Springtime for Trump amid coronavirus

Is such mockery of someone with a potential life-threatening illness morally acceptable?

ZERO MOSTEL and Gene Wilder in ‘The Producers’ (photo credit: FILM SOCIETY OF LINCOLN CENTER)
ZERO MOSTEL and Gene Wilder in ‘The Producers’
Mel Brooks’s film The Producers will forever be remembered for “Springtime for Hitler.” Many critics and fans at the time were outraged that someone would make light of something so serious as the Nazi regime with the memory of the Holocaust still so fresh in the cultural memory. But Brooks had been a member of the US Army in Europe during World War II. Afterward, he became a comedy writer. Humor was his weapon, and no one will deny that Hitler is a justifiable target. The question, however, remains alive today, whether that weapon is one that should be used.
Consider a meme making the rounds on social media that depicts the coronavirus uttering the infamous words of the Access Hollywood tape, except that the gender of the pronoun has been switched to make it clear that the virus is speaking of forcing itself on the president in the same way he that bragged about forcing himself on a woman. Is such mockery of someone with a potential life-threatening illness morally acceptable?
Let us take the “Springtime” from Brooks’ fictional musical literally and look at the direction we might receive from Jewish vernal celebrations, specifically, let us look to both Passover and Purim to see if we can find insights there.
On the one hand, the Passover Seder commands Jews to drink four glasses of wine in order to become cheerful. Yet, the second cup is not full. A drop is poured out for each of the 10 plagues that were brought upon the Egyptians. Even though they may have been the oppressor, the cup that brings happiness is diminished specifically so the suffering of others – even those one would consider one’s enemy – is not celebrated.
This lines up well with the intuition that two wrongs do not make a right. If you complained when Brooks made the film, then you have admitted that it is wrong. You are lowering yourself to the level of your enemy if you copy the behavior. Michele Obama instructs us, “When they go low, we go high,” and Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” The Golden Rule does not say “Do unto to others as they have done unto you,” but “as you would have them do.” It is an aspirational ethic demanding that you rise above the injustice you observe.
BUT THEN there is the celebration of Purim. In the Book of Esther, the evil adviser to the Persian king sought a royal injunction to kill the Jews within the kingdom. The king is a fool who only listens to the last person he speaks to, and Haman is a narcissistic lover of power. Haman’s plot is foiled by the brave Mordechai and Esther, and Jews celebrate each spring with jokes and costumes, and employ noisemakers to drown out Haman’s name whenever it is said. This is intended as insult. Mockery of the villain is just desert for the planned injustice. And speaking of dessert, his ears – hamantaschen – are represented as pastries and eaten with abandon.
In Bob Woodward’s book Rage, President Trump is quoted contradicting his public statements about the coronavirus’s severity and contagiousness. Such misrepresentations no doubt led to a lack of vigilance among some elected officials and members of the public, which was partly responsible for unnecessary deaths among more than 220,000 infected Americans who died from COVID-19.
An “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” understanding of justice would at best justify Trump’s getting the disease. But the better question is, “Does his getting COVID-19 compensate the victims and citizenry hurt by his lies?” No.
What would compensate them? The comedic pleasure of mocking him in ways that disclose his lies to the public? Would mocking President Trump compensate those he has publicly derided with physical challenges while informing the public of harm caused to us by his lies? Recall his impersonation of reporter Serge Kovaleski who suffers from arthrogryposis, and his mocking of Hilary Clinton’s pneumonia during the last presidential campaign.
But this sits strangely with us.
How ought we treat those who suffer from their own misdeeds? Does mocking them compensate those harmed by their misdeeds? Does mocking him disclose more about him, providing needed relief from the despair brought on by his lies? Is he likely to become better for being called out? Should we care anymore than we care about humiliating the idolater Haman? Here, are we acting for justice or only satisfying our own urge for vengeance? If we say nothing, are we complicit? But if we must speak, why may we not do it with wit?
Humor has the ability to disclose the absurd in the real. The answer seems to be in Mel Brooks’ own words, “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty.” Just please don’t join the Nazi Party.
Stephen Stern is chair of Jewish Studies at Gettysburg College and the author of The Unbinding of Isaac. Steven Gimbel is a Professor of Jewish Studies at Gettysburg College and the author of Einstein’s Jewish Science, a National Jewish Book award finalist.