Face to face with his own mortality, Trump rejects the whole notion, and many of his allies have followed his lead. Jason Miller, a senior campaign adviser, told reporters that “we’re not going to hide in fear” and will continue to hold rallies after Trump’s diagnosis. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), one of the president’s biggest fanboys, tweeted in a tone that was surely meant to signal strength rather than desperation: “President Trump won’t have to recover from COVID. COVID will have to recover from President Trump. #MAGA.” In a similar vein, Fox Nation host Tomi Lahren ridiculed Joe Biden for advocating for coronavirus precautions: “Might as well carry a purse with that mask, Joe.”
But what’s so bad about fear? Fear is a rational, necessary response to a disease that has already killed more than 212,000 Americans and forced cities to use refrigerated trucks as makeshift morgues. Fear is what drives us to wear masks and get tested. Fear for the well-being of others — something one might call care — is what keeps us away from our loved ones for their own safety, even as the world crumbles around us. Of course we should be afraid of the coronavirus. Fear keeps us alive.
Being afraid is an adaptive feeling meant to protect us both physically and psychologically, allowing us to identify and avoid danger. Suppressing a response that evolved to safeguard us is foolish on its face. But fear itself is neither good nor bad; it can lead to selfish survivalism or a sense of collective responsibility. During the pandemic, we’ve seen some people hoard toilet paper, while others have formed mutual aid networks. We’ve seen bosses cut employees without offering any severance, while those same workers organize to help one another navigate the unemployment system. As a leader, Trump stokes the former impulse, even though combating a pandemic calls for the latter.
The president’s tactic of treating the pandemic as a test of personal strength rather than a policy issue isn’t anything new. Politicians tend to lean on stirring emotional rhetoric when sidestepping their responsibility as policymakers. The effect is individualizing: People are made out to be either courageous or scared; strong or weak; masculine or not. The implication is that if we all, on our own, choose to be brave, then we can overcome the coronavirus.
This type of framing isn’t unique to Republicans; it’s nearly impossible to walk around New York right now without seeing signs blaring “NY TOUGH.” The slogan is the center of a coronavirus propaganda campaign by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), in which the governor also unveiled a foam coronavirus mountain at a news briefing and a “New York Tough” poster with images of things New Yorkers have supposedly overcome, like the “Boyfriend Cliff” and the “Winds of Fear.” As Cuomo put it at the time, “I love poster art.”
This kind of rhetoric serves to shift blame for the pandemic’s fallout toward individual citizens and away from any sense of collective responsibility led by policy. What we needed this year was for our leaders to implement planned lockdowns, pass relief packages, and fund widespread testing and tracing so that no one had to be tough or strong to survive the pandemic. What we got, instead, was a city overwhelmed by the coronavirus, soon followed by a country that experienced the same. If politicians had embraced fear of covid-19 in a constructive way from the beginning, they may have responded more appropriately to the threat.
It’s clear that Trump is frantic to not appear weak. (That’s a lifelong fixation for a man whoapparently called dead soldiers “losers” and “suckers” but never experienced anything like war, which might have taught him that soldiers know that fear is nothing to be ashamed of.) While infectious and in treatment for covid-19, Trump rode around in a hermetically sealed car, waving to his fans, and staged a photo op from the hospital where he signed blank pieces of paper with a marker. Within days of returning to the White House, he was back in the Oval Office, reportedly despite pleas from his staff to stay in isolation in the residence — still endangering the people around him, from his security detail to the White House’s career employees.
Contrast that with how another country handled the idea that masks were unmanly. In Taiwan, some young boys initially refused to wear masks distributed by the government because some of them were pink. In response, during a news conference, all the male officials from Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Centerwore pink masks, emphasizing the message that “It’s fine for a man to wear pink!” and that “Pink is for everyone.” Meanwhile, in the past few days, more people in Trump’s orbit have tested positive for the coronavirus than in the entirety of Taiwan.
There is nothing wrong with being afraid in a country where people are facing enormous bills for covid-19 treatment because they lack health insurance, or where they are being evicted from their homes during a pandemic because they can’t afford rent. It’s natural to be afraid when your elected representatives have allowed hundreds of thousands of people to die and still have no plan for preventing the deaths of thousands and thousands more. If the coronavirus dominates our lives, it’s not because we’ve been too afraid of it. It’s because our politicians made it so.