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We’re in an epidemic of Schadenfreude

We are approaching the moment in the Jewish calendar that commemorates the birthday of the world. But rather than celebrating our shared place on this planet, the election cycle in which we are currently embroiled has created a chasm between many of God’s creatures, even pitting us against one another.

Worst of all is the Schadenfreude that President Trump encourages his followers to express, and even expresses himself. The examples are legion. But it’s really been amped up in his response to the violence in American cities in recent weeks.

His adviser Kellyanne Conway summed it up well in response to the (clearly unforgivable) violence by some in reaction to George Floyd’s murder and the shooting of Jacob Blake. Conway articulated the president’s subliminal election strategy perfectly when she said, “The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order.”

It’s clear that Trump’s rival, Joe Biden, had it right when he noted that “[Trump] views this as a political benefit to him. He’s rooting for more violence, not less.” More pain and suffering indeed, even for total innocents who find themselves inconvenient victims.

The President’s role in hoping for the worst is undeniable, and indefensible. And yet, the unfortunate truth is that when it comes to moral vindictiveness, no one is pure anymore.

Are you a Democrat? Can you honestly say you didn’t you smile just a little when it was reported that some people who attended Trump’s rallies were diagnosed with Covid? Maybe you don’t wish anyone dead, but those damn Trump supporters still won’t wear a mask!

Experiencing the moral low of Schadenfreude is experiencing joy from the trouble occasioned upon others. Trump is clearly the fulcrum of today’s strain of Schadenfreude that we feel across America, driven by the conflicting views about Trump and his policies. This Schadenfreude doesn’t really lie in an affirmative desire to see people actually hurt; we don’t want people victimized by violence on the one hand, or COVID on the other. Rather, it lies in the Trumper’s desire to see him win, and the Never Trumper’s desire to see him lose the election.

It’s driven by this and nothing else: wanting to see one person — the opposing candidate — defeated. The moral offenders on both sides of this battle would readily kneel and pray for relief for the victims across the divide, if only their troubles might somehow electorally result in defeat of their candidate.

In some odd way, then, this Schadenfreude is worse than other kinds; it somehow enjoys pain visited upon non-enemies with whom we have no grievance except that they are collateral damage lined up with someone we despise (Trump or Biden), rightly or wrongly.

So what do we do with such a grievously sinful thought? Isn’t it necessarily a sin in every religion? How can we repair the world if we ourselves are guilty of finding joy in the pain of others, even if it’s just an idle thought?

Simple: We need to recognize it for what it is. Recognition, it is axiomatic, is the first step to recovery.

With the High Holidays upon us, the moment to do this is now.

Joel Cohen practices white collar criminal defense law at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan. He teaches at both Fordham and Cardozo Law Schools and is the author, together with Dale Degenshein, of “I Swear: The Meaning Of An Oath” (Vandeplas Publishing, 2019).

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