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I’ve learned two big words during the last four years that have had a definite relevance to America’s current political and social environment. I can’t easily pronounce either one of them, but boy, do they capture the moment better than many long articles have tried.
I learned the first word back in 2017 about the time Donald Trump took office after his surprise victory over Hillary Clinton when a friend passed along her dictionary’s “word of the day.” The word was “kakistocracy,” a noun defined as “government under the control of a nation’s worst or least-qualified citizens.”
It seemed an apt warning at the time, which I shared in hopes I’d be wrong. But, sadly, I wasn’t.
Americans have witnessed an incredible display of incompetence, deceit, arrogance, self-interest and charges of downright criminality from political appointees in agencies throughout the federal government, appointed by the kakistocrat-in-chief in the White House. The turnover rate has been a turnstile whirl of top administration officials leaving either out of disgrace or disgust. And those who followed them have usually been little better or even worse.
And government policies — driven by ideology, cruelty and reflexive hatred of all things Obama — have been equally kakistrophic, if there is such a word. Children in cages. Environmental laws trashed. Trying to get rid of Obamacare. Near war with North Korea. Alienation of every traditional ally America has, particularly within NATO, but love fests with brutal dictators, Putin chief among them.
The president’s tweets and rallies have promoted white supremacy and violence, amplified political divisions among Americans, rejected racial justice, mocked military sacrifice and weakened respect for the rule of law, the judicial system, a free press and even Congress, which never merits much respect to begin with. And fellow Republicans, including our own senators and GOP representatives, have been silent or, worse, complicit in the destruction. Only Republican corruption saved him from his impeachment.
It was known before 2016 but obviously ignored that the president was not well acquainted with the concept of truth, but a lot of voters who believed him then were stunned to discover just how much Trump lies. He’s had more than 20,000 lies documented by fact-checkers, and the number rises every day.
But Trump’s biggest lie, of course, and ultimate example of a kakistocracy, is that the COVID-19 pandemic was nothing to worry about, a Democratic hoax, no worse than the flu, soon to disappear, doesn’t affect younger people and doesn’t really require masks, social distancing or lockdowns that public health experts in his own administration say are needed. He has made a show of flouting all the rules, influencing a lot of people to choose stupidity over surviving.
Americans, firsthand and painfully, know the truth. COVID-19 has infected more than a million people and killed more than 208,000 — the biggest death rate in the world, more than half of which were probably avoidable with an early and competent response from a president who admitted he knew the danger in January but did too little, too late in a botched response. A real kakistocracy.
So my vocabulary gained a new word Friday when the White House announced that President and Mrs. Trump both tested positive for the coronavirus, followed by a growing list of Republican politicians, including Sen. Thom Tillis, and administration and Trump campaign officials who also caught the virus at either a presidential function or Trump rally where public health recommendations were visibly ignored.
The dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster said internet searches for the word “schadenfreude” spiked 30,500% after Trump’s announcement. After learning that, I looked it up too. And, again, it totally fits.
Schadenfreude is a noun that means “satisfaction or pleasure felt at someone else’s misfortune.” It comes from 19th century Germany, combining Schaden (harm) and Freude (joy). What it means now is that there are a lot of unhappy Americans who are taking at least some grim satisfaction in seeing the man who deliberately has made the pandemic worse, who has politicized public health in the face of death and suffering, “get his.”
I would like to think no one really wants to see the president die, since he’s one of the seniors at risk. Trump is a human being, after all, and it would cause a mightily inconvenient political crisis so close to the election. But I do think there are a lot of folks who believe it wouldn’t hurt Trump to have his bubble of denial burst by a firsthand exposure to what his fellow citizens have been experiencing.
It’s been hard to muster a lot of sympathy for Trump because truth is still elusive and defiant denial is still at work, from the president and his followers. He was holed up in a luxurious medical suite at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, a premier facility with the best care, as appropriate for a president, but reports over the weekend were mixed over how serious his case is. The doctors were publicly upbeat, saying his case was mild, but describing symptoms and treatments appropriate for more serious conditions.
The president, as all presidents do, projected improving health through staged inside photos and waving at supporters gathered outside. Human enough. But in a galling and totally irresponsible stunt, Trump bundled himself and two Secret Service agents into his limousine Sunday evening for a brief motorcade in front of the hospital just to wave at his fans — a real “ego trip” by a highly contagious patient who should have been in quarantine but instead put the agents inside his enclosed car at serious risk.
Dr. James Phillips, an attending physician at Walter Reed, tweeted that the drive-by photo op was an “unnecessary” danger to everyone in the car. The agents now have to quarantine for 14 days, he said, adding: “They might get sick. They may die. For political theater. Commanded by Trump to put their lives at risk for theater. This is insanity.”
Americans wish even their kakistocrat president a safe recovery, of course, but with stunts like that on Sunday, expect less sympathy and more a dash of, well, schadenfreude, however it is pronounced.
Ken Ripley, a Spring Hope resident, is The Enterprise’s editor and publisher emeritus.