When the world learned that President Trump had tested positive for COVID-19 in the early hours of Friday morning, his supporters reacted with dismay. The reactions of his opponents, however, were more complicated. It seemed wrong to wish this plague upon anyone. But when it personally affected the man who many hold responsible for the severity of the epidemic in the US, it was hard for some not to have mixed emotions.
A few news outlets, such as
USA Today and National Public Radio, mentioned the word Schadenfreude in their initial coverage of Trump’s diagnosis. This borrowing from German refers to taking secret and perhaps guilty pleasure in someone else’s misfortune. And in the hours after the news broke, Merriam-Webster reported a 30,500 percent increase in lookups for that word on their dictionary website.
But was Trump’s diagnosis ironic? The applicability of this term is complicated because the concept of irony is complex and can refer to many different things. In my book on
irony and sarcasm, I describe eight different ways in which the word has been used throughout history. Trump’s COVID positive status—after months of downplaying the severity and lethality of the pandemic, his stated belief that it would just disappear, as if by magic, and his refusal to wear a mask—seems to qualify as examples of both situational and historical irony.
Situational irony is a term applied to outcomes that are the opposite of what was wanted or expected. But it goes beyond that. The
Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “An outcome cruelly, humorously, or strangely at odds with assumptions or expectations.” When your house burns down, it’s tragic. But when a fire station burns down, it’s ironic. When you or I cancel an event due to unforeseen circumstances, that’s life. But when a psychic cancels his performance for the same reason, that’s ironic. Another term used to describe such a comeuppance is poetic justice.
But an even better fit for Trump’s diagnosis may be historical irony. This term is used to describe cases in which someone has made a statement or prediction that is manifestly incorrect in hindsight. The time between such declarations and their unintended consequences, however, can vary.
On April 25, 1973, President Richard Nixon told his Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman “I always wondered about that taping equipment, but I’m damn glad we have it, aren’t you?” Haldeman voiced his agreement. At the time, neither man would have described Nixon’s remark as ironic. Three months after their conversation, however, the existence of the White House’s secret taping system would be revealed by Alexander Butterfield to the Watergate investigators. This would initiate a series of events that led to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.
In other cases, the karmic payback is almost immediate. During the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in May 1864, Union general John Sedgwick admonished his troops who were seeking cover from enemy fire. His last words are said to have been “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Moments later, he was mortally wounded by a Confederate sharpshooter’s bullet.
In other cases, a remark is perceived as ironic because the person making the ultimately failed prediction has great expertise in a particular domain. In 1977, Ken Olsen famously opined, during a speech to a meeting of the World Future Society in Boston, “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.”
But Olsen lacked the vision to see the place for microcomputers in people’s lives. Time would declare the personal computer to be the “machine of the year” in 1982, five years after Olsen’s remarks. He would be forced to retire from DEC in 1992. And the company he had helped found would be sold in 1998 to Compaq—the largest manufacturer of personal computers for the home. When he passed away in 2011, his failed prediction was given prominent play in his obituaries.
Just hours before tweeting that he was COVID positive, Trump had recorded a speech for the annual Al Smith Dinner for Catholic charities. In those remarks, he opined that “The end of the pandemic is in sight.” As a result of such statements, a perception of irony with regard to his diagnosis seems particularly strong.
The coronavirus pandemic has sickened and killed many who justly feared it, as well as many who downplayed its lethality. The President’s diagnosis is regrettable, but it is his words and actions that have made his health status ironic.