But my glee was quickly followed by guilt. “What a horrible thing to feel,” I admonished myself. “Awful as he is, Trump is a human being, and it is bad for any human being to suffer. I should not be happy about anyone contracting this deadly disease.”
As you might expect, the debate I was having in my mind was already playing out on Twitter. Former vice president Joe Biden and former president Barack Obama sided with my superego, wishing the president and first lady a swift recovery. As if reading my thoughts, Obama added: “Let’s remember that we’re all Americans. We’re all human beings. And we want everyone to be healthy, no matter our party.”
Others came to the defense of my angry id, arguing that Trump does not merit our compassion and may even positively deserve to suffer. Jody Rosen, a contributor to the New York Times, expressed this position in a pithy tweet: “The only ethical position is to wish him the absolute worst. Get well never.”
Could this be right? Might there be an ethical justification for wanting Trump to suffer?
I don’t think there is. The urge to see Trump in pain is an understandable — even natural — misapplication of the justifiable desire to see him held accountable for his actions. The dramatic irony of Trump’s being infected by the very virus he has so disastrously minimized makes it easy to see his sickness as a punishment. But this is an optical illusion. Covid-19 is not “punishing” Trump: It is blindly carrying out its genetic program. Trump may be suffering, but that suffering has no connection to any mechanism intended to hold him responsible. And so there is nothing to celebrate in his discomfort.
To be sure, even those who do not actively want Trump to suffer need not feel unequivocally sad that he is sick, or hope that his case is as mild as possible. One might anticipate that Trump’s illness could indirectly come to benefit the millions of other Americans with covid-19. Last week, for instance, I naively hoped that experiencing the coronavirus firsthand might lead Trump to take it more seriously and adopt policies that save lives. (Nope.) I still hold out hope that Trump’s diagnosis will damage his reelection chances by highlighting his recklessness. Importantly, thinking that Trump’s illness is a good thing in these respects does not involve thinking that it is good because it makes Trump suffer.
I am more interested in the darker, tempting thought that we should want Trump to suffer from covid-19, not because this will have good effects, but simply because he deserves it.
There is a long-standing philosophical controversy over whether it is ever good in itself for bad people to suffer. Philosophers who say “yes” are called retributivists. The retributivist holds that whether it is good or bad for a person to suffer depends on whether they deserve it. When, for example, Harvey Weinstein endures 23 years in prison, it is a good thing that he is suffering, for his suffering is deserved. Put this way, retributivism sounds like plain common sense: Surely, we should hope that Weinstein is miserable in prison. That’s not to say that he should be tortured or abused, of course, but a certain degree of unhappiness is part of the punishment.
The retributivist argument for wanting Trump to suffer analogizes his situation to Weinstein’s. (Set aside that Weinstein’s punishment will not include possible organ failure and death.) Trump has deliberately and culpably failed to protect the American people from covid-19. If anyone deserves to experience the pain this virus causes, it is Trump. So why should we not “wish him the absolute worst”?
But there is a key difference between Weinstein’s case and Trump’s. When Weinstein suffers in prison, this is a structured punishment. Weinstein has been put on trial and is being held accountable for the crimes he has committed, in a sentence tailored to those misdeeds. When Trump suffers from covid-19, on the other hand, this is not a criminal sentence: It is a random (if predictable, in this case) act of nature.
This difference matters. There is a wide gap between the view that it is good for bad people to suffer, period, and the view that it is good for bad people to suffer as part of a socially sanctioned punishment for their wrongdoing. (Both of these views can be called retributivism, but as it happens, most philosophical retributivists opt for the latter variant.)
Perhaps the suffering of evil people — whatever the cause — makes the universe more just in some extremely abstract sense. But this is an unattractive conception of justice. Justice is not about balancing some karmic points-sheet. A better, more grounded way of thinking about justice is as an ideal of human relationships.
Think of the situation of Weinstein’s victims in the far too many years that his actions went unpunished. As long as Weinstein walked free, the women he assaulted were forced to live in a society that allowed their fundamental rights to be violated without consequence. We, as a society, were not living on just terms with Weinstein’s victims. To adequately recognize their rights, we had to hold Weinstein to account for violating those rights. Punishing him allowed us to express our collective condemnation of Weinstein’s actions and, thereby, affirm the rights and equal standing of his victims.
This does not undo the harm Weinstein inflicted, but it does take us a step toward restoring justice in the relationship between our society, Weinstein and the women who survived his attacks. If Weinstein is miserable in jail, this is valuable only insofar as it is a necessary part of the process of holding him responsible. In other words, what is good about Weinstein’s imprisonment is not the fact that a bad person is unhappy. It is that our society stood up, albeit belatedly, for the rights of its people.
Seen through this lens, there is no value in Trump’s suffering from covid-19. Behind the misguided desire to see him suffer lies a justifiable desire to hold Trump accountable for his actions. But when Trump is infected by a mindless virus, his suffering is in no way an affirmation of the rights of those he has wronged. It has nothing to do with our relations among one another as citizens. It is simply human pain.
The failure of the American system to hold Trump accountable has driven people to the unpleasant view that covid-19 might serve as some kind of substitute punishment. But pain is not punishment, and pathogens are not juries. No disease can restore justice to our society’s relationship with the victims of Trump’s wrongdoing. A country whose president gets away with repeatedly refusing to clearly condemn white supremacists is not a country that treats its Black and brown citizens with equal respect. A nation whose leader says that the coronavirus “affects virtually nobody” fails to honor the more than 210,000 people the virus has killed within its borders.
To affirm the values Trump repudiates, we need to hold him truly accountable: by voting Trump out of office, by undoing his damaging policies, by repairing the democratic norms he has worked to destroy and by subjecting his actions to the full scrutiny of the law. We should not want Trump to suffer from a disease. We should want to live in a society that does not tolerate his actions.