The typical reaction to the death of a tyrant — whether by revolutionary violence or natural causes — is not one of grief and sadness but joyous celebration. It is not hard to understand why: when a nation and its oppressed citizenry are finally liberated from the suffocating, savage grip of fascist dictatorship, they feel joy for themselves, their families and the future of their nation. That is the same reason people have always hoped for, or work toward, the death of despots: they want to rid themselves of those who impose tyranny on them.
When Romanians learned in 1989 of the summary execution of their despised dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, “residents t[ook] to the streets to celebrate the downfall of the dictator.” In 2006, “many Chileans celebrated the death of dictator Augusto Pinochet,” as “a cacophony of horns sounded as hundreds of thousands took to streets and plazas across the country when it was announced the man who ruled ruthlessly for 17 years had died at age 91, a week after suffering a heart attack.” “Cuban dictator Fidel Castro is dead, so celebrate we will,” read a 2016 South Florida Sun-Sentinel op-ed by a Cuban-American who appeared to genuinely believe that Castro was a vicious dictator, and thus expressed the natural, normal reaction of someone who believes a country has been freed from the grip of a despot. So typical is this reaction to the death of a leader perceived as a dictator that history is replete with countless similar examples over many decades and across the world.
Yet in the U.S., a radically different dynamic is playing out. Over the past several years, but particularly in the months heading into the 2020 election, it has become extremely common for prominent Democrats and their media allies to refer to President Trump as a dictator, a fascist, a tyrant hellbent on destroying U.S. democracy, a genocidal racist, and even a Nazi. And yet, the overwhelming reaction in those mainstream precincts to the news that the fascist dictator has contracted a potentially lethal virus is to hope and pray that he makes a speedy recovery whereby he can resume his democracy-destroying, genocidal, tyrannical, fascist rule.
In March of last year, as CNN put it, “two powerful House Democrats invoked Adolf Hitler’s actions in Germany and the treatment of Jews during World War I and in the 1920s to warn against the direction the US is moving in, with both saying Donald Trump’s presidency presents an unprecedented threat to democracy.” One of the Democratic lawmakers who explicitly invoked Nazism and Hitler as the proper prism to understand Trump’s rule was House Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina. Just two months ago, Clyburn went back on CNN and warned that Trump was preparing to hold despotic power even if he loses, pronouncing: “I feel very strongly that he is Mussolini, Putin is Hitler.”
Yet when Clyburn learned this week that our modern-day Hitler who is on the precipice of ending democracy had contracted a fatal virus, he did not celebrate but instead, for some reason, lamented the news, wishing “the First Family a speedy and complete recovery.” Why would you possibly wish a speedy recovery — rather than a quick demise — to someone you believe is a Hitler-like perpetrator of genocide whose recovery would enable fascism to continue? That seems counter-intuitive and counter-productive.
MSNBC star Rachel Maddow began invoking Nazism and Hitler in connection with Trump as early as 2016, when Politico reported that, once Trump secured the GOP nomination, the on-air personality “has been reading up lately on Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, the MSNBC anchor told Rolling Stone, because that’s where she thinks the United States could be headed.” Maddow has notoriously spent the last four years manically obsessed with the claim that Trump has such a corrupt relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin that it is the Kremlin, thanks to Trump, which secretly runs the U.S. and is using that power to plot harm to large numbers of Americans by, for instance, seizing the power to cut off their heat in the dead of winter. Maddow was explicitly linking Trump to classic fascism as early as 2015.
Yet upon learning that the fascist, Kremlin-controlled, Nazi-like dictator had become ill, Maddow launched a one-woman crusade demanding that her fellow liberals pray earnestly for his recovery. She first posted an extremely effusive tweet: “God bless the president and the first lady. If you pray, please pray for their speedy and complete recovery…” Presumably in response to widespread liberal confusion and criticisms — wait, you spent four years telling us he’s a fascist racist Nazi-like despot and now you insist that we pray for his health? — Maddow devoted a segment on her show in which, with great passion and emotion, she urged her viewers to react to Trump’s COVID diagnosis with the same compassion and through the same prism as if a friend who smokes cigarettes learned she had lung cancer:
These sentiments were not unique to Maddow. Indeed, that all decent people should hope and pray for Trump’s speedy recovery was the virtually unanimous consensus of leading Democratic Party figures, expressed by Barack Obama, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. “Jane and I wish the President and First Lady a full and speedy recovery,” said the Vermont Senator.
How is this messaging — we hope the racist fascist genocidal Nazi-like dictator gets well soon and returns to work? — not creating extreme cognitive dissonance among those who believed that they actually were sincere in their maximalist denunciations and invocations of fascism and Nazism regarding Trump? Shouldn’t liberals not just be confused but overtly disgusted at their leaders who want Trump to survive and return in full health to imposing fascism and genocide on Americans?
Here, for instance, is the fairly representative reaction of a left-wing political operative — the Democratic Socialist of America’s Jack Califano, who served as the 2020 Sanders Campaign’s Deputy Distributed Organizing Director — to Maddow’s segment urging that all good liberals pray for Trump’s recovery and avoid wishing ill on their fellow human being:
That reaction makes logical sense on its own terms. If one really does believe that Trump is a “genocidal Nazi” — a Hitler-equivalent fascist dictator engaged in the deliberate mass slaughter of a particular ethnic or religious group (genocide) — then it would be not just irrational but madness and moral bankruptcy to hope that the Nazi genocidal fascist makes a speedy recovery and returns to work. But that’s exactly what virtually every prominent Democratic Party leader is doing. Is Califano regretful about having worked for the presidential campaign of someone who sends warm wishes to a genocidal Nazi?
There are a few potential explanations that may account for this extremely unusual and confounding behavior of praying for, rather than against, the well-being of a fascist dictator. Perhaps Democratic leaders are simply pretending to be hoping for Trump’s well-being for political purposes while secretly hoping that he suffers and dies. Or perhaps national Democratic politicians have ascended to a state of spiritual elevation rarely seen in modern political history, in which they are capable of praying for even those they most dislike, including ones they believe are imposing fascism on their nation? Or perhaps, maybe more likely, Democratic leaders do not really believe the things they have spent four years saying about Trump and, like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney before him, are applying such labels of historic evil to him for political advantage but still see him as one of them, whom they intend to rehabilitate and honor once he is out of power.
Whatever else is true, their behavior upon hearing that someone they claim to regard as a genocidal racist fascist tyrant has contracted a fatal virus is extremely unusual when compared to how people throughout history react when learning of similar news. It is worth interrogating what accounts for such a baffling dynamic.