When I first heard that US President Trump had been infected with COVID-19 just a month before polling for his re-election, my first thought was that he would gain a lot of sympathy votes. After all, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s popularity soared after he was hospitalised with the disease. And sympathy votes of another sort have led to landslide electoral victories in South Asia, as with Rajiv Gandhi’s 1984 election, a couple of months after his mother was assassinated.
In contrast to Johnson, however, a large number of polls have shown that Trump’s popularity dropped after his hospitalisation. He had already trailed his competitor, Joe Biden, by about 6 to 10 points through much of this year, but the gap increased to between 12 and 17 points, according to some opinion polls, immediately after his hospitalisation.
Trump’s Strongman Image & Why He Appeals To So Many
To understand why Trump’s popularity dropped, one needs to study the nature of his appeal among the 40 or so percent of the US population that seems to consistently back him—notwithstanding his sexual, financial, geopolitical, or other improprieties.
It seems that many of these backers think of Trump as an invincible strongman who dares to cock a snook at political correctness, who has the courage to stand for ‘his’ people, and their agendas—even to the extent of saying there were ‘very fine people on both sides’ during a face-off between two sets of demonstrators some months ago, when one side included some from the violently racist Ku Klux Klan.
His backers seem to appreciate Trump for precisely what many others find objectionable, that he doesn’t bother much about civility, politeness, or other sorts of what he and his backers consider to be wimpish behaviour.
They admire him for his ‘gumption’—a more polite word than one they might use.
Perhaps they value that sort of gumption because their agenda is fundamentally undemocratic: they want their leader to privilege their kind of people over sociological Others. And to get away with that, he must be a devil-may-care toughie with ‘gumption’.
No wonder the revelation during the 2016 campaign—of Trump’s goon-like locker room talk about women—did not seem to repel his supporters. They apparently viewed it as ‘macho virility’, and hence, ‘admirable’ in their eyes.
Trump’s ‘WWF Wrestler’ Image
Metaphorically, Trump is to them a little like what a WWF wrestler is to his fans. Although this comparison may be stretched, certain facets of the WWF wrestler phenomenon are similar. For instance, the persona that Trump’s backers admire is a bit of a caricature, very like the mien those wrestlers adopt.
It is that image of invincibility, which is a vital aspect of that persona, that has been damaged by his falling ill with COVID-19.
Trump knows this all too well, which explains why he chose to drive by and wave to those who had gathered near his hospital, and why he went back, mask-less, to addressing rallies before he had fully recovered.
It is because the illness dented his tough guy, devil-may-care image that his popularity dropped after his hospitalisation. And it is Trump’s awareness of the vital importance of his macho man image that made him shun the mask even after his and his family’s close brush with the coronavirus. It wasn’t just idiosyncratic, or wantonly cussed. It was calculated marketing. He had his eye on the ball.
Did Trump Emulate Brazil’s Bolsonaro?
The macho man image is similarly a vital part of the personas of some other contemporary leaders, most notably President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, who defied the disease even more dismissively than Trump. When he got infected—ironically, after attending a 4 July party at the US embassy without a mask—Bolsonaro strolled out to stand inches away from reporters, then took off his mask and told them he was fine.
Like Trump, Bolsonaro has treated the disease as a personal challenger, almost as if he were in a ring with a rival wrestler. He specifically pointed to his athletic record as proof that he is strong (virile) enough to not need to fear the disease.
His popularity dipped for a while when he was infected, but he emerged as popular as before after a few weeks, brazening out his quick recovery as proof that he had been right to discount the threat the disease posed. He attended the nationalistic ceremony of flag-lowering at the president’s palace every evening while he was recovering.
An article in The Atlantic quoted Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think-tank, saying: “(Bolsonaro) took advantage of the fact that he had COVID and that he overcame it and recovered fairly quickly as a kind of vindication of his approach. He also tried to reinforce the image of being a tough guy.”
Three months later, Trump may consciously have tried to emulate Bolsonaro’s response.
The drop in his popularity indicates that Trump’s choosing to downplay the illness stemmed from an astute awareness of his backers’ responses to such things. The fact that his ratings rose again after he stomped back onto the campaign trail would seem to confirm that he understands what sort of image appeals to his backers.
The Metaphor Of A Tribal Chief: Leader Of The Pack
To make sense of the relationship between leaders like Trump or Bolsonaro and their supporters, one might extend the macho man trope to the stereotype of a tribal chief, a street gang leader, or the head of a wolf pack. The pack must see the leader as strong, virile, and able to dominate his opponents, both outside as well as within his gang or tribe.
