The White House — and the country along with it — is now reeling in chaos from President Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis and treatment. And that’s saying something, given the high level of chaos we were experiencing going into last week. There are many causes that have led us to this moment, but one of the most overlooked is the idea that getting sick is a sign of weakness and that powering through is a sign of strength.
This is a teachable moment, one that goes beyond the first very important Coronavirus 101 lesson, which is that the president likely could have avoided getting sick by wearing a mask and socially distancing. But beyond that first lesson, the teachable point is that we need a political culture which acknowledges that political leaders are human. It’s not weak to get sick. And the science is clear about what happens to our health — and judgment — when we don’t acknowledge our need to heal and recharge. Starting with that foundation, we should also demand transparency both about the true health of our leaders, and about how they take care of their health and well-being.
In Trump, we have a president for whom these costly, misguided and posturing beliefs about what it means to be strong run especially deep. Mary Trump, the president’s niece and author of Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, told NPR that for her family, especially for her uncle and his father, Fred Trump, Sr., illness was “a display of unforgivable weakness.” And that, she says, is “why we’re in the horrible place we’re in.”
Back in 2016, there was the absurd letter about Trump’s health released by his doctor, who later admitted Trump had dictated it to him. “His physical strength and stamina are extraordinary,” the letter read. “If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”
The belief that it’s weak to get sick tends to go hand-in-hand with the belief that it’s weak to even take steps to prevent yourself from getting sick. As we all know, Trump has been ridiculing mask-wearing ever since the pandemic began. “Every time you see him, he’s got a mask,” Trump said of Biden at last week’s debate. “He could be speaking 200 feet away from me, and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.” In The New York Times, Annie Karni and Maggie Haberman reported that he wasn’t shy with the same opinion for those around him: “President Trump at times told staff wearing masks in meetings to ‘get that thing off,’ an administration official said. Everyone knew that Mr. Trump viewed masks as a sign of weakness, officials said.”
We can see the posturing in his stunt on Sunday, driving around in an S.U.V. and endangering others so that he could signal, one can only conclude, that he’s “strong.” As Dr. James P. Phillips, Chief of Disaster Medicine at George Washington University, tweeted, “The irresponsibility is astounding. My thoughts are with the Secret Service forced to play.”
And since we’ve seen this misconception around health and sickness at every stage of how he’s handled the pandemic, it’s no surprise we see it on display in how he’s handling his own case of COVID-19. Instead of acknowledging that the best way to heal and recover from illness is to rest, Trump released photos — which appear to have been staged — of him working while in the hospital, sending a terrible message to employers and others about how to treat people on their teams who are sick.
In his highly choreographed discharge from Walter Reed, he ascended the steps on the South Portico of the White House to the Blue Room balcony, promptly removed his mask, then appeared to be gasping for air and gave a double thumbs-up. In a video released after his return, he continued his posturing: “We’re going back to work. We’re going to be out front. As your leader, I had to do that. I knew there’s danger to it, but I had to do it. I stood out front. I led. Nobody that’s a leader would not do what I did. And I know there’s a risk, there’s a danger, but that’s OK. And now I’m better and maybe I’m immune, I don’t know. But don’t let it dominate your lives.” The response from families of victims of COVID-19 was heartbreaking. As Amanda Kloots, widow of Broadway star Nick Cordero, put it: “It’s beyond hurtful. Why are you bragging? To act like this disease is nothing and you got right over it, I’m so happy that you did. You know, thank God you did. But guess what? There are a lot of people that didn’t.”
What the president was projecting wasn’t strength, but disregard for science, sane medical advice and caring for those around him. And above all, he’s projecting the same lack of leadership that has allowed the virus to take the lives of over 200,000 people in our country. As historian Michael Beschloss tweeted, “In America, our Presidents have generally avoided strongman balcony scenes — that’s for other countries with authoritarian systems.”
