Donald Trump
Credit: White House / Flickr

Donald Trump’s latest delusion is that he can ignore science and dominate a virus. Just before leaving Walter Reed Military Medical Center on Monday, the president tweeted that he felt “really good” and advised others not to let COVID “dominate” their lives. He released a statement suggesting that contracting the disease was a sign of bravery.

Trump’s enablers followed suit. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said that Republicans are “the party of the emancipation proclamation, not the emasculation proclamation.” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R- FL) opined that “President Trump won’t have to recover from COVID. COVID will have to recover from President Trump.” But the most bizarre pile-on came from Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA).

The president and his supporters will label Biden as weak if the former vice president follows CDC guidelines and refuses to debate before Trump’s quarantine period ends—just as they’ve ridiculed him for wearing a mask and practicing social distancing. 

Even as COVID-19 spreads through The White House, Trump’s message is that to be a manly man, you not only dominate a virus, you don’t show your fear by being diligent about masks, joyrides, and campaigning. In a sane world, that would be a skit on Saturday Night Live making fun of hyper-masculinity. But the whole scene is more pathetic than parody.

The president’s response to contracting the coronavirus reminds us that, for him, every interaction in life is a test between dominance or submission. It wasn’t that long ago that he was telling governors that they needed to “dominate the streets.” Going back to 2017, Josh Marshall understood better than anyone when he wrote that “Trump lives in a psychic economy of aggression and domination.”

But this isn’t just another indication of the president’s mental health issues. It is also what animates his supporters. That’s why “owning the libs” has become a rallying cry on the right. As Eve Peyser explained in Rolling Stone, “To ‘own’ someone on the internet is to dominate and humiliate them, and the ‘libs’ can loosely be defined as anyone to the left of Sean Hannity.”

In her book, The Chalice and the Blade, social systems scientist, cultural historian, and attorney Riane Eisler explored “two very different ways of relating, viewing the world, and living in it,” which she identified as the partnership model and the domination model.  After studying cultures worldwide, Eisler concluded that conventional differences such as religious versus secular, right versus left, East versus West, and developed versus developing don’t capture the trend towards authoritarianism because they fail to distinguish those that rely on domination backed by fear and force. That is the tie that binds Stalin’s Russia to Hitler’s Germany, as just one example. 

What we are witnessing in this country (and other places around the world) is a resurgence of dominance and a rise in authoritarianism. At the heart of that are Christian nationalists who, imbued in patriarchy, view all relationships as hierarchical, insisting that men must submit to God, women must submit to men, and children must submit to their parents. Here is Eisler talking about how that weaves dominance and control into gender stereotypes.

In dominator cultures, to accuse a man of exhibiting stereotypes commonly associated with femininity is the ultimate insult. So, for example, when Tomi Lahren responded to Biden’s insistence on wearing a mask by tweeting that he might as well carry it in a purse, she was “owning a lib” with the ultimate put-down: he’s a wimp, just like a girl.

As journalist and author Katherine Stewart pointed out, Trump’s embrace of dominance makes him the leader Christian nationalists have been seeking.

As the Trump presidency falls under siege on multiple fronts, it has become increasingly clear that the so-called values voters will be among the last to leave the citadel. A lot of attention has been paid to the supposed paradox of evangelicals backing such an imperfect man, but the real problem is that our idea of Christian nationalism hasn’t caught up with the reality. We still buy the line that the hard core of the Christian right is just an interest group working to protect its values. But what we don’t get is that Mr. Trump’s supposedly anti-Christian attributes and anti-democratic attributes are a vital part of his attraction…

Today’s Christian nationalists talk a good game about respecting the Constitution and America’s founders, but at bottom, they sound as if they prefer autocrats to democrats…This isn’t the religious right we thought we knew. The Christian nationalist movement today is authoritarian, paranoid and patriarchal at its core. They aren’t fighting a culture war. They’re making a direct attack on democracy itself.

This country’s grand experiment with democracy was an attempt to break away from a long history of autocratic kings who ruled via dominance. But it’s been a work in progress for almost 250 years because the marriage between patriarchy and dominance has been an immense challenge to overcome. From labor rights to women’s rights to civil rights, every social justice movement has been rooted in the power of partnership and taken direct aim at the dominance of rich white men.

The reason that Barack Obama’s presidency ignited a backlash of dominance is not merely because he was our first African-American president. Perhaps due to his history as a community organizer, his entire world view was shaped by the power of partnership. That is why, when it became clear that we were in the midst of a pandemic, I pinned this quote from his 2009 speech in Cairo, which captures this pandemic moment so perfectly, to the top of my Twitter feed. 

For we have learned from recent experience that when a financial system weakens in one country, prosperity is hurt everywhere. When a new flu infects one human being, all are at risk…That is what it means to share this world in the 21st century. That is the responsibility we have to one another as human beings.

And this is a difficult responsibility to embrace. For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes — and, yes, religions — subjugating one another in pursuit of their own interests. Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating. Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners to it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; our progress must be shared. 

For eight years, Obama challenged the dominance of white patriarchy. The backlash delivered a delusional president who has convinced his supporters that manly men can ignore science and dominate a virus. The inflection point we face as a country is whether we will continue perfecting our union via democratic processes that demonstrate the power of partnership.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.