Rhetoric in the Time of Cholera

Yesterday — or possibly the day before — sometime in the past decade, anyway (what we’re experiencing right now is proof of Einstein’s theory of relativity) — Donald Trump said some ridiculous-but-potentially-true things about disease. Normally, Beloved Leader mouthing off on prime time in America is just Wednesday night; and we all sigh and flip the channel back to Simpsons reruns. This, however, is Not a Normal Time in America. Or, to take a broader historical perspective, it’s a very normal time in human history — we’ve somehow viewed post-war America as the rule of history, and not a very temporary, highly-artificial construct that was deliberately designed to counter geopolitical and economic instability, and it worked; right until the political and economic establishment decided it didn’t, and got to work destroying those carefully-constructed, artificial safety nets, taxes, and controls that kept individual liberty from usurping collective safety. Now, as in 1650, if you go on one ill-timed walk, you could die from smallpox. You could lose everything because the manager of your private pension got a hot stock tip that didn’t pay off. In short, we’re starting to understand why post-war America got sick of war, obscene, gilded-age economic privilege, and raised the tax rate on the wealthiest 10% bracket (this is true — the highest taxation rate of the American federal government was under Eisenhower, who was that rare Republican who really hated Nazis and didn’t want them coming back).

Which is a rather roundabout way of getting to The Donald’s recent remarks that UV light and disinfectant kills germs (true), the public’s weird take that it was an incitement to snort Lysol (it doesn’t matter if that was only CNN’s take on things; you know that if Anderson Cooper could see that suggestion, Billy Bob at the trailer park shrugged and threw some hand-sanitizer in the meth pipe), and then the weirder mental contortions required on behalf of the Mickey Mouse Fan Club/MAGA crowd to come to His aid. Before we get to my salient remarks, a few disclosures about my political affiliations:

  1. El Jefe is not only repugnant to me on every moral, political, and aesthetic level imaginable (God should smite the man for what he’s done to suits and neckties; let alone his bizarre hair that somehow makes baldness look dignified and masculine), but his proposed cruelties and rollbacks in consumer protections, insurance coverage, and social safety nets make him a direct existential threat to me. I’m not a “never Trumper,” I’m an “Invent a time machine so we can travel back in time to 1873 and give his great-great-great-etc. grandparents a condom.”
  2. I’m not wild about Joe Biden (I preferred Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren in the primaries), but I do think he’d actually work to preserve and expand one federal legislation piece that’s been critical in keeping me alive since 2013: the ACA. So, based merely on my “I enjoy being alive” political stance, he’s got my vote. But this piece isn’t about him, it’s about tail-spin control with Uncle Duke in the Whitehouse this week. I’m just being up-front in that I’m not unbiased nor bipartisan, and, I’m going to be upfront in that I don’t always say what I mean, and I don’t always mean what I say. Subtext is a thing, and the majority of human communication is non-verbal.

Where was I? Right; so, The Donald claimed that scientists were looking at getting disinfectant and UV light into the human body; which might, in extremely broad strokes and a generous interpretation, be accurate. However, if you need to interpret The Donald’s comments, you’re going against that campaign button, “He tells it like it is.” No. No politician has ever told it like it is, because the world is far too complex for that. In order to understand the current pandemic and its economic ramifications, we’d need to look at how, historically, capital has relied on labor and systematically undervalued labor’s contributions to make capitalism artificially more profitable than it is (but even explaining that concept is a treatise unto itself). Followed by a discursive lecture on how infectious disease evolve and are transmitted. And so on. It’s not going to be a bumper-sticker; which the American voter isn’t terribly happy to read, anyway. Yes, I’m going to be condescending and snobby in this thing, because, instead of giving a safe, usual non-answer like, “Look, we can create sterile environments that don’t foster coronavirus; you can do it at home with bleach and sanitizers, which we recommend, and we recommend staying in that sterile environment until we have more treatments and data at our disposal and avoiding human contact, because that’s how this thing spreads,” we got a bizarre mish-mash word salad; which BBC has already fact-checked (you can find it here: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52399464), but, he’s between “wrong” to “fatally misleading.” If you’re a glutton for punishment, here’s the full quote, in it’s rambling incoherence:

So supposing we hit the body with a tremendous, whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful, light — and I think you said that hasn’t been checked but you’re going to test it — and then I said suppose you brought the light inside the body, which you can do either through the skin or in some other way. And I think you said you’re going to test that, too. Sounds interesting.

