Trump Is Unwell. How We Talk About That Matters.

Donald Trump’s obvious physical and cognitive decline over the past few years has been thoroughly documented.

His slurring and difficulty with language:

The worsening weakness on the right side of his body:

2017:

2020:

His inappropriate behavior:

His problems with balance:

This has led to a great deal of concern. The man with the nuclear codes clearly has a serious neurological problem that the White House is hiding from us.

Part of Trump’s brand, however, is his narcissism and self-aggrandizement. He’s not just healthy; he’s the most healthy president ever. He’s not just smart and level-headed; he’s a “very stable genius” with “unmatched wisdom.” This insistence on presenting himself as an Übermensch when he is very clearly frail is an irresistible target for his critics. In the past few days since Trump’s alarming performance at the West Point graduation, hashtags such as #TrumpWearsAdultDiapers and #TrumpIsUnwell are burning up Twitter.

This is a tricky issue. On the one hand, mocking someone for being unable to walk or run is ableist. People with difficulties in mobility, speech, movement, and bladder/bowel control are full human beings who should not be mocked for their disabilities. When we use disability as a club to beat a politician we dislike– even a monstrous one like Trump– the people who bear the brunt of that cultural ableism are not wealthy white men. Systemic ableism always falls hardest on people experiencing other types of systemic bias– racism, sexism, transphobia.

We cannot both be horrified at Trump’s mockery of Serge Kovaleski and also gleefully mock Trump’s physical and neurological decline.

And yet.

Some people have equated this with people in the LGBTQ+ community leaping on the “Lady G” story about Lindsey Graham. and some of my fellow PwDs are leaping on the #TrumpIsUnwell trend. When a man with extreme cultural and political power lies about belonging to a marginalized group, people notice that hypocrisy. And when that man repeatedly and aggressively uses his power to harm the marginalized group he pretends he doesn’t belong to, the hypocrisy moves from a personal foible to a public danger. Distancing yourself from something by attacking it is the oldest of old tactics.

Graham (along with every other virulently anti-gay political and religious leader like this man, this man, this man, this man, and these people) will not firmly establish himself as “straight” by working to demolish LGBTQ+ rights, although he will continue to try, and real people will continue to be hurt. Likewise, Trump will not magically become young and healthy again by mocking people with disabilities and crushing disability rights and funding, but he will continue to try, and real people will continue to be hurt.

Men like Lindsey Graham and Donald Trump, stuck within toxic masculinity, will do anything to avoid appearing “weak.” Trump has, through his words and actions, very clearly demonstrated that he associates being disabled with being “weak.”

The belief that a gay man is “weak” or a man with disabilities is “weak” is bound up in sexism as much as it is bound up in homophobia and ableism. Toxic masculinity labels certain things traditionally “feminine,” like sleeping with men or needing help with physical tasks, and therefore sees them as minimizing masculinity, as weak and laughable. Toxic masculinity’s homophobia and ableism are inextricably bound to its sexism and misogyny.

But in all the public discussion of “Lady G,” people were careful to point out that there’s nothing wrong with Graham hiring male escorts, and nothing wrong with being gay or even closeted. People were not mocking his actions. They were mocking his hypocrisy in lying about his sexuality while using his status as one of the most powerful men on earth to oppress LGBTQ+ people.

Trump refuses to admit that he’s a person with disabilities because he thinks we’re all “weak” and he doesn’t want to appear to be one of us.

This hypocrisy reveals a weak flank that presents an irresistible target. “You hate and attack who you are,” the thought goes, “so we will never stop mentioning it.”

To mention it, however, does not necessarily mean to mock it. 

It’s horrific to mock someone for needing help down a ramp, slurring words, or being unable to lift a glass. You think I don’t know I can’t run, or that I have difficulty with stairs? I KNOW. So the sudden onslaught of “lol he can’t walk lol look at all these videos of able-bodied people running because people who can run are better than people who can’t lol” was like a gut punch.

And yet some of those people are PwDs, claiming that we “get to” mock Trump’s physical/cognitive disabilities due to his hypocrisy. That the hypocrisy is, after all, what we’re mocking.

But are we mocking his hypocrisy– the fact that he insists (and forces his mouthpieces to stand before the press and insist) that what we can all see and hear is not, in fact, true? Are we mocking the Trump cultists who celebrate imaginary Joe Biden or Nancy Pelosi “senility,” who celebrate cutting funding to programs for the disabled, who celebrate the mockery of Serge Kovaleski, who celebrate the mockery of a disabled child, but have an endless appetite for upholding an obviously frail Trump’s Übermensch self-image through gaslighting and lies?

Trump is one of us, but he pretends he’s not because he thinks we’re worthless and disgusting. Is that hypocrisy really what we’re mocking with hashtags like #TrumpWearsAdultDiapers?

If your answer is “yes,” then is it worth the possible collateral damage to the rest of the PwD community?

It’s overwhelmingly evident that Donald Trump– the man with the nuclear codes, the Commander in Chief–  is indeed unwell, and the White House is attempting to hide a worsening health issue from the American public. But it should also be evident that the majority of disabilities, neurological or otherwise, would not in any way impact someone’s job performance as president. The very fact that the White House is attempting to cover this up with awkwardly transparent lies is, in itself, alarming, and leads to speculation that whatever this is does indeed impact his job performance and will continue to grow worse. Trump is already much more visibly impacted by whatever this is than Reagan ever was by Alzheimer’s while he was in office. Continuing to pretend that there’s nothing wrong with the president of the United States when we can all see that there very clearly is remains the center of the problem here.

The American people should be informed of the truth about Trump’s declining health. Criticizing the lies and the coverup– and the ableism behind them– are fair game. It’s not fair game, however, to mock the impairments themselves. Trump will never see your tweet, but your friends with disabilities will. Your anti-ableism shouldn’t stop the moment you think you can get away with an ableist joke by using “punching up” as a shield.

These are attempts to minimize a powerful man by pointing out his disabilities.

Talk about the cover-up. Talk about the hypocrisy. Mock them both! Trump is ableist and sees disability as minimizing. That does not mean we need to confirm that ableism in our mockery of him. There’s plenty to mock without mocking disability.

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