On Monday, the first indictments from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election meddling were made public. Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, was charged with laundering $18 million through shell companies. The records indicate expensive tastes: over $1 million on antique rugs, $1.3 million on clothes, a $3 million Brooklyn brownstone and a $2.9 million SoHo loft. In addition, Manafort associate Rick Gates was also charged, and, perhaps even more ominous for the White House, it was revealed that Trump campaign foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos pled guilty and has been cooperating with prosecutors.
How does one feel upon hearing the news of such charges? German, that language of philosophers and poets, may supply the best terms for enjoying this fall from grace. Much of Twitter reached for schadenfreude, the loanword used in its original language as the “modest pleasure felt in response to others’ minor falls and foibles.” In English, it’s meaning has been broadened, defined popularly as “enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others.” But to University of Connecticut psychologist Colin Leach, the reaction to Manafort isn’t pure schadenfreude.
What we’re seeing—and maybe experiencing—is a related emotion, genugtuung, or the enjoyment of seeing justice done. “People are taking pleasure in it because it’s the beginning of a kind of retributive justice,” Leach tells Thrive Global. “Once you describe something as schadenfreude you’re implying that there’s malice, rather than taking pleasure in a wrong being righted.”
The University of Kentucky psychologist Richard Smith, author of The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature, likes to demonstrate this complexity to his students with a news-clipping exercise. He’ll put up a news story reporting that a man was killed in a car accident—the room murmurs with compassion. Then one more detail revealed: he was drunk. Now people are less forgiving—he shouldn’t have been drinking. Then another—he was driving a Mercedes. And students chuckle. A drunk guy wrecking his luxury car creates a much different response than it happening to someone in more vague terms.
“The normative response is we should feel bad when people suffer,” Smith tells Thrive Global, so when we don’t feel that bad, a lot is revealed. While schadenfreude “is a socially undesirable emotion”—i.e., it’s not a good look—Smith and his colleagues have, in a review paper, noted three conditions where it commonly arises: when the observer gains from the misfortune, when the misfortune was thought to be deserved, and when the misfortune befalls an envied person. It’s not hard to imagine a liberal-leaning person believing all three in regard to Manafort: that the charges helped them politically, that Manafort deserved it, all while envying the GOP’s political power and Manafort’s fancy lifestyle. (His “apartment looks like what happens when you get really rich in The Sims,” tweeted Racked editor Alanna Okun.) This can make the schadenfreude all the more savory. “Part of it is simply, you could argue the political party in power is a source of envy,” Smith says.
You can think of schadenfreude as the opposite of empathy; brain scans link both emotions to the same area of the brain. Harvard psychologist Mina Cikara has shown in experiments that when people are randomly assigned to arbitrary teams, they experience an “intergroup empathy gap”: not only did they feel better when their teammates did well, but they felt better about negative events that happened to them (“Brandon accidentally walking into a glass door”) and worse about positive ones (“Bill found a $5 bill on the street”). There’s yet another German word for that: Gluckschmerz, or feeling pain at another’s (possibly ill-gotten) fortune.
These emotions have deep, almost metaphysical stakes. The 13th century theologian Thomas Aquinas said that the blessed in heaven both see and rejoice in the tormenting of the damned. “This conception, which astounded [philosopher Friedrich] Nietzsche by its cruelty, is schadenfreude at its highest,” wrote the historian Perez Zagorin. Indeed, said both Leach and Smith, emotions like schadenfreude and genugtuung speak to intuitions about how the world ought to work, they are assurances that people are karmically reward their just deserts, and that, following a presidential election that shattered the feeling of a reliable, secure world for lots of people, a reminder that there’s might be a logic to society after all. It’s a sentiment most beautifully expressed by Martin Luther King, Jr: “The arc of the moral universe is long,” he said in Selma and elsewhere, “but it bends towards justice.” Rather than, say, fancy clothes, luxury apartments or hacked emails.