The illness he is

Death and taxes, sickness and health, strength and weakness, freedom and tyranny

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He is a weak man who has always longed to be a strong man, and he is a weak man’s idea of a strong man, and right before he got sick he made it clearer than ever that he intends to be a strongman. Some, knowing their history and knowing the pretensions of weak men and strongmen and weak men who become strongmen, have warned us about this potential from the beginning. But others, more cautious, more trusting in the power of institutions to save us, waited until recently to begin sounding the alarm. This is how democracy ends, they began to whisper. This is how it happens. He is attempting to do this right before our eyes. 

Into the whispers landed a staggering story about his taxes. Here, again, the dyad of strength and weakness that defines Trump’s mind was at play. It seemed at first like a classic tale of plutocratic rigging. That’s how I read it and others read it, and there was much reason to read it that way. A man who manages to pay $750 in federal income taxes in a calendar year while, at that very hour, running for president on the basis of his special powers as a billionaire is the picture of a system that is conned, gamed, manipulated, overpowered. But a couple days after The New York Times story broke, two of its authors, Susanne Craig and Russ Buettner, went on the podcast The Daily and reframed their own story. This wasn’t a story about Trump’s cunning but about his brokeness, as Craig explained:

You know, rich people have great accountants. And they’re able to do all this wizardry to get a tax bill down. And we do see evidence that he’s employed accounting maneuvers that have helped him do that. But this is not a case of a rich guy hiding profits. This is a case of a man who runs businesses that year after year lose tens of millions of dollars.

There is, in other words, a kind of tax avoidance that represents strength at rigging things. But this was not that. This was a tax avoidance of weakness — a man just not that good at business. “There’s just basically nothing left to tax at the end of a year,” as Michael Barbaro, the host, summed it up.

Then, two days after the taxes story broke, in the longest week anyone can remember, came what swiftly became known as the Worst Debate Ever. At first, watching with my little boy, I was terrified. Trump’s performance of faux-strength was vulgar and crude, reckless and unpresidential, if that word still means anything. But it seemed to me it might work. Biden looked good and kind, but maybe he did look weak by the standards of the form of battle Trump had shown up to fight. And the moment I began to calm down was the moment when I realized how vast is the coalition of people who have been on the wrong end of that kind of fraudulent, hollow flexing of power. The women talked over in meetings, the men who as boys were thrown into lockers, the workers whose intelligence is overlooked, the people roughed up or worse by the cops just for being Black. I began to wonder if, by inflaming those memories and those sentiments, Trump doomed himself.

A few days after the debate, new polling came in. In the aftermath of the debate, Biden opened his largest lead yet — 14 percent. Maybe people don’t like the kind of boorish fake strength that scantily conceals weakness. And this number in particular leapt out at me: “Men 50 years and older moved to a 1-point advantage for Biden in the latest poll, compared to a 13-point advantage for Trump in the pre-debate NBC News/WSJ poll.” The Trump era is possible only because so many people have been so fooled by fake strength. But now here was a sign of some seeing the light.

And then a president who is a germaphobe, who has doubted the coronavirus from the start, who has galvanized much of the country to avoid the common-sense protections of masks and social distancing — then what he had enabled to go around all these months at last came around to him. His has been a policy of manslaughter at scale. Now it risked becoming a policy of suicide as well.

Whatever ended up happening to his body, it seemed clear that his illness represented the death of a certain widespread and catastrophic kind of masculinity. “We are the party of the emancipation proclamation, not the emasculation proclamation,” Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, said. His words summed up half a year’s worth of male insecurity on the political right that conflated prudence with weakness. Wearing masks was girly. Getting tested was girly. Social distancing was girly. Listening to scientists was girly. An iconic moment for this particular male terror of weakness came when Robert O’Neill, the former Navy Seal who claims to have been the one to kill Osama bin Laden in 2011, tweeted a maskless photo of himself on a Delta flight, captioned “I’m not a pussy.” In the background of the photo was another, older man, wearing a fatigues-green United States Marine Corps hat — and a mask. When I saw his tweet I almost felt for him. What is it in our culture that has filled so many men with such an anxiety of impotence that even firing a bullet into the face of the most wanted terrorist alive and gaining the glory isn’t enough to reassure you that, yes, you are a man?

The president, of course, has what O’Neill has — the same withering doubt about being a man. (Has any other doubt wrought more destruction?) Which is why, without compunction, he hosted a potentially lethal event to honor his Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett. Chosen to replace an actual feminist trailblazer and icon, the just-departed Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Barrett is the perfect Trumpian foil. She is a woman, so on the surface of things, where Trump dwells, there is that. But she would usher in a world in which women were weaker than they are now, unable to captain the fate of their own bodies, decisions over which majority-male legislatures would make. And a world defined by the every-man-for-himself economic fantasy that has animated the right during its last four decades of American hegemony — starting by, in all likelihood, providing the pivotal vote to strike down the Affordable Care Act. Here, once more, is a vision of strength that, in reality, fosters weakness wherever it spreads. It has broken the backs of workers, made it ever harder to rise above one’s station however hard one tries, and turned tens of millions of people’s daily survival into a source of unending concern. In the name of cultivating a nation of strength and vigor, America has been made tired and weak.

Over the weekend, I tried to tie the threads together: “He hosted a super-spreader event to honor a justice who would have the government control your body but refuse the duty to care for it, and when the virus he helped go around came around, he availed of the healthcare he would deny others, financed by the taxes he refuses to pay.”

What is dying now is so much bigger than him. It is this fantasy, this masquerade, of strength. This old, empty, puffed-up way of being a man. This economic philosophy that murders human potential in the name of birthing it. This insistence on doing one’s thing, listening to no authority ordering you to cover your orifices, and preferring death on a genocidal scale to your own yielding. This clinging to the kind of freedom that kills you. 

Who knows in what state he will leave the hospital? What matters more is that everything he represents is dying. This toxic pursuit of strength that has brought America damn near down on its knees.

And what can be spied on the horizon, if you squint, is the prospect of other ways of being. They seem distant now, but they are rushing toward you. A whole kind of time feels like it’s ending. The real struggle now is to define what will replace it.

This week, because of the news, The Ink came a day earlier. See you back again soon!

Photo: Alex Edelman/Getty