It was a grotesque sight: the president of the United States preening from the White House balcony, his mask pulled defiantly off his face, able to infect anyone around him with the novel coronavirus. He had just been released from Walter Reed hospital, after he’d tweeted that we shouldn’t “be afraid of COVID” or “let it dominate your life”—as if it hadn’t already killed more than 200,000 people in the United States alone, including a dear friend of mine.
The coming narrative was depressing, predictable and sadly bipartisan: the president was virtue-signaling that he was a strong man who had beat a terrible disease. He hadn’t let COVID-19 win—he’d crushed it. He was dancing on the graves of people who had let themselves die because they were weak. Like gloating Jair Bolsonaro after he’d defeated the virus on Brazil’s COVID-19 battlefield, President Donald J. Trump was now a COVID survivor—and if he could be, so could you. If you encountered the coronavirus, had “good genes,” and were just plain strong enough, Trump seemed to be saying, you wouldn’t have to be like the one million sad, weak losers around the globe who let the virus beat them.
As with many exceptionally American phenomena, though, Trump is just the most crude and obvious example; he cannot be blamed for inventing the conflation of strength with wellness as a virtue. Long before this particular megalomaniac occupied the Oval Office, the pejorative framing of illness as some kind of moral failing has permeated the U.S. across time and party lines. When someone dies of cancer, we often say they “lost their battle” or “fight,” as if they were a soldier in a war or George Foreman getting knocked out by Muhammad Ali. If someone goes into cancer remission, we often not only say that they beat cancer, we publicly congratulate them as if they have pulled off something virtuous that those who died of it were too lame to succeed.
We laud people who “overcome” their disabilities and deride people who live with them, even as this pandemic has taught us that we need mutual aid and interdependence. This ableist culture that glorifies “beating” and “getting over” sickness has ushered in the grotesque carnival we are witnessing now in the White House.
This framing is patriarchal, masculinist and transphobic, in that “being a man” means sucking it up and beating disease, acting “like a girl” means letting sickness get you down—while both of these gendered tropes reinforce a harmful gender binary. And it is ableist, in that people who are healthy and productive are simply considered to be superior to sick people. Similar to how racism privileges certain races over others, ableism privileges people with certain abilities over disabled people; the framing that sick people are worthy of derision while strong people are worthy of adulation built the architecture for Trump’s triumphant return. When Senator Kelly Loeffler tweeted a Wrestlemania parody video of Trump seeming to tackle the coronavirus, it was ridiculous and, sadly, not very different from the ways we are encouraged to think of how sick people ought to bodyslam sickness to the mat, bro! Crush that cancer, crush that cancer, bro!
Language frames how we think and act, and ableism has long permeated our language in ways that make certain populations seem disposable. With rare exceptions—such as in Alice Wong’s excellent new edited anthology Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the 21st Century (Vintage Books)—disabled people’s words aren’t centered in mainstream publishing. As a professor on the faculty of schools of journalism and medicine, I am fascinated and dismayed by how much ableist and militaristic language is casually used by abled journalists and doctors. How casually we will use militaristic language for convalescence, when what is needed is gentle care.
The single word that encapsulates these problems is lame. While lame is clinically defined as a body part with impaired mobility, “That’s so lame” is tossed about as a pejorative constantly—because what could be more disgusting and useless than legs that can’t walk? At least once a week, I DM journalists on Twitter to explain, “Hey friend, there’s no need to conflate ‘lame’ with poor character or quality. It’s like saying something is ‘gay’ or ‘ghetto’ to mean it’s bad.” Almost always, writers get it. But I’ve also been appalled to see that media scolds like NPR ombud Kelly McBride, Washington Post media critic Margaret Sullivan and Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal have used lame as a pejorative in their writing; because ableism is such a seamless part of our culture, language and liberal media, it’s hardly even remarkable to white, able-bodied journalists or their employers.
“I initially resisted the moniker cancer survivor because I didn’t want an identity built on the backs of those people who didn’t survive” anthropologist S. Lochlan Jain wrote in Malignant: How Cancer Becomes Us. I became aware of how global a problem the survivor-as-winner/victim-as-loser paradigm was when, as a columnist for the Guardian, I published a 2016 essay about how my sister had been tortured before her death by other people. For the 15 years she lived with cancer, people would tell my sister that if she just drank juice, or tried this or that herb, or had a positive attitude, she could beat her cancer; this implied that she was letting her sickness happen to her because she was weak and not trying hard enough. I received responses to that column from around the world. On almost every continent, people wrote to me that they they or someone they loved had been made to feel like a loser because they couldn’t beat their disease. They’d been made to feel that they deserved what they got because they were weak.
Trump is an extreme form of the pernicious viciousness of ableism, which extends across international borders. And people of goodwill should be angry at him for driving the United States—quite literally, as author Patrick Blanchfield notes—towards what Blanchfield predicted years ago as a kind of family annihilation. Yet as with the coronavirus catastrophe in general, if we want to avoid more Trump (or more leaders like him) and more pandemics, we need to accept that Trump is a symptom of larger forces in the U.S. And in this case, that means ridding ourselves not just of Trump’s garish ableism, but of the ableist thought and language and politics that allowed him to become president—a grotesque philosophy partially upheld by a liberalism that says winners beat sickness and deadbeats lose their battles.