Why Trump's COVID Diagnosis Was Peak Schadenfreude

Danielle Cohen
·2 mins read

Early Friday morning, the country awoke at varying hours to the news that President Donald Trump had tested positive for coronavirus. Hours later, Merriam-Webster reported that searches for the word “schadenfreude” had shot up by 30,500 percent, suggesting many people were feeling at least a bit of glee at the prospect that the President was suffering from the virus he has been downplaying all year.

Schadenfreude, a German term whose most simple definition is the feeling of joy at another’s misfortune, is not a surprising response to this situation. But feeling pleasure at Trump’s diagnosis is complicated, to say the least—it gives me no joy, for example, to see him undergoing cutting-edge medical care that he has denied millions of sick patients, or to contemplate the many ways he’s trying to manipulate the events of this week to his advantage. To unpack all of this, GQ spoke to Dr. Laura Crysel, a professor at Stetson University who’s studied the role this emotion plays in politics.

Crysel clarified that a lot of schadenfreude is often tied to what she calls “deservingness,” which is “whether or not a person deserves their high status.” The higher someone’s status, the more subject they’ll be to feelings of schadenfreude from others, “particularly if we feel the person does not deserve that high status.” A president who got fewer votes but squeaked into an electoral college victory, maybe with the help of a foreign government? Seems to fit.

The other crucial piece is a subject’s responsibility for their own predicament. “If we perceive someone as being responsible for their own downfall,” Crysel says, “we tend to experience higher schadenfreude.” The way the virus is rippling through Trump’s administration, most of whom have vehemently refused to wear masks, makes this an obvious factor.

And finally, there’s the morality angle here—the more immorally someone is viewed, the more joy people will get out of their suffering or humiliation. One recent study found that participants who saw someone commit a single immoral act felt relatively little thrill at their downfall; but when they’d seen enough evil to consider the subject an immoral person, their feelings of schadenfreude shot up. I don't think I need to fill in the blanks here.

So Trump's COVID diagnosis seems to fit all the criteria for a particularly strong dose of Schadenfreude. But enjoy it while it lasts—Trump will return to the White House today, and Crysel said that she observes schadenfreude in pretty much every political downfall, no matter the party. Even if it's not usually quite this piquant.

Trump's tax returns have finally been revealed.

Originally Appeared on GQ