The Tyranny of Politesse: Why Decency Does Not Require us to Wish Trump a Full and Speedy Recovery

Still from CBC report on the president.

Let me state for the record. There is no moral obligation to wish Trump a full recovery from Covid-19. I certainly do not. Even the Bidens, Kamala Harris, and Rachel Maddow seem to feel that hoping for Trump’s recovery is a mandatory decency.

I strongly disagree.

But, I’ve been asked: how can this reaction be compatible with basic human compassion for all? How can a Christian like myself, coming out of a “love your enemies,” “turn the other cheek” tradition not hope and pray for Trump’s full recovery? How can I, an Emeritus Professor of Moral Theology at Marquette University say that I do not hope for his full recovery or that of newly Covid-19 positive Republican Senators, the sycophantic base for Trump’s lethality?

The definition of a tyrant by oppression (tyrannus in regimine) is a ruler “who uses his power arbitrarily and oppressively.” Trump is a tyrant and a moral criminal. His murderous negligence and mendacity has so far abetted the painful deaths of over 215,000 women, men, and children; caused millions more people to be infected, perhaps permanently impaired; and caused millions of adults along with their children to fall into lethal poverty. All this while leading the attack on a sick planet already in critical condition. That is tyranny on steroids.

I do not endorse the right to tyrannicide, defended historically even by Catholic theologians who wrote before there were democratic alternatives. Thus, I would not approve of deliberately infecting him. But when he flouts all precautions and gets himself infected (thus making his tyranny less feasible and his defeat more likely) I have no sympathy for him or for his Republican enablers who are complicit in his bloody criminal guilt.

What do the Gospels say?

The most quoted lines in the gospel, Matthew 38-48, are also the most misunderstood lines in the Christian Scriptures. These are the verses about turning the other cheek and loving your enemy. Biblical scholarship shows that this passage is actually the basis for a Christian philosophy of non-violent resistance. However, it’s been crudely and cruelly interpreted as cowardly passivism in the face of injustice. Wives have been told to turn the other cheek when abused by a spouse. Slaves were told to obey their brutal slave-masters. This abused text was widely taken as a call for a slavish submission to evil.

Don’t put that on Jesus!

If he’d been preaching a message of passive compliance and submission to unjust leaders, he could have died in his bed at a ripe old age. He was killed because he resisted unjust aggression nonviolently with searingly harsh invective and with civil disobedience. In John 18:23, when he was struck on the cheek in his trial he did not turn the other cheek, he protested.

No cowering victim was he: he blasted evildoers in a way that makes our toughest pundits today seem timid, calling them “hypocrites,” “vultures,” and “blind fools” who are like beautifully whitewashed tombs, looking respectable on the outside, but inside full of the fetid stench of “robbery,” “hypocrisy,” and “crime.”

Jesus was not one to shrink before the tyranny of specious politesse. It’s been said that it’s no surprise that Jesus was killed; it’s only surprising he wasn’t killed sooner.

In Jesus terms, our criticism of Trump has been too timid. We really are a pack of wimps. His robust and courageous resistance to evil wrought by the religious and political powers of his day got him killed. In a story told in all four Gospels, he created a ruckus in the temple where civil and religious leaders conspired like thieves. He loudly labeled this tainted sanctuary “a den of thieves.” The Temple was a definite no-go zone for resisters. Some scholars think his death followed within just a few days.

Rome and the religious leaders had a vested interest in keeping this place a stabilizing paragon of “law and order.” And Jesus took on their “law and order” and paid the price. (It’s interesting to note that Jesus’ brother James was also executed as a rebel. It tells you a lot about their mother who raised two such firebrands. She certainly doesn’t fit the stereotype of the pious unthreatening woman who “knew her place,” as the sugary “lovely lady dressed in blue” would have it.)

Responses to Trump’s diagnosis

The news that Trump had tested positive for Covid 19 led to the cliche du jour “I hope and pray for his full recovery.” Along with this came a storm surge of that hackneyed vacuity: “I will keep him in my thoughts and prayers.” (It’s a safe—and not at all cynical—assumption that many who intone that banality don’t mean it and will never deliver on those prayers. Indeed, let’s declare a national moratorium on that syrupy “thoughts and prayers” bromide.)

Step back for a moment and remember that human decency does not preclude honesty. Indeed it requires it. In an act of collective candor, let us admit: there is a joy, and not necessarily an ignoble joy, in seeing someone hoisted on his own blood-soaked petard. There is good as well as bad schadenfreude.

I know many who have honestly and openly expressed joyful satisfaction upon hearing the news of Trump’s diagnosis. I certainly did. One nonagenarian who has specialized in social justice work all her life said that if her legs would permit it she would have danced when she heard of the diagnosis.

A corrupt Republican-controlled Senate will stand by as Trump’s malfeasance in office spreads havoc from caged children torn from their parents’ arms to the most mismanaged response to coronavirus in the world. Those Republican senators now contracting covid get no sympathy from me. Nature has stepped in and given them a taste of the horror they endorsed and encouraged. Many religious persons would call it providential.

Praying or just hoping this tyrant, this unjust aggressor, will get well enough to continue his crime spree is strange, not benevolent or pious. And Trump’s crime spree does continue as he malignantly insists from the pulpit of the White House that the virus is just another little old flu, failing to account for the over 200,000 people who have died of it. I weep not for him, but for his victims.