages the breakdown because they’re in it for the kicks, you start to get pretty mad. Add in the vicious policies—traumatizing immigrant children for no real gain, smug indifference to a burning planet, letting a pandemic run wild because taking it seriously runs against your masculine ethos—and yes, it’s going to be impossible to feel any sympathy for that man when the virus he treated like a hoax strikes the mother lode. And yes, the instinctive first thought for so many people will be, “please, for God’s sake, let this be the end.” And yes, many who have internalized the cruelty and constant trolling directed at them for four years are going to dish it out in return. We all want to believe in justice, and its absence on earth sends us looking to the stars. If Trump catching COVID looks like the long-delayed arrival of karma, liberals will greet it like a bearded god sailing to the shore.
Personally, I want Trump to fully recover, but it’s not out of any love for the man or even the dim warmth of sympathy. I think this country desperately needs to see him lose the election and leave the White House. Our problems will endure, but at least watching the core mechanisms of our democracy succeed, when many expect that they won’t, will restore some semblance of normalcy…or at least walk us back a few steps from the abyss. For Trump to die of COVID-19 would circumvent that badly needed catharsis, and leave us in a kind of unresolved no-man’s-land.
You can argue, too, that a fundamental characteristic of being a decent human being is extending kindness even to those people who don’t particularly deserve it. That’s a tenet of Christianity and many other spiritual and secular belief systems. Some people are surely abiding by this code, even still. Plenty more, though, have been beaten into submission by the push for polarization, and are responding in the only way they feel is left to them at this late, desperate stage: Fire for fire.
Trump returned to the White House Monday night, though we have no idea what this actually signifies since the official reports have been front-loaded with propaganda from the start and we have to wait for the leaks to get close to the truth. Maybe he’s better, maybe he’s worse, maybe it’s still uncertain. Regardless of the outcome, you can’t expect anything more than apathy—as a best-case scenario—from the vast majority of those Americans he’s spent four years insulting. It’s the cold reality of human behavior; plenty of us didn’t have the goodness to turn the other cheek in the first place, and the rest have had it relentlessly drained away.
We’re left with our hatred. It’s the future they’ve created. If there’s one distinguishing feature of liberals in the past 40 years, it’s the uncanny ability to shrivel up and lose in the face of Republican aggression. But even the hopeful cowardice of civility and retreat has its limits. You can only tell someone that you want them to suffer—materially, physically and psychologically—for so long. Sap the spirits enough, and the only response is the one they’ve been secretly longing for and dreading since the polarization began: Right back at you. The cultural Cold War is warmer than ever, and there’s no empathy to spare.