Ted Grimsrud—October 7, 2020
It’s an interesting thought experiment for compassionate people to wonder how to feel about the COVID-19 sickness of Donald Trump. In a recent New York Times essay, “Wish a President Well Who Doesn’t Wish You Well,” Bret Stephens—perhaps the most reliably rightwing Times columnist but a self-described opponent of Trump—gives a list of reasons to wish Trump well.
The gist of Stephens’s argument is that while certainly Trump is a terrible president and a terrible person who has revealed himself to be thoroughly non-compassionate, he still deserves our well wishes. Stephens basically echoes Michelle Obama’s famous directive: “When they go low, we go high.” His last sentence: “We wish him well because it’s the right thing to do. It’s more than reason enough.”
Not wishing Trump well?
As someone who seeks to be compassionate myself, I find Stephens’s argument pretty persuasive. But I can imagine a counterargument. One could say, we wish Trump himself ill because we feel compassion toward all the people he will hurt the longer he remains in power. The sooner he is gone the better. Or, one could say we wish Trump ill because his demise as a consequence of his own recklessness and disregard for needed COVID-19 safety measures (a recklessness and disregard that has had disastrous consequences in our nation that only continue to accelerate) would only be his just desserts. Trump’s demise would reinforce for all of us the need to pursue strategies that enhance all of our safety and wellbeing.
One could say that wishing Trump ill in the sense of hoping for a negative outcome that follows from his own irresponsibility and disregard for others is morally quite different than acting directly to hurt Trump or even supporting someone else acting directly to hurt Trump. One could say that this is the ideal way for Trump’s reign to end. It would be nobody’s fault but his own. There would be no “stab in the back” or “fake news plot” or “electoral fraud.” It would simply be Trump’s own stupidity, arrogance, and self-serving that brings him down.
A “Christian” response?
I try to filter moral deliberations such as this through my understanding of the biblical prophetic tradition, especially as embodied by Jesus. In light of my understanding of Jesus, I don’t actually feel responsible to pray for Trump as a person or to apply Jesus’s teaching about love of enemies to what I might wish for Trump. (I also don’t imagine that my prayers or wishes would have any impact on how events will unfold for Trump.)
My compassion for the people Trump will be hurting in the days to come greatly outweighs whatever compassion I might have for him. Those are the ones I wish well. At the same time, I don’t believe that hoping for anyone’s physical suffering is a good thing, even if that might theoretically reduce someone else’s suffering. But note I said physical suffering. If Trump might “suffer” from guilt feelings, remorse, regret, and the like in ways that would lead for him to change his trajectory and begin to act out of compassion, I think that could be a good thing. But I don’t think such “suffering” is likely. That ship seems to have sailed for Trump many, many years ago when he lost whatever empathic sensibility he might have been born with.
The prayers and wishes that I do cultivate are that the spread of COVID-19 among the Trump administration would remind all of us simply to do what we can to contribute to the wellbeing of others. We all could stand to seek evermore to find ways to show love, to resist injustice, to construct alternatives to the broken systems that surround us—to seek widespread healing on all levels of life.
One way we seek to contribute to healing, I believe, is to grow in our awareness of the profound injustices in our society that lead to the special destructiveness that the pandemic has wreaked on the most vulnerable in our society. I would pray that in the face of all the continued attention Trump receives, many of us would vow to turn our attention and energies from Trump, et al and toward those in need, close at hand and far away.