Hey y’all—It’s Tim Miller with the weekend bonus Bulwark+ Triad coming at you as long as it seems like we are in an emergency serious enough to require working on a Saturday night. And well . . . seems like we are a ways away from that.
Things are crazy and this is the time for you to join as at Bulwark+. It’s the salve you need to offset the rage every time a Trump spokesperson shows up in the news.
1. On Strength
In some ways, COVID-19 seems as if it was engineered by God to expose the very vulnerability that allowed this country to make Donald Trump its president.
The entire hubristic Trumpian ethos is built around a commitment to presenting “strength” in all aspects of life. His favorite word is “strong.” He is “very strong” on things that normal humans don’t generally describe as such. He has “strong focus.” Would be “very very strong on the debt limit” (whoops). He’s mulling a pardon “very strongly.”
This supposed “strength” was a big part of the appeal of Trump to GOP primary voters in particular. The word Trump fans most use to describe him is “strong.” The catch-all defense of him in 2016 was that “he fights.”
The problem is that Trump’s view of strength is warped. It’s a ruse, a conceit, a work. True strength comes from within. It must acknowledge human frailty so that it can be overcome. It requires fortitude. Courage amid adversity. Langston Hughes called it “inner power” in a poem about Helen Keller.
Trump is utterly devoid of true strength, and he knows it. So he overcompensates by never giving an inch. Never showing his inner fragility. Going to absurd lengths to avoid acknowledging any perceived weakness, no matter how small.
It’s why he fancies himself a boxer, not a bureaucrat. This fetishization of physical prowess is a common authoritarian strain, as JVL has written.
So, when the pandemic reached our shores, Trump looked at it through this warped prism. Fighting the virus very, very strongly to him was about presenting strength to the world. Pretending he shut down the border. Making fun of his opponent for how weak he looks in a mask. Promising we’ll be open by Easter. Ensuring people that the economy was going strong. Sending all caps tweets to LIBERATE MINNESOTA and PLAY FOOTBALL [insert grunt].
This is strength to Trump and his fans. Seeming strong is strong, so long as you ignore the vulnerability beneath.
But the invisible enemy the country has been fighting was not intimidated by this play-acting. It didn’t care how sick his burns on the media and libs and masks were. In fact, the virus welcomed the hubris. Preyed on it. Used it as a vector to spread and spread and spread and spread.
Taking on this enemy required, instead, for our leaders to display that Inner Power. Acknowledging that our bodies’ frailties prevent us from doing and having everything we want, at least for a while. Finding a different way to a result, because you recognize the frailty and want to overcome it. Sacrificing one’s animal desires for the betterment of the herd. Being considerate of our neighbors. Deferring to those with more expertise. Summoning the strength that comes from restraint.
To Trump and his ilk, the concept of there being strength in restraint and in acknowledging vulnerability is a bunch of beta cuck pussy talk.
They lack these qualities, so they must disparage them in order to feel tough. That’s why they sit on booster seats, after all.
So, when this virus reached inside the White House, Trump did what frightened faux tough guys do: He put everyone around him at risk in order to prop up the facade of strength.
Unknown thousands have died in this country because of this contorted, toxic, faux “strength.” And now people are getting sick and people might die not “out there” somewhere in the country but in the White House itself—because our president is such a weak man that he demanded a big maskless party for his new toy. And then, once the virus had nabbed him, he had to pretend that everything was fine for a few more days or hours or . . . well, we don’t yet know exactly how long. For all we know, he would have hid it for for as long as he could stay out of the hospital, and put even more people at risk, had he not been forced to admit it publicly by Jennifer Jacobs and the fake news.
This irresponsibility, this reckless endangerment wasn’t strength, it was extreme, deep-seated weakness.
2. On Strength, Part Deux
You would think that the president contracting the virus, requiring oxygen, becoming physically weak, and being airlifted to a hospital as a result of his own recklessness would disabuse his fans of believing that true strength comes from ignoring the virus and mocking precautions.
You would be wrong. They are taking the opposite approach.
The president’s physical frailty is now requiring him and his team to concoct a new strongman fantasy. One where he has only become frail because of his keen desire to FIGHT.
