Blog post

Strongman vs. Miss Rona

In the age of pandemics, when the health of all is at risk, what do the new strongman leaders tell us about the nature of contemporary politics?

Eleanor Penny 2 November 2020

Strongman vs. Miss Rona

“I want a dyke for president. I want a person with aids for president and I want a fag for vice president and I want someone with no health insurance and I want someone who grew up in a place where the earth is so saturated with toxic waste that they didn’t have a choice about getting leukemia.”  Zoe Leonard

When the plague came for him too, Donald Trump was briefly struck down by the humiliations of a delicate animal body sensitive as all are to the effects of small, opportunist organisms cheered on by age and cold. Here, the superhuman sheen of the Strongman briefly faded. We have all heard what coronavirus can do to a person; a total-body sickness, it can affect the lungs, the heart, the brain, the nervous system, the liver, you name it. It can be extremely painful. An ordinary, solitary, unwarlike pain, not designed to test a hero or glorify a soldier. It just hurts, and then if you’re lucky it leaves. If you are unlucky, your lungs can slowly fill with fluid, as multiple organ systems falter.

It is hard to resist the basically pitiable humanity of someone facing so nasty a death. But for 45, public pity is a tricky business. It can look a little too much like weakness. The pro-Trump press packs had a fine line to tread. Demanding enough empathy to shame and alienate anyone tempted to crow at the hubris of a tyrant brought low by a pandemic he first denied and then let rage through his people, whilst not underlining too much what might be mistaken, by those with a treacherous bent, for frailty. Not to paint him too vividly as another old man laid out by a common disease, gasping on a sick bed, comforted only by the memory of the bravura of old cruelties. It’s unclear whether we were supposed to have owed him compassion as a man, or fealty as de facto global subjects. A useful confusion. They opted to present the virus as yet another test of will and dominance which Trump, always triumphant, would breeze through. By that point, COVID-19 had already claimed two hundred thousand lives on American soil.

In just a few short days he was hurried out of hospital and paraded in front of adoring crowds. Is this what a sick man looks like? The challenge seemed more rhetorical than medical. Some footage shows him swaying, seeming visibly disorientated. But the Strongman must not be really ill, because the Strongman cannot be really ill. Recounting his stint with coronavirus, Trump admitted: “I didn't feel like the President of the US should feel.”

Since he became Republican nominee more than four years ago, many of the thin-lipped bureaucrats of the morbid centre have shared with Trump’s loyalist acolytes a fascination with his body. A cottage industry sprung up to theorise on his various suspected psychoses: his adult diapers, his neural degeneration, his clogged arteries or his tottering walk. An effort to finally clinch the question of his unfitness for office. Perhaps some of this fascination is warranted. Authoritarians have a way of elevating private twinges and migraines into constitutional crises, turning stomach parasites and sudden heart attacks behind the bathroom door into years-long power skirmishes. Still,  here is a murderous oligarch of the highest order, the lumbering tantrum child king of racial capitalism who coasted to victory on a storm of far right revenge fantasism, heeded and helped by his allies who just want someone to do the race-baiting and population-controlling for them while they kept their heads down and their eyes on the NASDAQ. To say he is unfit for power because he might have the beginnings of dementia is to rather spectacularly miss the point. Efforts to mine Trump’s life for signs of ill health smack of the anxious intimacies of courtiers and kingmakers raking through the monarch’s chamber pots and examining their pustules, hoping to prove some kind of divine displeasure with the ruler. Hoping to usher in some more robust occupant of the throne, and leave it at that. But they, perhaps accidentally, have landed on some iron law of authoritarianism – that a strongman must be just that.

The sunlit dreamlands of strongman authoritarianism are peopled by strong, perfect bodies never succumbing to the many frailties of the lesser people.  Putin poses for the camera topless on horseback; the post-Francoist Spanish Legion parades through the streets with their shirts unbuttoned just so to suggest rippling muscles underneath. Algerian army men are loaded onto the back of trucks for choreographed push-up performances. Vigilantes in the American heartlands flex into the mirror or the camera lens, posing with their father’s guns. Bolsonaro pours steaming vats of scorn onto ‘weak’ men – a catch all for queer men, and any who still dabble in the fainting indulgences of democracy. The theatrics of Strongmanism staged again and again, part as self-serving wish fulfilment, part warning. The nazi regime’s root fixation with forging the perfect race morphed into an uncanny aesthetics of physical strength, beauty and fertility actively championed by the state machinery. Today’s volunteer cadres of the chosen race gather in far-right forums to swap workout tips and theories of male physical perfection amongst their frothing fantasies about the imminent collapse of a white planet. Filing off their soft edges to ready themselves for the only political life fascism deems desirable or necessary: making babies, and making war. The history of modern authoritarianism – and of fascism in particular – is a history of obsession with strength, virility, dominance finding its rightful home and holy expression in the male body.

Where unreconstructed violent machismo dominates, femininity is suspect and deviance intolerable. While some extremely specific kinds of womanhood might suffer an uneven, poisoned form of protection – all kinds must be controlled. Queer people find themselves often at the rough end of a police cosh or a militiaman’s boot. Meanwhile, scientific racism has long carved humanity up into quack taxonomies where deviance from the ideal-type of whiteness is understood as biological weakness; as propensity to disease or a literal kind of sickness. An old whetstone for the blades of modern racial supremacy. And perhaps one of the greatest enemies of the archetypical fascist body is the sick body, or the body with disabilities; some of the first victims of the Nazi’s murderous quest for a perfect race were children with disabilities or long-term illnesses. A mandate for state violence was anchored in the pursuit of a fetishised horror show of health, strength, perfection. That history never left us.

