Why sick strongmen find refuge in a myth of invincibility

After contracting Covid-19, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Jair Bolsonaro revived the ideology of state immortality. 

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Following his potentially fatal brush with Covid-19 in October, Donald Trump said he was planning to rip off his shirt upon leaving Walter Reed hospital and reveal a Superman T-shirt underneath.

The meaning of the gesture would hardly have been lost on his fans. Trump revels in a thinly ironised “strongman” image. The internet is awash with memes depicting him as SupermanRocky or a submachine-gun wielding Rambo. Many of these images went viral after Trump shared them on Twitter. The president’s intention was to use his survival from coronavirus to burnish his myth of indestructibility.

[see also: The end of the abuser-in-chief]     

Traditionally, political leaders have maintained a strict omertà on the subject of personal illness. Indeed, public awareness of Trump’s illness damaged his reputation. Most Americans – including half of Republican voters – said it was his fault he had fallen sick. Before succumbing to Covid-19, Trump derided it as being “like a flu”, and dismissed the number of Covid deaths in the US by saying “it is what it is”. He staged numerous mass gatherings, which, according to a study by Stanford University, may have caused hundreds of deaths.

The Superman stunt was thwarted by wary advisers. But Trump’s intuition that he could leverage the illness to reinforce his myth of indestructibility was shared by kindred politicians. Shortly before falling ill with Covid-19 in July, Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro had insisted that Covid-19 was a “little flu”, that he “wouldn’t feel anything” if infected, and that self-isolation was “for the weak”. Flouting virus safety rules, he shook hands with members of the public at large rallies. Ever fond of posing with an assault rifle, and the subject of some of the same Superman memes as Trump, he quickly turned his illness into further proof of his defiant survivalism.

[see also: Brazil’s heart of darkness]

Boris Johnson was also struck down having boasted of shaking hands with Covid-19 patients, and led a complacent UK response to the pandemic. Johnson’s allies swiftly turned his illness into a moment for macho elegies: he was a “fighter”, a “really, really strong guy”, as though his chances of survival depended on personal mettle.

What is so culturally resonant about the image of indestructible supermen ruling over us?  Our ordinary way of coping with death is to deny it. During the mass slaughter of the First World War, Sigmund Freud wrote that “no one believes in his own death”. Unconsciously, we are convinced of our immortality. And when death is all around us, our psychic defences must be fortified.

Faced with the plague, there has been a profusion of right-wing explanations for suffering and evil: theodicies, in other words. Either the pandemic is a lie perpetrated by liberal elites, or it was deliberately created and spread by China, or it only kills the weak or sinful. The effect is to revive the ancient pagan and Christian belief that disaster is evidence of conspiracy, whether human or divine. As Tom Wright, the former bishop of Durham, puts it in God and the Pandemic (2020): “Something bad has happened? Must be because ‘someone’ has it in for you.”

These theodicies are reassuring. They spare us searching inquiry into the precarious situation of the human species, and the ecological dependencies which make it susceptible to pandemics. However, they do not give us a myth of immortality. That myth has always been consummated in the myth of the state. Our inherited theology of the political sovereign holds that it comprises two bodies. As the Elizabethan jurist Edmund Plowden put it in 1588, the king has “a Body natural, and a Body politic”. Ernst Kantorowicz’s famous study of medieval theologyThe King’s Two Bodies (1957), argues that this grafts a Christian view of Christ’s embodiment onto the myth of the state. Overcoming the necessary frailties of human bodies, evident when crusading kings such as Richard I or Philip II of France fell ill, and as royal households were touched by the Black Death, it made the state immortal.

This ideology of state immortality survived the downfall of medieval sovereignty, the scientific revolution of the 17th century and the overthrow of feudalism largely by implanting itself in biological nationalism and social Darwinism. Nineteenth-century nationalist thinkers promised eternal life through the nation, as in Johann Fichte’s “Addresses to the German Nation” (1808). In the 20th century, as the social psychologist Richard Koenigsberg wrote, fascism thrived on the idea that the nation-state would be an immortal organism were it not for some insidious force working to destroy it. Among the afterlives of fascism is the malingering idea that a strong leader is one who vigorously embodies the eternal life of the nation through an encounter with death. This is the myth to which Trump, Bolsonaro and, in lesser and more subtle ways, Johnson appeal with their plague peacocking.

The power of this myth can be seen in the data showing that Trump expanded on his 2016 vote in counties where the Covid-19 death toll was highest, such as in Jerauld County in South Dakota, where he improved on his 2016 vote tally by over 4 percentage points, and Hancock Country in Georgia, which Joe Biden won, but which swung by around 8 points towards Trump. This fact can be explained away by claiming that Trump voters were less likely to practise social distancing or wear masks – but that, surely, is the point. Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters were those who most wanted to believe in their invulnerability.

Yet the people cannot live by myth alone. It is not enough for the leader to be godlike; he must also love his subjects. They must believe they are uniquely loved, protected and exempt from the deadly cost of the virus. Trump’s election defeat was in large part because he couldn’t service this illusion.

Why? In the months after his illness, Bolsonaro was able to restore some of his damaged popularity, and even escaped blame for worsening Brazil’s plague. One reason for this is he took credit, misleadingly, for emergency pandemic payments that were distributed to poor families across Brazil. As one newly recruited voter put it, the policy showed that “he’s been working, thinking of the people”. By contrast, Trump couldn’t even get a stimulus package past Republican bosses. The president exposed his political mortality because he could not prove that he loved his followers as much he hated the Chinese. And yet Trumpism, the other contagion of which he was host, is not so easily destroyed. Like the virus, it lives on.

[see also: The Republicans are at a crossroads: do they distance themselves from Trump or embrace his appeal?]

Richard Seymour is a writer, broadcaster and activist. His latest book is The Twittering Machine (Indigo Press)

This article appears in the 20 November 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Vaccine nation

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