The President’s Body Politic

Last night I read an essay by Borges about the Chinese emperor who both built the Great Wall and ordered all books written before his rule destroyed. The essay is a meditation on the relationship between this pair of contrasts, and Borges plays with a variety of possible interpretations of these actions.

Thinking about emperors building walls led me to consider the case of our current president, who is also dead set on building a wall. I started to consider his own contrasts, and somehow the fact that he’s simultaneously a germaphobe and a borderline-obese consumer of junk food struck me as an equally telling (if comically smaller) study in contrasts.

On the one hand, he’s concerned for his health, which he sees as threatened by contact and proximity with others. This of course fits well with his wall obsession and his xenophobia. On the other hand, he doesn’t seem to care about a much more relevant threat to his health posed by his terrible diet (which apparently folks in the White House are trying to change).

It is as if all threats to the outside come from others; the choices we ourselves make, the things we bring into our own body of our own volition cannot hurt us. It is a fantasy of control. At the same time, its an odd pairing of a fantasy of invulnerability (“I can consume anything and not be hurt by it!!!” Maniacal exclamation, followed by laugh, of oddly powered super-villain), and a fear of extreme vulnerability to invisible influences (germs) brought by others who are less powerful, and more virulent.

The Peace theorist Betty Reardon writes that a masculine approach to peace focuses on national security, strong borders and militaries, and forgets that there is also such a thing as human security, the ability of individuals to live secure and fulfilled lives. The germaphobe focuses on border security, the keeping out of malign influences, and sees himself and the nation (whose body his own stands as a metonym for) as well off, healthy, and strong, no matter what the reality might be. And if facts (such as a physical exam or report on poverty) prove inconvenient, he can just find someone to offer “alternative facts.”

So being a germaphobe and intentionally filling his own body with garbage is a fitting and at the same time terrible analogy for his approach to governance. If all danger comes from the outside, from others, we are invulnerable and perfect if we only maintain our boundaries.

It would be comical were it not so awful.