The metaphor of a tribe or pack ties in with the majoritarian agenda of white supremacy in US society and politics, which has sometimes seemed to have Trump’s backing. A tribe or gang is often imagined as racially superior or stronger than rival gangs.
His campaign in 2016, and his early actions as president, was driven by the agenda to keep out immigrants, particularly Muslims and Latin Americans. The construction of a wall to stop ‘outsiders,’ which was a potent part of Trump’s 2016 campaign, ties in with the keeping-the-tribe-safe metaphor.
No doubt one subliminal reason why this sort of tribalist mentality values tough, invincible hardiness in its leader is that the agenda is not just competitive, it is overtly disparaging and subliminally discriminatory, even violent in intent, against sociological ‘Others’.
Trump’s ‘Gumption’ – To Treat ‘Others’ Just The Way His Supporters Would Like
When Leftist Democrat leaders pointed out the disgustingly inhuman conditions in which interned illegal immigrants have been kept at the US’s southern border, they hoped to pull at the heartstrings of kindhearted citizens. But they only seem to have ended up strengthening Trump’s value to most of his backers. Such appeals to conscience inadvertently prove that Trump has proved his mettle as the sort of leader who has the ‘gumption’ to treat those sociological ‘Others’ the way many of his backers want.
Those backers are aware that their agenda is viewed by some as nasty, malevolent, menacing.
Ergo, only someone with a robust streak of rakish nastiness—one who doesn’t care what liberal, decent, nice sorts of people think of him—can lead this endeavour.
So, any sign of weakness, even of mortality, can lead to a loss of faith in the leader’s capacity to deliver on an agenda which calls for robust ruthlessness of the sort that leaders have often, throughout history, felt they must demonstrate to their followers. It is as medieval, as ancient, and yet as contemporary as the Game of Thrones TV series.
How UK’s Boris Johnson Got COVID – And Touched Emotional Chords
The very different response of the UK’s Boris Johnson to his illness indicates that some recent analyses that have clubbed several conservative and nationalist leaders across the globe, including Johnson together with such leaders as Trump and Bolsonaro, may be inadequately nuanced—if nuance is not an oxymoron for this topic!
Johnson touched emotional chords among the British by talking candidly of how close to death he had been. He also highlighted the vital roles of two immigrants among the hospital staff in ensuring his recovery.
Contrast that empathetic acknowledgement with hospital staff standing in two straight lines while Trump’s doctor spoke to the media about his progress, almost as if he were the chief petty officer of a royal honour guard in white coats.
No doubt Trump and Bolsonaro knew that to seek empathy could severely dent the kind of persona both have so assiduously cultivated. And crediting immigrants for saving their lives would have been the kiss of death for that persona.
Johnson’s responses after his illness, and the surge of public endorsement by the British public, indicate that the 2016 Brexit vote, for which Johnson campaigned, may not have reflected a level of xenophobia comparable to the sort of racial polarisation over which Trump has presided—of which the killing of George Floyd by a police officer kneeling on his neck was emblematic.
How Trump Cemented ‘Big Chief’ Image
Perhaps the contrasting ways in which Johnson and Trump achieved their respective public profiles is relevant to how their post-infection behaviour has differed. Johnson’s persona as a rising political star was as a tousled-haired foppish, sometimes clownish character. On the other hand, Trump’s persona as a reality TV star was of a ruthless business mogul whose punch-line, ‘you’re fired,’ was delivered like a verbal slap.
That TV series contributed to the at least subconscious construction of the tough guy bossman persona who rules his empire with ruthless machismo—a modern-day empire of multi-storeyed steel-and-glass monstrosities, dark suits, and scarlet ties.
After becoming President, Trump has consciously cemented that big-chief image by presenting himself as a tough negotiator, on trade, migration, and geopolitics. He has won kudos as the strong leader who stood up to China’s unfair trade practices and self-serving geopolitical moves.
To buttress that image by contrast, he has repeatedly spoken of his Democrat rival Joe Biden as ‘being in China’s pocket’.
Some of Trump’s supporters may feel they must keep the more antagonistic aspects of a tribalistic agenda under wraps during the election campaign. That would seem to be the import of Trump’s ‘stand back, stand by’ message when he was asked to condemn White supremacists during his debate with Biden last month.
In case that caution extends to masking their backing of him, it could affect the veracity of some recent polls. If just five percent of respondents falsely claim that they back Biden while actually intending to vote for Trump, the electoral college map could spring another huge surprise.
(David Devadas is the author of ‘The Story of Kashmir’ and ‘The Generation of Rage’ in Kashmir (OUP). He tweets @david_devadas. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the authors’ own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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