American society has long portrayed strength “as the opposite of disability and feminization,” Wool says. “Those go together, and are seen to be incapacitating. This is relevant in the case of Donald Trump.”
As a patient, Trump has physical traits that place him among the riskiest categories for dying from COVID-19. He is also emotionally brittle, requiring constant validation and reassurance. But as his niece Mary Trump recently wrote, among Trump’s family, “weakness was the greatest sin of all.” So, in lieu of actual strength, Trump excels at performing a specific masculinized version of it, in which aggression, volume, stubbornness, overconfidence, and mockery are stand-ins for might. This is a man who sees wounded veterans and casualties of war as “suckers” and “losers.” “He’s a caricature of masculinity,” says Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, an emerita disability scholar at Emory University.
But the leaky nature of metaphor allows displays of strength to be mistaken for its presence. “Strongman characterizations seem to revolve around the dispositional, temperamental features of a leader,” says Martha Lincoln, a medical anthropologist at San Francisco State University, “but I think there’s some magical thinking about the physical resilience of such a person too.” Even when Trump himself fell sick, he and his supporters couched his experience in the language of strength, victory, and courage. “Don’t let it dominate you,” he said in a video.
This strength-centered rhetoric is damaging for three reasons. First, it’s a terrible public-health message. It dissuades people from distancing themselves from others and wearing a mask, and equates those measures with weakness and cowardice. “The more you personify the virus, the more one version of heroism is to ignore it,” says Semino. “When people take that idea to extremes, they say, I’m strong. I’m not going to be cowed by this.”
Second, it ignores the more than 210,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19, and the uncounted thousands who have been disabled. Such dismissals are already common. In recent years, the ideologies of eugenics, where “if you’re sick, it’s your own fault and you don’t deserve support, [have] become more and more blatant,” says Pamela Block, an anthropologist at Western University. As the pandemic progressed, many saw the deaths of elderly people, or those with preexisting conditions, as acceptable and dismissible. And as COVID-19 disproportionately hit Black, Latino, Indigenous, and Pacific Islander communities, “people who believed in the idea of white supremacy felt like the virus was doing their work for them, and could promote the idea that they’re genetically stronger,” Block adds. One of Trump’s supporters recently predicted that the president would beat COVID-19 because of his “god-tier genetics”; Trump himself recently told a largely white audience that they have “good genes” before warning about incoming Somalian refugees.