“Don’t be afraid of Covid,” President Donald Trump tweeted. “Don’t let it dominate your life.” Backed by his authority as a Covid-19 survivor, he wrote these words shortly before leaving hospital. Who was he talking to? To the thousands of Latinos and Blacks, of immigrants and the poor, who have died? No, these people don’t seem to matter much – they’re disposable; no need to mourn them, no need for funerals or obituaries in their case. Trump was talking to himself and to enthusiastic supporters of his omnipotent masculinity. He, the almighty, who denies science and truth.
President Jair Bolsonaro, in Brazil, is a big fan of Trumpian masculinity. He studies the man’s loutish antics and lie-telling tactics. He even copies his linguistic frenzy on Twitter. Bolsonaro must be orgasmic, because the handbook on how to be a card-carrying populist macho man has, for the first time ever, been passed from the South to the North. Bolsonaro contracted Covid-19 first, after describing the disease as a “little flu” and suggesting his “history as an athlete” would protect him. Trump had to settle for his doctors’ description of him as an elderly 74-year-old whose age and weight were risk factors. In the battle to see who the leading tough guy was, Bolsonaro apparently carried the bigger stick.
While these two presidents exhale fumes of toxic masculinity as a form of political showmanship, their two countries vie for first place in the pandemic’s tragic numbers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, by October 5 the United States had recorded more than seven million cases of COVID-19 and 209,000 deaths, making it the world leader in the absolute number of deaths. Brazil can’t even manage to count its deaths and sick properly – with the Health Ministry failing to issue any reliable data, a consortium of news organizations has been tracking the pandemic’s impact across the country. Worldwide, Brazil ranks second in deaths, with 146,000 reported by October 5.
Both presidents use the mask as an icon of masculinity, each in his own way. Borrowing from the liberal lexicon, President Trump claims “freedom of choice” as the justification for his actions: “You can do it. You don’t have to do it. I’m choosing not to do it,” and: “Somehow, I don’t see myself doing it.” Nothing more slippery as a public health message, yet quite effective for those who feel freedom of choice should be a value, even when global health is at stake. Adopting a somewhat cruder approach, one that scorns science without mincing words, President Bolsonaro says “masks have nearly no efficacy.” If Trump appeals to individual-choice liberalism, Bolsonaro falls back on the commonsense notion that “we’re all going to die someday.” Bolder than Trump, he finishes it off with a “So what?” aimed at those who dwell incessantly on suffering, illness, and death.
Both presidents have gone out and about, held rallies, and infected dozens of people. They have been poster boys for hydroxychloroquine, an unproven treatment for Covid-19. In June, Trump’s country donated two million doses of the drug to Brazil; days later, the United States revoked its emergency authorization to use the medication inside its own borders. Supplies of the drug were described as “toxic waste” by Deisy Ventura, a professor at the University of São Paulo. More recently, Trump has touted the experimental treatment that supposedly saved him from COVID-19, while the public has been left with doubts about what medical protocols were actually followed in his case.
A maskless buffoon
Their buffoonery would merely be ridiculous were it not for how tragically their conduct effects the most vulnerable and how it infects other macho men in power, for whom public health preventive measures are signs of weakness anathema to strongman politics. Britain’s Boris Johnson and Russia’s Vladimir Putin are two others afflicted with the mask malady. They are all heroes in a private war to prove that tough guys don’t die of the virus, the disease is not that deadly, and what matters most to humankind is the health of the economy.
Trump is on the campaign trail, and it is impossible to say how his portrayal of himself as a heroic virus survivor may influence the outcome of the US elections. If Bolsonaro shares another lesson from the populist playbook with Trump, the virus might ultimately serve the same role as the knife attack that transformed Brazil’s president into a macho martyr on the eve of elections there. Yet there is no telling how this theater of masculinity will go over at a moment when humankind is suffering. The populist playbook may not make its way from South to North this time and the hero might turn out to be nothing more than a maskless buffoon, gasping as he struggles for his own survival.