After months of downplaying a disease that has killed more than 200,000 people in the United States, Trump contracted Covid-19 and was airlifted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after exhibiting symptoms that were “very concerning.” On Sunday night, Trump left the hospital — briefly —to drive by supporters in the presidential motorcade. The joyride, which was decried by medical experts and even some Walter Reed doctors for potentially putting himself and his Secret Service detail at risk, is a particularly reckless example of the president attempting to downplay his illness.
But judging by the president’s family, the leader of the free world contracting a dangerous and potentially lethal virus is nothing to worry about. Shortly after Trump was admitted to the hospital, his son Donald Trump Jr. tweeted that “no one is tougher” than his dad, and Ivanka Trump called him a “warrior.” On a conference call with Trump loyalists Saturday, the president’s daughter in-law, Lara Trump, said he would “beat Covid to a pulp” so he could “come back and beat Joe Biden to a pulp.” In other words, even when he’s battling a disease that has infected and killed millions of people around the world — and which the president’s gender, weight and age put him at the high risk for — the Trumps want to reassure us of his alleged invincibility.
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The reason for this transparent bravado is obvious. The president’s needing urgent medical care because of a virus he spent the last eight months mocking or outright denying contradicts his brand of invulnerable masculinity. The problem, as this past week has shown quite dramatically, is that pretending you’re stronger than a deadly virus has consequences. When men (and women) pretend like they’re not sick and don’t take precautions, it’s not strong. It’s quite literally dangerous.
The problem, as last week has shown quite dramatically, is that pretending you’re stronger than a deadly virus has consequences.
It’s not like we weren’t warned. In 2016, Trump aggressively painted himself as a supreme alpha male bragging about the size of his buildings, his testosterone levels and even, regrettably, his anatomy. He built himself up by portraying others as weak, suggesting that Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas was “a pussy” and that Jeb Bush was low-energy.
And Trump’s treatment of women really showcases the toxic mix of ego and dishonest masculinity that has defined his adult life.
Just look at the way he’s treated women when they get sick. Hillary Clinton’s almost fainting during a visit to the 9/11 Memorial in 2016 became a massive campaign liability, because the president and his right-wing enablers made it one. Trump became, in fact, obsessed with Clinton’s fitness. He mocked her stumbling and her pneumonia diagnosis while promoting conspiracy theories about her mental health and claiming she lacked the “stamina” to lead the country. His campaign ran videos splicing together different shots in a misleading order while claiming that “Hillary Clinton doesn’t have the fortitude, strength or stamina to lead in our world.” The scrutiny over her health drew the ire of several female reporters, who pointed out the seeming sexism at the heart of the criticism. As Christiane Amanpour asked, “Can a woman get a sick day?”
The double standard doesn’t end there. As MSNBC host Chris Hayes pointed out, there was outrage when Clinton’s campaign didn’t immediately offer detailed medical information about her losing her balance. Meanwhile, the information we’ve been provided about the president’s condition has been sporadic or contradictory, to say the least. And yet, we are still supposed to believe the president is strong and infallible.
As I’ve written and reported on before, the president’s narrow definition of masculinity has lethal repercussions. Just a few days ago, the president mocked former Vice President Joe Biden for wearing masks too often. And now, even though the leader of the free world has been airlifted to a hospital and the list of infected GOP staffers and lawmakers rises every day, face coverings will still not be mandatory inside the White House, because the Trump administration believes masks are still a “personal choice.” Despite having been in contact with Hope Hicks, who tested positive, Jim Jordan refuses to quarantine, and Vice President Mike Pence refuses to, either. Both have tested negative so far, but as the wave of White House infections proves, testing is neither accurate enough nor quick enough to prevent the virus’s spread. So why wouldn’t these men just take the precautions their own experts recommend?
In fact, the president’s misunderstanding of masculinity seems to be almost as contagious as the virus he contracted. Sen. Roger Wicker of Alaska was photographed on a Delta flight with his mask pulled down to his chin for most of a trip. On Sunday, Trump campaign senior adviser Jason Miller said on ABC’s “The Week” that Biden’s mask was a mere “prop.”
Which all raises the question: Is there anything that will make irresponsible men take this virus seriously? We already know what happens when you don’t. If Trump’s own situation isn’t enough, look at the way the virus spread among attendees at the White House’s packed Rose Garden ceremony for Amy Coney Barrett, where Trump campaign officials were seen hugging and fist-bumping sans masks.
We need to question the ideals of manhood that pressure men to hide or deny their illnesses to save face.
And while Trump is the poster boy for this outdated view of masculinity, it’s not unique to him. It’s not even unique to America. The president follows in the footsteps of other chauvinistic male leaders who have misled their own people about the risks of the virus, only to end up contracting it, the latest being Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian authoritarian leader who got Covid-19 after claiming it “could be cured with saunas and vodka.” It’s worth noting that so many of the world’s most powerful Covid-19 deniers happen to be men.
The truth is that both men and women fall ill, and they both need time to recover. In addition to pushing back when women are stereotyped as weaker, we also need to question the ideals of manhood that pressure men to hide or deny their illnesses to save face. Men get sick, too, really sick. Let’s let them.
Because when they force themselves to obscure or fight through sickness, it doesn’t hurt just them. Covid-19 is making us question a lot, including the cultural and societal reasons men ignore their physical limitations. Downplaying the fact that you have the flu is inconsiderate in the workplace; downplaying the fact that you have the coronavirus is unconscionable for America’s leaders. Let’s get rid of the definition of masculinity that puts men at risk — and everyone else, too.