Then I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in a minute, one minute. Is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside? Or almost a cleaning, ’cause you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs. So it’d be interesting to check that. So you’re going to have to use medical doctors but it sounds interesting to me, so we’ll see but the whole concept of the light. The way it kills it in one minute, that’s pretty powerful.

Trump supporters are correct in that he never directly said, “I think you should snort lysol, inject hand sanitizer, and stick a tanning bed up your ass and it’ll cure you.” He didn’t have to. He was simply musing, as one so frequently does; that if you did those things, you could cure a virus about which very little is known. Now we get into the mental contortions to distance The Donald from his own mouth, because more Americans have died from COVID than the Vietnam conflict (this is true). We all remember the Arizona man who died taking a form of hydroxychlroquine for fish-tanks after Fearless Leader suggested it might be an effective treatment (a VA study says, no, it isn’t; it’s actually dangerous)? No? Well, it happened, and, even though it’s a bit of dotted line to follow, it works like this: Americans are conditioned from age 5 to submit to authority and obediently follow it, because you don’t want some student embarrassing a poorly-educated teacher at age 12 (my seventh-grade history teacher actually told us that G. Washington chopped down a cherry tree; which is 100% something Mount Vernon’s Historical Society says is a myth invented by early Washington biographers to sell books). I’m not going to say, “Wake up, sheeple,” but I will say, anyone dealing with the general public needs to assume a certain level of ignorance on their part, and, since we’re not willing to invest in something as spectacularly unprofitable as general education, it’s easier and faster just to assume the American public is largely comprised of morons who have never read for pleasure. Yes, I’m painting in broad, unflattering, stereotypical strokes, because that’s what you have to do when you assess the minimal and maximal damage widely-broadcast ignorance can do. I realize I’m making a similar argument as Marilyn Manson’s critics in the mid-90s (Gods, who thought we’d yearn for the days when that was considered an intelligent, informed debate?), but I’m not arguing for censoring anyone — even the president. I’m just discussing the fall-out and back-pedaling that reveals some jaw-dropping hypocrisy on part of the POTUS and his few remaining, beleaguered advisers (who, based on the current rate of Administration Fatigue and American Carnage, will include Billy Bob in the trailer park in a few weeks).

In the context of a panicking America, the Donald wasn’t flat-out saying, “Snort lysol, bros, it totally rocks,” but, given how quickly Lysol released statements saying you should never, ever ingest their product in any way, they realized what The Donald was hinting at faster than the GOP establishment. In context, though, it is like your college freshman granddaughter calling you up, sobbing, after finding out her high school boyfriend just got married to some sorority skank he’s been dating for, like, three weeks; and you start musing on whether the planet wouldn’t be better off without her. It’s not open incitement to suicide, and no court could convict, but, as with The Donald’s Nazi-friendly, dog-whistle campaign statements, there’s a clear, suggestive subtext that you have to be ineptly moronic to miss. In this case, he’s totally not-suggesting that you expose your innards to UV light and antiseptic, while totally making it impossible to ignore that possibility.

