Schadenfreude, a German term, describes a coldhearted pleasure derived from the misfortune of others. While taking pleasure from others’ misfortune is not a virtuous sentiment, the 2016 race for the US presidency, which has been an unprecedented debacle in many ways, is one such circumstance when it may be politically valid. To understand who has derived grim pleasure from this debacle, and why, we should consider how different constituencies have apprehended the 2016 US presidential election.
Schadenfreude in the “Homeland”
In the presidential primary for the Republican Party (also known as the Grand Old Party, or GOP), the relatively quick and easy victory of Donald Trump, a political novice who trounced a field of more mainstream competitors, was an unanticipated upset for the party establishment. Trump won the GOP nomination and then continued to fuel his campaign with a heady blend of race-baiting and authoritarian rhetoric seasoned with vulgarity, narcissism, and vengeance. His unbridled personal style and predilections for revenge, which he readily shares with the public via Twitter, laid waste to the party’s pretentions of representing “good American values.” And his “movement,” as he often referred to his supporters, is well represented by the darkest strands of American politics; ardent racists, xenophobes, anti-Semites, Islamophobes, sexists, homophobes, and white nationalists embraced candidate Trump, and his campaign emboldened their license to insult and assault “political correctness,” which tends to be ascribed to liberals as a derogatory label. Layered on top of many Trump supporters’ animus for liberal values is the schadenfreude they derived from the spectacular chaos his campaign—and their support for it—has meted on the GOP establishment. No major newspaper in the land endorsed Trump, but the Ku Klux Klan did.
The GOP’s takeover by an outsider with zero experience in public office is celebrated by the alt-right (i.e., the far-right ideological strand) that rejects mainstream conservatism, and by sectors of the American left that also rejects conservatism, albeit for different reasons. Whereas the alt-right celebrates their own hardline, unapologetically reactionary surge to prominence on the national political stage, some on the left see the chaos in the GOP as comeuppance for housing and nourishing the very political forces that have appropriated the party’s mantle to nominate Trump. One of the most vivid examples of the establishment GOP’s misfortune was the stream of endorsements from life-long Republicans for the Democratic Party candidate, Hillary Clinton, because they regarded Trump as unfit for the office of president. Inevitably, the forces of Trumpism will make these establishment GOP turncoats’ political lives miserable in the years to come.
The fact that Hillary Clinton had to run such a hard race, and then lost it to a candidate so patently unqualified and intensely despised even by GOP stalwarts exposes another vein of schadenfreude. Unlike Trump, Clinton did not win a quick and easy primary victory. Her competitor, the Socialist-turned-Democrat Bernie Sanders, commanded intense support among a wide swath of progressives and liberals, especially young people, and he beat her in twenty-two states. At the same moment when she tipped into victory to become the party’s nominee, it was revealed through email leaks and hacks that leaders in the Democratic National Committee (DNC) had been putting their fingers on the scale to assure her victory over his.
If DNC bias was not enough to cast a shadow over the fairness of Clinton’s nomination, there was also agitation during the primary season over polling data that predicted Sanders, unlike Clinton, could decisively defeat Trump if those two were pitted against each other in the race for the presidency. While Clinton garnered very strong and earnest support, not least because her victory would install the first female president in US history, in polls gauging the electorate’s perceptions of the presidential candidates’ personal qualities, she scored competitively dismally with Trump. Over the last months of the election, selling the reason to vote for Clinton to ambivalent liberal and left constituencies required the expenditure of a good deal of political energy, and many unenthusiastically voted for her as the “lesser evil.” Some Sanders’ supporters’ grief for the lost chance of a truly progressive president turned to schadenfreude because Clinton’s victory over Trump was not a foregone conclusion as election day approached.
And lo and behold, the forces of racism and reactionism carried the day. Say hello to President Trump.
The global power of the United States gives US presidential elections a significance that extends far beyond the North American shores. As the election boiled down to a Clinton-Trump competition, US allies were forced to start pondering how they would deal with a president of the most powerful nation whose policy agenda is built on promises to build a big wall on the border with Mexico, impose a ban on Muslim immigration, make NATO a profit-generating enterprise, and emulate the ruling model of Vladimir Putin.
For some people whose own lives and societies have been damaged by US foreign policy and self-interested economic hegemony over the decades, and especially those victimized by military campaigns during the fifteen-plus years of the “war on terror,” the debacle of the 2016 US election that was tearing Americans apart offered some cold satisfaction. The spectacle of a political system being wrecked from within and a society deep into an ideological war with itself made America’s misery their source of schadenfreude.
For those who perceive the United States as culpable for their own grievances, the “true America” that they know from the first-hand experience of structural adjustment and durable racism—characterized by greed, violence, and arrogance—was exposed for all the world to see in the candidacy of Donald Trump. The alternative in the race embodied another version of the “true America” they have experienced through drone warfare and durable occupations—militaristic, neoliberalizing, defender of authoritarian allies. Hillary Clinton, had she won, would have given the world more of the same; she would have been predictably detrimental to people on the receiving end of American bombs.
Unlike the domestic US variations of schadenfreude generated by the 2016 election, where the celebrated misery played out on partisan registers in a country that thinks it is a world unto itself, the foreign variations played out on a register that parochializes the United States by homogenizing everything within. From the vantage point of foreign critics, the election signals the demise of the myth of American exceptionalism—that is, a country deeply steeped in a self-image as a uniquely good and capable force in the world. What lent this demise its schadenfreude quality is the fact that Americans had destroyed the myth themselves; they had proved to themselves and to everyone else incapable of self-government.
Mourning in America
Clinton’s reaction to the outcome of the election captured the disbelief of many that a KKK-endorsed candidate could win. She was too upset to even deliver a concession speech, and she stayed holed up in privacy to mourn the loss.
There will be plenty of schadenfreude to go around in the weeks and years to come. The political debacle of the 2016 election and the victory of an openly racist bully will mark historical time as the moment when America’s illusions of national greatness, construed as a model of universally enviable virtue and achievement, and its sister illusion, the mythic right to global leadership, collapsed under the weight of their own contradictions.