Trump’s Contempt for the Sick and Disabled Is Written All Over His Covid-19 Response
The president’s disgust for anyone he deems weak is key to understanding his handling of the pandemic
Donald Trump loves parades. In 2018, for no particular reason other than to gratify himself, he organized a military parade in his honor. But as plans for the parade developed, Trump insisted on excluding wounded veterans because “nobody wants to see” amputees, according to an explosive new piece in The Atlantic. In general, Jeffrey Goldberg writes, “Several observers told me that Trump is deeply anxious about dying or being disfigured, and this worry manifests itself as disgust for those who have suffered.”
Although Trump’s willingness to denigrate wounded and fallen soldiers flies in the face of American norms, he’s done it before. In 2015, he called Sen. John McCain a “loser” for getting captured during the Vietnam War, and one year later, he mocked Ghazala Khan, the mother of a fallen U.S. soldier. What’s different about the latest reporting on Trump’s comments is that it comes as we’re mired in a terrible medical crisis, when his terror of sickness is shaping his bungled response and endangering all of us.
I think we’ve generally underestimated the policy implications of Trump’s disgust toward sickness, though the evidence of his sentiments has been present from the start of his political career. He infamously mimed fake spasmodic gestures to mock New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski just months into his campaign in 2015. (Less infamous was right-wing pundits’ defense of Trump then: Ann Coulter said Trump was just “doing a standard retard, waving his arms and sounding stupid,” as if somehow that made it better.) He described the Paralympics as “tough to watch.” He constantly mocked Hillary Clinton for alleged signs of age and illness in 2016, pretending to wobble and faint at one campaign event, questioning her “stamina,” and promoting conspiracy theories that Clinton has conditions including strokes, Parkinson’s disease, and epilepsy; now he and his campaign are doing the same to Joe Biden. Perhaps most ominously, he has repeatedly endorsed policies that would cut health care for disabled Americans.
He’s also a self-described germophobe. As far back as a 1993 interview with Howard Stern, he talked about his relentless desire to wash his hands in an attempt to avoid germs. This is different from his mockery and expressions of disgust, but it comes from the same terror of illness, disability, and death. For Trump, getting sick is a sign of weakness to be avoided at all costs.
This attitude emerges as well in his routine invocations of eugenic principles when he talks about his own genetics. He’s often credited his successes on his “good German genes.” He made a similar comment about Henry Ford, a famous anti-Semite, when he mused that Ford had “good bloodlines, good bloodlines — if you believe in that stuff, you got good blood.” We learned in 2018 that he personally dictated a previous statement (signed by his doctor) that he’d be the “the healthiest president ever.” We don’t know why he was rushed to Walter Reed Hospital a year ago, but it was definitely strange, and his ferocious denial about having had mini-strokes speaks to his inability to acknowledge the depredations that time works on all of our bodies and minds as we age.
As the country remains stuck in the throes of an uncontrolled pandemic, Trump’s attitudes toward illness come into focus as particularly dangerous. There are many reasons and many culprits for the country’s Covid-19 failures, but Trump’s terror and disgust when it comes to disease has led him not toward prevention but blame.
Proponents of eugenics believe that disability and illness are largely the fault of the disabled and the sick and that society is made better by weeding out weakness. Trump, repelled by the thought of illness, seems unable to respond empathetically to the sick and dying as the coronavirus spreads. Public health policy, in the face of a disease like this, requires not only compassion but also an understanding that disease doesn’t just affect the weak or the already disabled. Yet, again and again, Trump and his administration have promoted the idea that Covid-19 is only dangerous for those who are already vulnerable. Just this week, Trump shared the false claim that only 6% of all deaths from Covid-19 were of “healthy” people, whereas the others could be blamed on comorbidities. One of his medical advisers, Scott Atlas, promotes “herd immunity” as a strategy, which, even based on his calculations, would require millions of additional infections and deaths to even begin to take effect (and epidemiologists say “herd immunity” doesn’t exist except in the context of vaccine use).
The political ramifications from The Atlantic’s reporting have come swiftly and steadily. Retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton released a statement saying Trump was “no patriot.” U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, herself a disabled veteran, said she would “take my wheelchair and my titanium legs over his bone spurs any day.”
It’s of course nice to see a swift rebuke to Trump’s bigoted comments, but we shouldn’t be shocked by them: One look at the president’s handling of the pandemic should tell us he doesn’t care about those people he deems unhealthy. The problem with Trump’s personal failings is that he institutionalizes them into his policies. As Covid-19 continues to spread, his fears and disgust leave us all more vulnerable.