Medical professionals were similarly unswayed. “I think this is his decision,” Dr. Sanjay Gupta said on CNN, referring to the president’s leaving Walter Reed. “I don’t think this is a good medical decision.” And the posturing can also be seen in the White House’s continued reluctance to be transparent about what, exactly, is going on with the president’s health. At a press conference on Monday, Trump’s physician, Dr. Sean Conley, refused to answer questions about the date of President Trump’s last negative test, and about whether the president had sustained lung damage, citing HIPAA concerns. But it’s much more likely that it’s not privacy concerns but electoral concerns that are guiding these decisions. And the health of the president 28 days away from Election Day is a public matter, not a private one.
Also alarmed are those closest to him, who are now in danger because of the president’s desperation to signal strength. As a White House source told Axios: “It’s insane that he would return to the White House and jeopardize his staff’s health when we are still learning of new cases among senior staff. . .He was so concerned with preventing embarrassing stories that he exposed thousands of his own staff and supporters to a deadly virus. He has kept us in the dark, and now our spouses and kids have to pay the price.”
Trump might be the worst and most costly example of these misguided ideas that being strong means powering through, or being “RELENTLESS” (as Ivanka Trump tweeted), but it didn’t start with him. Political leaders have a long history of hiding illness, or trying to power through so we don’t think they’re weak. Though 2016 seems like a thousand years ago, Hillary Clinton made her “deplorables” comment after having been diagnosed earlier in the day with walking pneumonia, yet going to the evening fundraiser on her schedule instead of taking time to rest and heal. It was a gaffe she would later call a “political gift” to Trump.
Trump, of course, is in a class by himself when it comes to denying reality — including illness. But it’s time to get rid of the idea that taking care of ourselves or acknowledging the need to recharge means that we’re weak.
The science is clear. Whether we’re leaders of the country, leaders of companies or just citizens, our health depends on strengthening our immune system by taking care of ourselves. And that truth is only more urgent now. As The Washington Post put it, “the severity of the symptoms depends highly on the patient’s age and immune system.” There is nothing we can do about our age. But there’s a lot we can do to boost our immune system. That means getting enough sleep, eating right, making movement a part of our day and not burning ourselves out. And our leaders should be modeling these behaviors, not mocking them. Trump has been abysmal on all of them, proudly celebrating a lifestyle that, in addition to not wearing a mask, made him more vulnerable.
Back in 2015, he bragged about how little sleep he gets. “I have a great temperament for success,” he said. “You know, I’m not a big sleeper. I like three hours, four hours. I toss, I turn, I beep-de-beep, I want to find out what’s going on.”
On the diet front, Trump’s love of junk food has been well-documented. According to the book Let Trump Be Trump by former campaign aides Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie, “On Trump Force One there were four major food groups: McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, pizza and Diet Coke.”
On the exercise front, in their book Trump Revealed, The Washington Post reporters Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher gave this description of the president’s strange theory: “Trump believed the human body was like a battery, with a finite amount of energy, which exercise only depleted. So he didn’t work out. When he learned that John O’Donnell, one of his top casino executives, was training for an Ironman triathlon, he admonished him, ‘You are going to die young because of this.'”
The president’s release from Walter Reed was greeted by Republican politicians as the ultimate proof of his toughness, with Senator Kelly Loeffler going as far as to tweet out a professional wrestling meme of the president defeating coronavirus, and Congressman Matt Gaetz tweeting that “President Trump won’t have to recover from COVID. COVID will have to recover from President Trump.”
None of this signals strength. It signals a huge misconception about how we can build our health and rebuild it when we get sick. It’s the sort of thinking that has led to a lot of terrible — and terribly costly — decisions. This was true before COVID-19, and it’s only more tragically obvious now. “The bottom line is that when our leaders undermine public health messaging by not doing it themselves, they send a very clear signal to the American people that this stuff is actually not that important,” Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, told STAT. “I think that’s the single biggest reason we are at 7.5 million Americans infected and 210,000 deaths.”
The president’s handling of his own diagnosis — and the infection of many others in his orbit — has been a microcosm for how he’s handled the entire pandemic. When we finally leave the pandemic behind, we need to also leave behind outdated and dangerous ideas about what constitutes strength, discipline and toughness — because we’ve seen how these ideas make us in fact weaker.
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