In 1841 William Henry Harrison became the ninth president of the United States. He campaigned, despite his wealthy upbringing, as a man of the people, trashing his opponent, the incumbent Martin Van Buren, for his gilded White House decor. So, too, did Harrison bill himself as a war hero: a Harrison campaign song urged people to vote for “Tippecanoe and Tyler too”, Tippecanoe being a battle Harrison led against Native Americans in Indiana in 1811 (“Tyler” refers to Harrison’s running mate John Tyler). When Harrison won the presidency, he decided to spend inauguration day without an overcoat or a hat, despite the cold and bitter winds that March. He rode to the ceremony on Capitol Hill on horseback – the ultimate show of charismatic authority – rather than in a closed carriage, and, at 8,445 words, he delivered the longest inaugural address in US history. He was dead the next month. The official cause of death was pneumonia.
This is a story of hubris. It is the story of a man who ignored the facts in front of him. It is the story of someone who could not admit his human frailty and mortality, and who believed he could outrun reality. But reality always catches up.
I thought of William Henry Harrison recently, for the first time since high school. I thought of him first in comparison with Donald Trump, who was hospitalised on 2 October after testing positive for Covid-19. The White House reportedly tried to conceal the fact that Trump’s aide, Hope Hicks, had tested positive. But once news of her diagnosis broke, so too did the world learn that the president, along with several Senate Republicans and White House staffers, including the press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, had also been infected.
On 5 October, Trump left Walter Reed hospital saying he felt better, and urged Americans: “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.” Later that evening, he posed on the balcony of the White House, removing his mask with all the cavalier chutzpah of someone who has honed their style in TV entertainment.
Trump has more protection, security procedures and testing capacity at his disposal than any other American. That he became infected underscores the extent to which he has ignored, or simply refused to believe, the reality of the health crisis, even as the national death toll passes 200,000. We could psychoanalyse why a septuagenarian with a shady medical history would host mass campaign rallies and free-flowing cocktail parties during a pandemic. Trump’s niece, Mary Trump, said the president regards illness as “a display of unforgivable weakness”. “That’s why we’re in the horrible place we’re in,” she added, “because he cannot admit to the weakness of being ill.”
This might be a feature of his psychology – Trump has previously admitted to suffering from “germ phobia” – but his disdain for sickness, for perceived weakness, might reveal something of his politics, too. As the Yale philosopher Jason Stanley, author of How Fascism Works (2018), points out, the fascist leader is always strong and masculine, sacrificing his body for the nation; enemies, meanwhile, are diseased and frail.
The second time I thought of William Henry Harrison, it was not so much with regard to Trump the man as Trump and the syndrome of American hubris. The president is not the only one who has ignored the warning signs about Covid-19 and carried on as if everything is fine. Since the end of the Cold War, and possibly long before that, America’s imperious disregard for the world around it has defined the country, and is the source of what Edmund Burke in 1770 called our “present discontents”.
That the pandemic has been so devastating in the US – that all our money, materiel and scientific expertise could not save us – has revealed a truth until now unheeded: our republic is corroding. Trump’s election itself was a sign that the US had ignored the deeper symptoms of decay. The rank inequalities between the haves and have-nots that inspired white voters in 2016 to reject the regnant political classes; the systemic racism Trump has thrived on and provoked; the cantankerous and hyper-partisan media; voter suppression; the electoral college, designed by the Founding Fathers to override the will of the people – all were pre-Trump maladies affecting the state and society.
So, too, were the political trends and practices that have made this presidency so relentlessly bleak and divisive, and its response to the pandemic so inept: the expansion of executive power; the social distance between the ruling class and the governed; the militarisation of the police; the forever wars abroad; the belief that simply repeating the mantra “America is great” will make it so.
One line of thinking espoused in Washington these days is that Trump’s obsession with power, his refusal to face reality and the secrecy around his personal health are lineaments of foreign autocracy. The Russian president Vladimir Putin is a popular point of comparison.
But this misses something fundamental about US political life: Trump’s hubris is pure Americana. To pretend things are fine when they are not, to imagine the institutions of the state are sound and self-correcting, to look at the death, destruction, racism and harm committed at home and abroad, and continue to thump our chests and pledge allegiance to the flag – that is the American way. It was true when Harrison, fresh off a campaign promoting his gallantry against indigenous people, refused to wear a coat; and it was true when Trump, for so long, refused to wear a mask.
The US knows the world is cold and windy, and it rides out on horseback without an overcoat all the same, sure of its permanence and invincibility. We know what happens next.
This article appears in the 07 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Long Covid