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Our President Is Literally Toxic

Will political rhetoric ever recover from Donald Trump’s habit of rendering plain all of the metaphors used to describe him?

Saul Loeb/Getty Images

In 1978, Susan Sontag published a famous essay titled “Illness as Metaphor,” which argued against perceiving illness metaphorically. “Illness is not a metaphor,” Sontag wrote. “The most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking.”

Medical science has been unable to dispel the popular notion of disease as some black-hatted villain that the virtuous and strong will defeat. Nor have the many medical patients who’ve pointed out what a cruel and victim-blaming delusion the metaphoric distortion of illness is. The cruel truth is that misfortune doesn’t give a damn about the content of your character or the size of your biceps. Everybody learns this sooner or later. 

Well, almost everybody.

The president of the United States—the guy who entered the 2016 presidential race saying he didn’t think John McCain was a war hero because “I like people who weren’t captured”—has Covid-19. He doesn’t see this as a misfortune. He sees it as a challenge, one that demonstrates that he’s a winner.

More than anything, President Donald Trump sees Covid-19 as a metaphor. It’s a school. “This is the real school,” he said in a bizarre video tweeted from Walter Reed Army Medical Center. “This isn’t the ‘let’s read the books’ school.” Covid-19 is also an athletic contest that casts Trump as a mighty wrestler slamming his adversary to the ground, or a wide receiver breaking through a pack of defenders to score a touchdown, to cite two absurd memes that Trump and his allies have circulated on social networks.

It’s no less wrong-headed for Trump’s critics to interpret Trump’s contraction of Covid-19 as a different sort of metaphor—as some imagined avenging angel’s punishment of Trump’s reckless attempts to wish the pandemic away. Look, I know how you feel. But avenging angels don’t exist. The president’s illness is not a metaphor. It’s a disease.

And yet.

Sontag’s admonition not to seek larger meaning in Trump’s illness does not bar us from considering, while Trump struggles to recuperate, his relationship not to illness but to metaphor itself. What is that relationship? A hostile one.

To wit: Donald Trump is a one-man war on metaphor, forever transforming the merely figurative into literal truth. I’m not sure political rhetoric will ever recover.

You may have heard it said now and then that Trump is a toxic president. In January 2018, the Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein said on CNN, “This is about a toxic president, and a toxic presidency.” And just last month, Democratic nominee Joe Biden said, “Donald Trump has been a toxic presence in our nation for four years.”

When they said that, Bernstein and Biden were speaking metaphorically: They were saying that Trump’s presidency appealed to the worst in people, and that was bad for all of us. They weren’t suggesting that you were liable literally to get sick if you got near him. They weren’t saying he was a living, breathing Superfund site or an ambulatory pool of nuclear waste.

But now, remarkably, Trump is literally toxic, in the sense that if you get close to him, you literally might become very sick. Trump can’t help that, of course, but there are precautions you’re supposed to take when you have a dangerous infectious disease, and Trump can’t be bothered to take them.

Trump insisted Sunday on riding through the streets of Bethesda, Maryland, to wave to his followers, putting the Secret Service agents forced to sit alongside him in the presidential SUV in physical danger for a photo op. Trump is now threatening to attend next week’s debate, potentially putting Biden’s health at risk. White House aides are staying home because Trump is back in residence, and they know damn well he won’t take any steps to keep them safe.

Trump refuses to allow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct contract tracing on the apparent superspreader event for the Capitol’s Covid-19 spike—the September 26 Rose Garden ceremony for newly announced Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett—probably because Trump doesn’t want any agency documenting just how long he was spreading germs to unsuspecting aides and supporters prior to his hospitalization. He’s let the White House become a literally toxic workplace.

This figurative-to-literal alchemy is a clear theme of Trump’s public career. It’s been something of a mission for him to make the word flesh, so to speak. Remember the Access Hollywood tape that surfaced in the waning days of the 2016 campaign? It featured this exchange between candidate Trump and host Billy Bush:

Trump: I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.

Bush: Whatever you want.

Trump: Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.

A reasonable person (a reasonable male, anyway) might conclude that Trump was perhaps the sort of pig who would grab women and kiss them against their will but not the sort of pig who would grab women by the pussy, because who in hell does that? Obviously “grab ’em by the pussy” was, in Trump’s locution, a metaphor. Not a very nice metaphor, but a metaphor nonetheless.

But this reasonable male would be—indeed, was—almost certainly quite wrong. We know that because, in a 1997 lawsuit, later dropped, Trump was accused by Jill Harth Houraney, the girlfriend and later wife of a Trump business associate, ofon three separate occasions in 1992 and 1993reaching for her crotch. A businesswoman named Jessica Leeds similarly recalled in 2016 that several decades earlier she was seated on an airline flight next to Trump, a complete stranger, and that the future president tried to put his hand up her skirt. According to these women, who had no obvious reason to lie, Trump literally tried to “grab ’em by the pussy.” (Trump denied both allegations.)

Meanwhile, to return to the sphere of political rhetoric, we journalists often describe politicians whom we consider deceitful or hypocritical to be “frauds.” We don’t mean literally that this or that person has committed fraud in any legal sense. We merely mean that he or she is a phony. But you can’t use the word “fraud” to criticize Trump in any metaphorical way, because he has literally been sued, sometimes successfully, for committing fraud.

Shortly after the 2016 election Trump paid $25 million to settle a lawsuit (without admitting fault) brought by 6,000 customers of a fraudulent venture called Trump University. Trump last year had to pay $2 million in damages (admitting fault in this instance) for defrauding contributors to the Donald J. Trump Foundation, which was shut down as a consequence by New York’s attorney general. Various other legal claims are pending alleging that Trump has committed outright fraud.

It’s starting to look as though Trump will soon depart the national stage. When he does, will journalists be required to eschew metaphor altogether in describing the misbehavior of future presidents? Will metaphors run the permanent risk of literal interpretation that triggers severe misunderstanding? That’ll depend on whether political life can once again approximate what’s recognizably normal.

I pray that it happens. By that I don’t mean that I literally pray, because I’m not a believer. It’s a metaphor. What I mean is:  I hope it happens.

See what I mean?