The first days of October have tallied one point in the column for the existence of a just and moral God. Trump has the dreaded virus; he and a number of high-placed cronies have contracted the Red Death because they wouldn’t wear a Masque. This is, as a chorus of voices across the left have declaimed in unison, fucking hilarious.
We have not only watched this vacuous and criminal administration slither out of anything resembling accountability for the past four years—we have watched as the most repellent stooges of presidencies past have used it as either a vehicle for career resurrection (Elliot Abrams, John Bolton) or as a foil to launder their own reputations (Bill Kristol, David Frum, W. himself), with the help of a fawning media. The crimes of all involved have been innumerable, incomprehensible in their scope and depravity. We have watched as this class of people walled off any avenues of democratic or legal recourse that might restrain them, as they and the power they represent have infiltrated or perverted or undermined or dismantled so much that was, is, and could be good in our world. We have watched as they canceled out so many lives in the formulae of their heartless calculations.
There is precious little sense that any of these goons will ever be held to account. We no longer even have psychological assurance that they will soon be broiled by righteous hellfire. We are at the end of our rope with this shit. It’s near-impossible to imagine that any of the snakepit of irredeemably evil reactionaries might ever feel the end of one themselves.
So when circumstance and their own hubris combine to bring a potential deus ex machina into play, of course we rejoice when it feels like higher forces—be it chance or an angry pantheon—have entered the arena to sort out a few mortals who are getting a bit big for their adult-diapered britches. But accompanying the news of the Presidential pestilence were mainstream liberal voices like Rachel Maddow falling over themselves to scold anyone reveling in this paltry morsel of cosmic justice and scamper up to what they believe to be the moral high ground—grave protestations that we must call upon our deep reserves of empathy, the Better Angels of our Nature, and aim a powerful volley of guided Thoughts and Prayers in the direction of Pennsylvania Ave. and Walter Reed. Those poor, suffering, congested fascists! They will receive only the literal best the medical system can offer at no cost to their tax-dodging selves.
Maddow compares this, obtusely, to a hypothetical smoker friend who “never even tried to quit, despite knowing the risks of lung cancer from smoking. And then that person who you know got lung cancer. How do you react? […] Your instinct might even be to blame them for getting it. Go right ahead, enjoy that schadenfreude.”
Come on. It’s a beautiful irony that the man far and away most singularly responsible for America’s disgraceful non-response to the coronavirus pandemic just might be, in even a small way, humbled by the force of nature he has allowed to wash over hundreds of thousands of people with cavalier disdain. Come on.
Now of course, as someone well-practiced in sniveling ingratiation to power, Maddow probably finds it far easier than the rest of us to equate a President with a personal friend. But let’s indulge her analogy for a moment. It’s immediately apparent that this is much more akin to watching at a distance as a disgustingly wealthy Philip Morris executive, directly responsible for muddying the discursive waters with disinformation about smoking-related health risks, thereby resulting in the deaths of countless people, has obtained his own case of lung cancer. That, especially if it interrupts his work as a merchant of doubt, is a very different moral calculus.
Not to mention that, leaving the realm of inapt analogies here, the coronavirus is far less fatal, and our big boy will most likely be fine (after typing this I studiously avoid knocking on any wood), as are Jair Bolsonaro and Boris Johnson and all the other gibbering monstrosities who seemed at the time to finally be getting their comeuppance.
Predictably, when they’re not refracting the news through the kaleidoscopic derangements of Q theory, the right has responded to this little October surprise with outpourings of deep concern over their Styrofoam-brained god-emperor. We would also expect the usual round of condolences from the politicians required to make a statement. I understand that they sort of have to say this. At least some of them acknowledged the context. No one is going to be allowed to wish harm upon the President on TV—or even on Twitter. (Funny how the myriad death threats against Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib never warranted this kind of response). But wouldn’t it be nice to see the ostensible opposition party at least hope that this teaches him a lesson or hinders in some way his evil designs, instead of demanding that we muster for the stricken President our most heartfelt sympathies?
Yet. For the liberals who tout their resistance to the evil this man and his administration represent but shrink away from bearing him any ill will beyond the purely symbolic: if you find yourself wishing that this man—a man you professedly believe to be a fascist on the ascent, that you have claimed is a danger without precedent in American history—if you are wishing that this man bounce back to full effectiveness, that he return to feeling downright chipper, so that he can again take up the daily grind of stripping away immigration rights and environmental protections, extrajudicially arresting protestors, and generally sacrificing innocents to the yawning abyssal void that is the core of his ego—then your moral compass is woefully miscalibrated, distorted, probably, by a nearby magnetic pole of power. This mental pirouette is still indicative of just how deeply the deference to authority extends into the centrist brain stem. The reflex to “civility” is little more than cloaked subservience to power. If you can’t allow yourself or anyone else to feel the justness and righteousness-from-on-high in this turn of events, there is something fucking wrong with you.
As we have seen time and time again, the Resistance offers less than nothing in the way of resistance. In fact, they offer complicity and complacence, lightly veiled by the unconvincing illusion of dissent. Their modus operandi is generally, after their opponent knocks all the pieces off the board and declares himself the winner, to tut-tut about respecting the rules and reset the game so we can all have a Fair Fight. True resistance would mean flipping the table over to stop injustice. Their conspicuous abdication of the exercise of genuine power lays bare their real interests: class solidarity with the rich and powerful. “Yeah,” their actions say, “we might disagree from the pulpit, on the field of rhetorical battle, but when push comes to shove, we know where our loyalties lie.”
The kneejerk insistence on decorum and other West Wingery is the product of a fictive conception of how power works and a self-serving refusal to recognize any true stakes. The game has treated them well—why would they upend it? Better to cannily brand oneself as a watchdog while acting, in the presence of power, much more like the kind of dog that prefers the lap. There is an imbalance of attention to suffering, and it is handily weighted towards obsequious sympathy for the powerful. Decontextualized empathy for the emperor is not empathy. Real empathy would demand factoring in the sum total of suffering and devastation perpetrated on this country and others by the criminal policies of the very same people they are preemptively rehabilitating. The moral horizons espied by the centrist truly are a View From Nowhere—they can’t see shit.
The proverbial trolley problem ceases to resemble a real moral dilemma when on one line are 200,000 everyday people deprived of healthcare and forced into unsafe working conditions, and on the other a tiny maniacal cadre of deranged villains who actually tied the other group to the tracks. You don’t have to grieve if the train scores a glancing hit on them too. In a moral world, they would pay far more dearly for their crimes. ♦
Tyler Walicek is the co-editor-in-chief of Protean Magazine.