The worst thing a man can appear to be, according to Donald Trump’s all-encompassing, extremely limited worldview, is weak, which explains why “weak” is his favorite descriptor for his opponents. Joe Biden is sleepy and weak. Democratic mayors and governors are weak for not cracking down on Black Lives Matter protesters. President Obama was weak, John McCain was weak. Steve Kerr? Weak. Colin Powell? Weak. Having a loser son? Weak! Not staring into a solar eclipse? Weak. Wearing a mask to protect yourself and others? Weak.
It’s the appearance of weakness that he’s so afraid of, which is why Trump is so preoccupied with projecting what he believes is strength. The defining trait throughout his adult life has been to paper over his insecurities with an extreme, and increasingly obsolete, display of masculinity. Consider Monday night’s photo op after he left Walter Reed—appearing on the White House balcony, he ripped off his mask, all while visibly struggling to breathe. The reality of what we saw with our own eyes was elided out of a video he subsequently shared of him striding out of a helicopter and back to the White House, set to stirring music. To Trump, the image, the aesthetic, is all that matters.
It’s a fascist shtick and performance that most Americans, it seems, are no longer buying. Still, we’re treated to the spectacle of Trump’s most ardent fans reconfiguring his completely preventable illness into a display of heroic masculine vigor, with covid reimagined into a physical threat that Trump can overcome with the sheer force of his manly propensity for violence. The pandemic is a war, one that Trump is now heroically waging in the battlefield of his body. “COVID stood NO chance against” Trump, Senator Kelly Loeffler wrote in a tweet that repurposed a video of Trump’s strange appearance at Wrestlemania in 2007, when he bodyslammed WWE’s Vince McMahon. “He is going to beat covid to a pulp,” promised his daughter-in-law Lara Trump. “President Trump won’t have to recover from COVID. COVID will have to recover from President Trump,” wrote Matt Gaetz.
Much has been written about how Trump has politicized our response to the covid-19 pandemic, but if he has politicized it, it’s been to paint efforts to avoid getting oneself and others sick as feminine and thus to be avoided. Wearing a mask has been, tellingly, recast as “submission,” and concern for the health and safety of others and for one’s own health is now, as the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald wrote after Trump’s disastrous and widely criticized car ride-cum-photo op, a sign of our “feminized ethos.” (Trump, according to Mac Donald, is “masculine leadership at its best: upbeat, rational, and unbowed.”) “Might as well carry a purse with that mask, Joe,” sneered the rightwing provocateur Tomi Lahren after Biden shared a video of him putting on a mask while Trump took his off.
But that image of strength is just that, an image and a mirage. Strip it away, and he’s just a man with a long history of failing businesses, a man who has been brought low by a virus that he has publicly minimized the dangers of from the very start, and now a candidate who is poised to lose, and lose badly, in November. He’s nothing, at heart, if not the world’s biggest loser.