Trump's Maskless Balcony Stunt Was a Portrait of American Empire in Decline
The strongman stood on the balcony of the presidential mansion, hopped up on steroids and exhaling droplets of pandemic disease from his maskless gob in between occasional gasps for breath, saluting the screaming machinery of military force as the presidential helicopter's motors ground into motion and it took off in front of him. If you were looking for a portrait of an American empire in decline, it arrived on Monday evening when Donald J. Trump, in the thick of a bout with COVID-19, checked himself out of the hospital at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and was flown back to the White House on Marine One.
When the craft landed on the South Lawn, the president disembarked after a few moments and walked to the building, pausing repeatedly to offer a thumbs-up or a half-fist-punch for the cameras. Then he climbed the curved staircase, reached the balcony, and removed his mask in what appeared to be a gesture of defiance. Of what—The Media? The Deep State scientists? Reality itself?—it was not immediately clear. But that trademark pout was unmistakable. This was authoritarian chic. The president was looking at something very strongly, that's for sure, though it will not be an ounce of humility or growth as a human being after he was struck by the very disease he so long downplayed and ignored at the cost of so many American lives.
President Trump has returned to the White House after spending three nights at Walter Reed Medical Center for coronavirus treatment.— CNN (@CNN) October 5, 2020
After exiting Marine One, Trump walked up a set of stairs, took off his mask and posed for photographs on a balcony. https://t.co/P3BAaWUCWL pic.twitter.com/Ibc3BHGlRX
It was the latest of many photo-ops the president has managed to fit into his packed TV schedule since he was hospitalized with COVID-19. At least when he signed a blank sheet of paper and had one of his large adult sons post a photo, it did not seem like a direct message to his supporters that they shouldn't bother wearing a mask. What at first seemed here like a way to demonstrate to the watching world that he could tackle some stairs quickly became a whole lot more. All this, when just yesterday he posted a video in which he proudly declared how much he'd learned about COVID-19 now that he'd gotten it. "I learned it by really going to school," he said. "This is the real school. This isn't the 'let's read the book' school. And I get it. And I understand it. And it's a very interesting thing."
Although maybe we should have seen this coming when he announced his departure from Walter Reed with...this.
I will be leaving the great Walter Reed Medical Center today at 6:30 P.M. Feeling really good! Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life. We have developed, under the Trump Administration, some really great drugs & knowledge. I feel better than I did 20 years ago!
Don't worry about it! If you catch the virus, just catch a helicopter ride to Walter Reed, where you'll have a dozen doctors attending only to your case. It's definitely not the steroids talking.
Presumably, the president thinks he's gone too far down the road of pretending the virus simply does not exist—at least as a major problem for American society—to go back now. Soon enough, he'd posted a video doubling down on his don't let it dominate your life language. "Nobody that's a leader would not do what I did," he said. Then a man who's on at least three different treatments, and has spent time on oxygen assistance, and whose doctor refuses to comment on the state of his lungs in public, offered an extra dose of delusion: "Maybe I'm immune." Yeah, maybe his bout with the virus is over. Almost immediately, his return was made into a campaign ad, the war machine ferrying him back to the locus of power set against the roiling purple sky. He wants this story written, and yet it must be. He is, after all, the president.
And his fans will love it. The faithful demand a figure of strength, the myth of the leader as a physical specimen as well as a loud and belligerent voice trumpeting the virtues of a past America that never existed, spray-painted onto an extant nation in very real decay. This country has gorged itself on the excesses of empire, allowed the muscles of democracy to atrophy until the republic itself grew infirm, occasionally lashing out at the world as its rich and its powerful ate up all the resources and gave the people circuses to compensate until one day, one of the exhibits escaped the tent. Many of us bear our own responsibility, large and small, for this. All of us are now facing the consequences of living in this reverse-Truman Show, a program produced by the child of P.T. Barnum and the Mad Hatter. A sprawling and ambitious country is now reduced to glinting off a television screen, greed and ignorance wearing away at our image of ourselves until, now, it is close to unrecognizable. The rest of the world, we know, now looks upon us with horror.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.