It Is Good When Leaders Experience the Consequences of Their Own Decisions

Trump’s Covid diagnosis could help lead to better government through karma.

Hamilton Nolan

Drew Angerer/ Getty Images

Why do polit­i­cal lead­ers make deci­sions that hurt peo­ple? It is not only because of stu­pid­i­ty, cor­rup­tion, polit­i­cal expe­di­en­cy, and the oth­er well-known char­ac­ter­is­tics of the pow­er­ful — there is also a basic struc­tur­al rea­son that enables it all: these lead­ers are gen­er­al­ly insu­lat­ed from the con­se­quences of their own poli­cies. Any­thing that caus­es them to expe­ri­ence those con­se­quences should there­fore be cel­e­brat­ed as pro­mot­ing good government. 

It is easy to hurt peo­ple when you know that you will not be hurt your­self. It is easy to deprive oth­ers when you your­self will be well pro­vid­ed for. It is easy to neglect the suf­fer­ing of oth­ers, when that suf­fer­ing is noth­ing more than an abstrac­tion to you. It is easy to treat oth­ers with dis­re­spect when you your­self will always be ensconced in a bub­ble of def­er­ence. It is easy to tol­er­ate — or even per­pe­trate — atroc­i­ties that will nev­er place you in any per­son­al risk. Vio­lence that will not be inflict­ed upon you per­son­al­ly can be seen as a patri­ot­ic thrill. It is easy to brush away death when it comes only for those who you have cho­sen not to care about. 

Inequal­i­ty is the mech­a­nism that pro­vides the insu­la­tion between the deci­sion-mak­ers and the con­se­quences of their deci­sions. The more unequal the soci­ety, the greater the abil­i­ty of the rich and pow­er­ful to sit out­side of the prob­lems afflict­ing every­one else — even if the prob­lems in ques­tion were cre­at­ed by the rich and pow­er­ful. Unfor­tu­nate­ly for us, the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca is a high­ly unequal soci­ety. Eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty has been grow­ing for near­ly a half cen­tu­ry, and there are no indi­ca­tions that that trend is slow­ing down. In a coun­try where mon­ey buys polit­i­cal pow­er (the abil­i­ty to make the rules) as well as pro­tec­tion from the jus­tice sys­tem (the abil­i­ty to be per­son­al­ly unaf­fect­ed by the rules), there is lit­tle rea­son to hope that the sys­tem, left to its own devices, will align the inter­ests of the lead­ers with the rest of us any time soon.

It is not hard to imag­ine a set of rules that would help to ensure that our elect­ed lead­ers are exposed to the out­comes that they them­selves cre­ate. Many of those rules would fall into the cat­e­go­ry of fol­low­ing the laws that already exist, but which do not touch the rich”: Pay­ing a fair share of tax­es, being sub­ject­ed to the same legal penal­ties that poor peo­ple are when they com­mit crimes, being forced to nav­i­gate in busi­ness and gov­ern­ment using the front doors that are open to every­one rather than the exclu­sive side doors cre­at­ed for those with con­nec­tions. Oth­er rules would help make polit­i­cal deci­sions more fair: Send­ing the chil­dren of elect­ed lead­ers to the front lines of any war we fight, forc­ing the pres­i­dent to donate most of his net worth to the U.S. Trea­sury, mak­ing politi­cians live on gov­ern­ment ben­e­fits and Med­ic­aid, ban­ning politi­cians from becom­ing lob­by­ists or oth­er types of influ­ence-ped­dlers after they leave office to elim­i­nate the incen­tive to go into pol­i­tics just to become rich. 

There is a moral aspect to the desire to see pow­er­ful lead­ers reap what they sow, but the real argu­ment for it is util­i­tar­i­an. Like most of us, politi­cians are flawed, self­ish, myopic peo­ple who often have a hard time car­ing about things that they do not see or feel. This basic truth dri­ves many of our polit­i­cal system’s flaws, most of which spring from the fact that politi­cians tend to cater to the needs of, and be part of, the wealthy donor class rather than the work­ing class. This is why slight delays in East Coast Acela ser­vice quick­ly raise Con­gres­sion­al alarm, but the utter absence of good munic­i­pal bus ser­vice in poor cities does not. 

It’s going to take a while before we can get Con­gress to pass ethics rules man­dat­ing that they live in pub­lic hous­ing projects and pur­chase their meals with food stamps. In the mean­time, we must rely on oth­er meth­ods to make polit­i­cal con­se­quences felt by our polit­i­cal lead­ers. One sim­ple and effec­tive way is to tell peo­ple who make mon­strous, harm­ful deci­sions how you feel about them. That means not just writ­ing let­ters or march­ing in the streets, but, per­haps, by protest­ing out­side their home, or by yelling at them when you see them in a restau­rant, or gen­er­al­ly mak­ing it dif­fi­cult for them to live com­fort­able lives of leisure after days spent sen­tenc­ing thou­sands or mil­lions of humans to suf­fer­ing and despair. If the pow­er­ful build sys­tems to insu­late them­selves from any unpleas­ant feed­back, the least we can do as good cit­i­zens is to heck­le Stephen Miller when he goes out for Mex­i­can food after a long day of putting Mex­i­can chil­dren in cages. 

Now we have a pan­dem­ic. Among its many down­sides is the fact that it is no longer pos­si­ble to yell at Repub­li­can offi­cials in restau­rants. The task of mak­ing America’s lead­ers feel the con­se­quences of their neglect­ful, unsci­en­tif­ic, ego­tis­ti­cal, stu­pid, and mali­cious approach to pub­lic health is now in the hands of nature itself. And nature deliv­ered by bestow­ing the coro­n­avirus on Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and many of his top allies. Now, the peo­ple who have, with their own deci­sions, cre­at­ed the con­di­tions that will unnec­es­sar­i­ly kill hun­dreds of thou­sands of Amer­i­cans get to expe­ri­ence a lit­tle bit of real­i­ty. (I can’t quite say they are get­ting a taste of their own med­i­cine, because they still get med­i­cine that is not avail­able to most of the rest of the country.)

When some­thing like this hap­pens, part of the pop­u­la­tion rev­els in the schaden­freude, while the media and polit­i­cal class­es swing the oth­er way, osten­ta­tious­ly pray­ing that the man who would hap­pi­ly put many of them in prison gets well soon. I sim­ply want to point out that these are not the only pos­si­ble reac­tions. Rather than tor­ture our­selves with an empa­thy test over lov­ing our ene­mies, let us regard this as a pos­i­tive step towards good gov­ern­ment. The suf­fer­ing of our most well-insu­lat­ed elites will bestow in them a valu­able new under­stand­ing of the urgency of the prob­lems fac­ing our nation. 

Is it good” that Don­ald Trump got the coro­n­avirus? It doesn’t mat­ter. From the stand­point of the pub­lic inter­est: Bet­ter him than any­one else. 

Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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