To everyone grieving a COVID-19 loss — to everyone who clung to an iPad to watch an intubated father or grandfather struggling for a final breath, ending a good life as bravely as one can in the face of such loneliness and pain — to every person who loved one of the more than 200,000 Americans who have died so far in seven months of pandemic, I hope you took some comfort in President Donald Trump’s Monday message to his citizens in conjunction with his own diagnosis, which was, essentially: Avoiding the virus is for suckers.
“Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life,” wrote the man who had been airlifted to a hospital to receive experimental drugs from the country’s best doctors at taxpayer expense. “We have developed, under the Trump administration, some really great drugs & knowledge. I feel better than I did 20 years ago!”
The reaction from some public servants in the Republican Party fixated, predictably, on the president’s transcendent strength and power.
“President Trump won’t have to recover from COVID. COVID will have to recover from President Trump,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., wrote in the tweet equivalent of a Chuck Norris GIF.
“COVID stood NO chance against @realDonaldTrump!” tweeted Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga. She accompanied the message with a WrestleMania GIF in which Trump attacks a man whose head had been replaced by a cartoon coronavirus. After punching the virus-head to the ground, he walks away grinning.
Amazingly, this was not the most ludicrous attempt at machismo of the evening. That honor went to the White House videographer who heralded Trump’s return to the residence with 30 slickly produced seconds that appeared to be pieced together from Michael Bay’s cutting-room floor. As the president disembarked Marine One, the accompanying music, Shazam tells us, was an instrumental version of a song found on an album called “Epic Male Songs.”
It’s wonderful news that the president is feeling good and confident in his own recovery. But it is preposterous — cruel, in fact — to imply personal fortitude has any bearing whatsoever on whether a person survives this disease. It is baffling to tell the American public that by refusing to “let it dominate,” they will be fine. And if they’re not fine, they can merely ‘copter to the nearest military hospital for some great drugs.
Normally I hate the phrase “toxic masculinity.” It’s nonspecific, needlessly triggering and laden with so much baggage it repels nuance, shutting down conversations before they can even begin. But there is no better phrase for this behavior, in which a bullheaded sense of bravado becomes toxic in the dictionary sense, i.e. “capable of causing death or serious debilitation.”
Of this, Trump is merely a symptom of a larger disease.
Consider the tweets from Loeffler and Gaetz. Covid will have to recover from him! Covid stood no chance! Would these have been appropriate jokes to make in private or on a family text thread? Sure. There’s nothing wrong with bucking each other up with hopeful flattery in the face of a scary diagnosis. But Trump did not get to go home to the White House because he knows how to body-slam a submicroscopic infectious agent. (He’s still in the throes of an unpredictable illness; arguably he shouldn’t be going home at all.) If the president is leaving the hospital because he is strong, did more than 200,000 other Americans not get to go home because they were a bunch of weenies?
Where is the public service in that message?
“Nothing can stop him from working for the American people,” Ivanka Trump wrote, as she posted a photo of her father with a stack of papers in a what appeared to be a Walter Reed hospital conference room. “RELENTLESS!”
I can think of a few things that could have stopped him. A more severe case of COVID-19, for one (and again, we don’t yet know how severe the president’s illness is). Lack of access to medical care, for another; Remdesivir, even with insurance, costs between $2,000-$3,000 per treatment cycle. A less exalted position could have stopped him, as could a lower salary, a non-famous name, a different gender or skin color — any number of factors that impact the kind of care a sick person gets in America, none of which have to do with strength, grit or toughness.
Deeply entrenched privilege creates its own noxious delusion, namely the sincere belief that you have avoided life’s maladies because you deserve to. Because you are somehow immune to the capricious and callous confluences of circumstance that have caused all those horrible deaths in all those lonely hospital rooms. Because you are stronger, tougher or generally better.
What you usually are is just lucky.
Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post’s Style section and author of “American Fire.”