Soon after news came of President Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis, Jewish twitter lit up with a debate: Must a moral person pray for his recovery?
I am not surprised or even shocked by the ugly question, which has since been taken up by articles in The Forward and JTA. To be fair, very few people actually said they would pray for the president’s demise, but they did wonder how much sympathy should be extended to someone, who, as Julia Ioffe put it in a tweet, “doesn’t seem to care about anyone else’s well-being but his own.”
First of all, this is Twitter – a social experiment in amplifying the worst in people. We all have ugly thoughts that we dare not say out loud. Twitter demands that we not only say them but share them with as wide a public as possible. As Yehuda Kurtzer writes in the new book, “The New Jewish Canon,” the web “incentivizes incendiary rhetoric and a combative approach, and the platforms reward primarily those ideas and their expressions which animate the reader and inspire loyalty and loathing.”
Secondly, this is Trump. No president has done more to coarsen the public debate, with his bile, petulance, personal grievance and ham-fisted insult “humor.” It’s worth remembering, when so much else in these past few days has been obscured or forgotten, that during the presidential debate, when Joe Biden was trying to make a point about his late son Beau’s military service, Trump interrupted to say Biden’s other son Hunter was a drug addict.
In one of the most effective moments of Paul Rudnick’s series of monologues on HBO, “Coastal Elites,” Bette Midler plays a liberal New York City school teacher – you know, your friend at the New York Public Library event with the PBS tote bag. The country has always been divided, she says, but she never remembered having so much contempt for red-state America. “He did this to us,” she says, unable to say the president’s name. It’s a lament for the tearing of the American fabric.
Rabbis mostly agree that you compromise your own morality when you pray for the death of someone you consider an enemy — or even when you match him insult for insult. But Trump invites the kind of mockery he regularly dishes out, and you’d almost have to be Nelson Mandela in order to take Michelle Obama’s advice: “When they go low, we go high.” Jim Carrey’s “Saturday Night Live” impersonation of Joe Biden deftly captured the old-school candidate’s struggle not to be drawn into a playground fight with Trump; Biden’s actual debate performance showed how often he couldn’t resist.
Even those who wished the president and the First Lady a speedy recovery couldn’t resist a little schadenfreude.
Trump also arouses real fear. There is justified anxiety about whether voters will be allowed their say come Nov. 3, given the aggressive efforts by the president and his followers to discredit the voting process and actively work to suppress the vote. With Trump himself refusing to commit to a smooth transition of power should he lose, with the Attorney General sowing distrust in the elections, with state leaders making it harder to vote and to count the ballots, it’s understandable that people may be looking for divine intervention.
Even those who wished the president and the First Lady a speedy recovery couldn’t resist a little schadenfreude, saying it was inevitable that a president so cavalier about the spread of the disease had contracted it himself and endangered so many others. You heard talk of “divine retribution,” although here was nothing supernatural about it: This was nature doing what nature does. Nature doesn’t care about justice or fairness, only about the science.
The softer version of schadenfreude came from those hoping that the president would use his illness as an opportunity to repent, either by displaying real empathy for the 200,000-plus Americans killed by the disease or admitting the ways he had sacrificed public health for political advantage. L.A. Rabbi Sharon Brous tweeted, “This morning I pray that this virus opens his heart to the devastation illness has brought to millions of families. That in the place of heartless policies, mockery & disinformation, our nation awakens to the necessity of health care for all & compassion toward those who suffer.”
Granted, there are plenty of Jews praying heartily for the full recovery of the president, whom they consider a hero for his support of Israel and his decision to scrap the Iran nuclear deal. Rabbis prayed for his health on Monday during Sukkot services at the Western Wall.
For liberals, Never Trumper Republicans and independents weary of Trump’s reign of error and ire, however, their prayer is akin to the rabbi’s blessing from “Fiddler on the Roof”: “May God bless and keep the Czar – far away from us.” More than anything, they are praying for a Biden victory in November, and for a healthy Trump to be chastened by a firm rejection by voters.
Andrew Silow-Carroll (@SilowCarroll) is the editor in chief of The Jewish Week.