His daughter praised his RELENTLESS willingness to sign fake papers for the cameras. His top staffer said his video message was a shot at SLEEPY JOE and goes on “the shows” to mock Biden for using his mask as a prop. Breitbart attacked Bernie Sanders for having a socially distant outdoor crowd at an event for Biden’s campaign.
Trump is honing the “carelessly risking death is strong” pitch himself in his hospital video. “We have to confront problems. As a leader you have to confront problems, there has never been a great leader who would have done that.”
But nobody did a more full-throated job of demonstrating what this phony strength spin looks like than Greg Gutfeld:
He didn’t hide from the virus. The reason he didn’t hide from the virus is he didn’t want America to hide from the virus. He was going to do the same thing, he was going to walk out there on that battlefield with you, and not sit somewhere in a basement and tell you how you have to get back to work, but not go out himself. . . . So he took the risk, he got the virus, but he was doing it for us.
“The battlefield,” Gutfeld says. That’s how Trump showed his strength—by taking it to this girly virus and having irresponsible superspreader events all over the country!
The problem with this, which you know if you are here at The Bulwark—and not a little nerd who lost his sense of ironic distance when the Bad Orange Man performed orchidectomies on the boys of Fox—is playing tough for the cameras doesn’t defeat a virus.
To defeat a virus, you stay off the damn field and deprive it of vectors. You do not defeat the fucking novel coronavirus in an arm-wrestling match. You beat it by being smart and responsible and restrained and considerate of your neighbors.
Donald Trump is laying in Walter Reed right now because he didn’t understand that. Some 209,000 people are dead because he didn’t understand that.
How many more people have to die before these sycophants give up on the lie that being reckless means that, ackshually, Trump is a super-duper tough fighter man? 200,000 more? 400,000?
If that doesn’t make your blood pressure as high as mine, here’s a little bonus content on Gutfeld, who was “one of the more forceful critics of Trump’s equivocating on neo-Nazi marchers in 2017, but three years later he’s all-in on defending the president, now calls it a hoax.”
There’s a lot of talk about whether the president—who contracted this virus through gross negligence and who has presided over an administration defined by its cruelty—deserves our empathy and our well-wishes.
The discussion made me think about AIDS. (Do not come here expecting uplifting newsletters, people, this is JVL’s product and I respect his brand.)
Caveat: I recognize these diseases are very different of course and so this analogy will have the same weakness that most do.
But this whole discussion about compassion for Trump reminds me of the way that gay men who contracted HIV/AIDS were treated by the rest of the culture, particularly in the ’80s at the height of the virus. They were called reckless, irresponsible, immoral, and worse. Studies showed that gay men are generally considered to be at fault by their peers for contracting the virus, while others aren’t.
That stigma, which persists, is gross and wrong when it comes to HIV/AIDS. And it’s also true of COVID-19. Contracting a disease isn’t something that anyone deserves. Even the president. He should be granted the grace that gay men were often denied as he goes through a recovery that I hope is speedy.
But when it comes to contagions such as these there is also a responsibility. Everyone deserves empathy but that empathy doesn’t give them carte blanche to recklessly and knowingly endanger others. Gay advice columnist Dan Savage wrote a column in response to a question about whether we should have compassion for men who have HIV and knowingly expose others without informing them:
What about compassion for the men he's infecting? What about his responsibility not to spread HIV? . . . I'm sick to death of “HIV educators” lumping my ethical HIV-positive friends in with selfish, unethical, immoral HIV-positive shitbags who could care less about infecting other people.
Considering the president’s actions in the past week, his choices look a lot like those of the “shitbag” (Dan’s words!) who couldn’t care less about infecting other people. So while we should hope for the best for Trump’s recovery, we can simultaneously feel a deep anger over how he endangered and possibly infected those around him.
The Washington Post reports that no contract tracing or guidance has been offered to the hundreds exposed by this White House. An unbelievable abdication of duty. These public servants and everyday Americans were put at risk by their own commander-in-chief for no reason except his vanity and pathological need to project phony strength. They truly deserve our compassion and our action.
Until next Sunday, find some joy on the #proudboys twitter hashtag takeover, for as ugly as things are, at least some of our old stigmas are washing away. ✌️