Where strongman-style vitality is massaged into a marker of state-mandated moral purity, political action can collapse into a brute calculation of might. No more the complex and delicate palisades of state bureaucracy, that so long has harboured in its shadowy corridors elite misdeeds. Where the life of the mind can be fickle and crooked, the wellspring of all kinds of slippery questioning disloyalties, the life of the body is the seat of good, pure action. Where the state needs to prove itself worthy, it need only prove how well it underwrites the fetishised strength of (white) men, how it allows them to act out their natural birthright of domination. Where the state needs foot soldiers, it has ready cadres leaping to prove themselves.

The body of the leader becomes totem and icon for this kind of power at its purest. The vicious cosmologies of a far-right universe are kept in motion by the body of the leader – the ruler who incarnates the pulsing, muscular renewal of the state, hauled out of the decadent swamps of liberal decay by the scruff of its neck. He stages fight-scenes with lithe young opponents, he flaunts his guns. He fills his pretty little bird-wife with child after child. His physical person transforms into the symbol and deliverer of national renewal, play-acting the kind of strength necessary to beat the wolves from the door, to fend off the yammering hordes clamouring to tear the nation apart with their teeth and claws. (It’s useful to remember the magnificent poplarity among Trump supporters of conspiracy theories that trade in imminent disaster; QAnon, White Genocide, etc). It’s easy to miss in its naive-camp flagrancy how deeply Trump and his entourage draw on continual Strongman pantomime. He plasters his social media with faked videos of him piledriving his opponents in Wrestlemania rings, he dances on stage to Macho Man, he grabs them by the pussy. He'll be able to deliver the unitary, swift, uncompromising, merciless decisions necessary – when he’s no longer hamstrung by the tedious treacheries of democratic process. The decay of democracy is relaundered into the triumph of a more honest, righteous kind of power.

Anti-Biden hackjobs have long focused on his physical weakness - producing a weird spectacle of two doddering septuagenarians vying for the top spot of least pre-frontal degeneration under a firework display of apocalyptic tubthumpery. Much meat has been made of him girlishly giving in to the virus by wearing a facemask: “Want a purse to go with that”? A strongman cannot countenance the possibility he might be vulnerable. He feels invincible. He always feels as a US President should feel.

Pity the strongman in an age of disease. With a mandate laundered by a hyper-idealised cult of masculine bodies, they can find themselves grasping and desperate when those bodies succumb to the same foibles as consume the lesser mortals. Some of their greatest propaganda tools turn against them, and they have few resources but outright denial. Benito Mussolini’s later regime was plagued by rumours he was fighting off brain disease caused by syphilis, causing unrest amongst his own council. Authoritarians of all stripes guard the noxious secrets of their bodies jealously – rumours of a fracture can inspire all kinds of unwanted hopes about a power vacuum soon to open up. Stalin’s propagandists did their best to contain reports of his heart problems, his neurasthenia, his dizzy spells, his forgetfulness. To stave off rumours he had Parkinson’s disease, Franco staged highly-manicured hiking and fishing trips. They ‘conveyed an impression that the head of state was in top form and enjoyed rugged outdoor life’ the NYT reported approvingly. Private doctors find themselves the first line of defence against PR disaster and institutional chaos. 

Today’s authoritarians, shepherding nations through various stages of democratic decay, find themselves cornered by coronavirus. The everyday rules of authoritarian population management do not often apply; the R rate seems pretty impervious to the arsenal of strongman agitprop. Jair Bolsonaro claimed that he ‘wouldn’t feel anything’ if he got coronavirus, and that real Brazilians would be resilient to the disease. Boris Johnson suggested that the UK population ‘take it on the chin’, openly copping to a eugenicist-lite strategy where aged, ailing or vulnerable people were perfectly acceptable casualties. Why apologise for a settlement where the strong and healthy survive as they ough?. Trump has flitted between out-right denialism and a cavalier kind of inaction focused mainly on blaming China and mocking basic hygiene precautions as effete, silly, vaccillating. He seems bizarrely determined to kill his devotees by continuing to hold mass campaign rallies that have now been linked to hundreds of infections. All three expanded policing powers in the pandemic, supposedly to contain the spread. It’s genuinely unclear how much was just shameless disaster nationalism, and how much they genuinely thought you could tear gas and water canon the virus into remission. All three came down with the virus. The glamour of the strongman did not protect them. Admitting collective weakness might have stood half a chance.

You can perhaps forgive them for assuming the Reaper was permanently recruited for the home team. But no matter the cultist slavering over the glorious deaths claimed by glorious war – they have no armies to face down the deaths of a tragedy of human togetherness. They have no solution to a disease which will not listen to their protestation about the fundamental difference between the pure and the treacherous, the native and the intruder. It brooks little fuss over the difference between one warm animal host and another. It will not be impressed by machismo. They have no interest in any problems where the solutions might come wearing scrubs rather than blackout visors. Where the solutions might sit up with you all night as you struggle for breath, or bring you food, or give you somewhere warm to shelter for a while. For all their obsession with the body of the ideal-type citizen, they have little connection with what it takes to actually keep it alive and army-crawling out of one day into the next. Fascism traps us in a mirror-world where a warped ideal of physically strong bodies and a warped ideal of political strength reflect each other endlessly, bouncing off each other, multiplying gruesome pictures within pictures. The real body – the one which can sicken and suffer and die, the one that can be vulnerable or needful and still precious – that is hard to find.