Which brings us to the weird rhetorical “take backsies” that have defined the last century. Or 24 hours; I’m not sure how time passes any more. After Lysol distanced themselves from The Donald, the GOP noted their falling poll numbers and forbade him from making further public comments about COVID. Which is not only the responsible thing to do; it is the overriding moral mandate in medicine, “Primum non nocerum” (“First, do no harm”). Before this, however, every half-wit with a red cap went on the Internet to explain that The Donald didn’t mean it the way everyone who spoke English and interacted with humans on a regular basis thought it did. Which was fun, because it’s somewhat at-odds with the delight they took in telling everyone, “He just tells it like it is.” I realize that situations change and require adaptation (as this whole, sordid COVID/end-of-civilization thing is teaching us), but The Donald’s schtick is an appeal to 18th century values. You get slavery as an economic driver, or 21st century antibiotics, you can’t have both, America. What’s inescapable is, Trump supporters started typing and publishing things — on Twitter — like, “If you’re dumb enough to inject bleach into yourself, you deserve to die.” It’s fascinating to see the gullible make arguments that other gullible people deserve to die (ignoring the truly heinous subtext of such statements, that some people deserve to die).

So, we got Really Bad Advice (I could write an entire book about that phenomenon on Planet Cancer; I might write that column this week, when everyone is a temporary resident of Planet Cancer), followed by literally tens of dozens of people trying to walk back His comments, much in the same way that people with no understanding of the Old Testament hold it up as a moral guide (Has anyone actually read it? It’s terrifying; God wipes out entire civilizations, angels come to destroy cities and are offered daughters (Like the Administration, the authors don’t specify, but the inferences one can make are insidious), slavery is okay, rape is fine, etc.). That’s just Thursday in America. Then, yesterday, like some horrible M. Night Shyamalan film, we got a bizarre plot twist from the Oval Office. Beloved Leader suggested he was being “sarcastic,” and, “joking.” Not, “I was offering some advice about a subject I’m not familiar with and I flubbed it.” Not, “I had to figure out three graduate-level lectures on drug development and infectious disease in three hours, and I, understandably, didn’t grasp all the subtleties.” All of which, I’d argue, would be excellent, sympathetic explanations, because they cast him as a man doing his best in an impossible situation in a pressure-cooker job, rather than being the sort of sociopath who encourages people to jump off the bridge to see what happens. Again, I’m kind of stunned that, given a completely blank canvas upon which to paint their response, the Trump Team (all five of ’em) somehow grabbed the most-vile, worst-possible interpretation possible, and clung to it like a limpet. The Donald’s secret weapon in the 2016 election is that he was, politically, unknown, and the media, because they thought he was a third party candidate running a protest/issues campaign, vetted him with the same thoroughness that they use when discussing Vermin Supreme.

That is no longer the case. The Donald got the job he applied for, but clearly had no intention of getting. The press now has to constantly cover a candidate they only covered because he got ratings. And now both are stuck with each other — a match made in Hell, one supposes. Which means that every single thing The Donald says, mumbles, or whispers to his mistress is broadcast live. Under those sorts of circumstances, most of us would either behave better, self-regulate a little more, or just resign and flee. Of course, most of us don’t run an insurgent campaign on a whim and accidentally wind up in the White House because John Q. Public was so dissatisfied with the options he stayed home whilst Billy Bob, on a whim, put down the pipe, and showed up at the polls with his cousins (who are also his brothers). If I seem spiteful toward Trump supporters, it’s because I am (again, I mentioned this earlier). If you’re not feeling disaffected by now, give it time, because we are still in the midst of a national crisis that will — take it to the bank before the deregulated bank loses it — affect you sooner or later. This is the American Carnage The Donald promised us; he was deliberately vague about who was going into the wood chipper, though; and, like all of my fellow inhabitants of Planet Cancer, you were just surprised to learn it would be you. If you’ve read this far, I congratulate you on your attention-span, and here is the point: we live in interesting times. I know from experience that you don’t want interesting people at the helm during such times; and no one is more of a side-show than The Donald. And he is at his craziest, most-ratings-hungry when in front of the camera; we’ve learned that. I’d implore everyone to vote, but, if that’s too much, how about this; next time you see Beloved Leader on television, immediately change the channel; don’t wait for the next insane, tantalizing, crazy soundbite, just flip it back to the Simpsons.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store