The arrest of Donald Trump in Georgia, for his attempt to overturn the result of the 2020 presidential election, was a landmark moment in American political history. The momentousness arose not only from the event itself (Trump was the first president ever to have a mug shot taken). The public reaction to Trump’s arrest—an outburst of unbridled euphoria—clearly illustrates a dynamic increasingly animating American politics: a large portion of the public enjoys seeing harm or misfortune befall those with whom they disagree politically.
On the night of Trump’s August 24 arrest at the Fulton County Jail, for instance, the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump political action committee, posted a doctored video to X that showed an inebriated crowd shouting and clapping at the release of his mug shot. This indicates more than just a desire for justice; it is a perfect example of how partisan schadenfreude— that is, “joy in the suffering” of political opponents—now operates in U.S. politics.
This sentiment has disturbing implications for the future of American democracy.
The glee elicited by Trump’s arrest among those who opposed his presidency is not just a phenomenon found on one side of the political divide. On the contrary, notable Republicans have long professed their joy at stoking Democrats’ ire. Dan Bongino, a conservative commentator, has stated that his life is all about “owning the libs.” This attitude is found throughout the modern right, with numerous Republican figures trying to boost their own political fortunes by deliberately and consistently upsetting Democratic politicians and voters.
Such “joy in the suffering” of partisan others threatens to dramatically alter the U.S. political landscape. If enough Americans back such partisan schadenfreude, then politicians and politically aligned media outlets have ample incentives to play into these desires. Those incentives are magnified by the fact that politicians are primarily concerned with securing their own reelection, and media outlets aim to capture their audience’s attention.
In a survey experiment in which two colleagues and I analyzed individuals’ attitudes on four different issues, we found that partisan schadenfreude is widespread. The study, published in Political Psychology, showed that among those who accept the scientific consensus on the sources of climate change, for example, over 35 percent agreed with the idea that those who do not believe in climate change “get what they deserve” when natural disasters strike them. And, while our findings suggest that schadenfreude over this particular issue is most pronounced among those who are comparatively more liberal in their ideological outlook, schadenfreude is by no means limited to those on the political left. Follow-up analyses on attitudes pertaining to the COVID pandemic suggest that both sides of the political divide express joy when bad things happen to their political counterparts. Those on the left, for example, are prone to saying that individuals “get what they deserve” if and when they contract COVID as a result of defying CDC guidelines on health and safety, an opinion expressed by 54 percent of our survey respondents. By contrast, those on the political right tend to express schadenfreude when those who support restrictions on how businesses operate during the pandemic lose their job because of government regulations, seen in 36 percent of respondents.
Partisan schadenfreude’s implications stretch beyond attitudes. In fact, it predicts the candidates that Americans support. Our study found that schadenfreude is the strongest predictor of an individual saying that they would vote for someone who promises to “harm supporters of the opposing party” through the legislative process. And, while a follow-up study found that most Americans do not prefer candidates who promise to legislatively harm the opposing political party and its supporters, these types of candidates are actively sought out by those Americans who are most prone to exhibiting schadenfreude. And it is the most ideologically extreme partisans—the ones who vote in candidate-determining primaries—who are most likely to express schadenfreude.
Politics has long been acrimonious and “nasty” in style. Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton famously engaged in a gunfight; members of Congress spoke of—and sometimes engaged in—violence during the Civil War period; and beatings, bombings and shootings marked the Civil Rights and Vietnam War era. Yet, despite this long history of contentious political behavior, the conflagrations of contemporary American politics are unique. Indeed, even basic facts—such as who won a presidential election—are not immune from partisan politics.
Because political officials and the media heavily influence public opinion, they can also use calm rhetoric to dampen Americans’ growing tendency to express partisan schadenfreude. Unfortunately, such rhetoric is not likely to emerge. In an era marked by heightened “negative partisanship,” where Americans’ political loyalties are driven more by the parties and candidates they loathe than the ones they love, partisan schadenfreude has found fertile ground in which to take root. In addition to altering Americans’ attitudes about politicians, policies and ordinary party supporters, partisan schadenfreude has created a vibrant demand for promises of candidate cruelty. In a nation divided politically along racial, gender, ideological and educational lines, the emergence of partisan schadenfreude portends an ominous and alarming style of future political competition.
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.