Trump, West Point, and Immortan Joe

Authoritarians and their fetish for physical strength.
June 15, 2020
Featured Image
The Emperor has no clothes, or in this case, strength. (Collage by Hannah Yoest featuring 'Nude Descending a Staircase', No. 2 by Marcel Duchamp, 1912 / Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Do you remember this video?

Way back when, Americans regarded Vladimir Putin as something of a clown. He was the guy who performed “Blueberry Hill” and allowed himself to be filmed “sparring” with the Russian national judo team. There was the shirtless horseback riding. And of course, the skin diving.

My favorite moment of Putin propaganda was when Vlad went for a swim in the Black Sea and —by total coincidence!—found two 6th Century Greek urns at the bottom and then—by an even greater coincidence!—was photographed as he emerged from the surf, like Neptune, or King Triton, or Black Manta.

Vladimir Putin holds two ancient amphorae he found while scuba diving in Taman Bay as he visits an underwater archaeological site at Phanagoria on August 10, 2011. (ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP via Getty Images)

Do you remember how entertaining this was? We all laughed at the ridiculousness of it. How could Putin think that these obviously staged pieces of buffoonery would convince the Russian people of his physical prowess?

And of course, the joke was on us. Because the point of these stunts wasn’t to convince Russians that Vladimir Putin was an amazing physical specimen. The point was to instruct Russians that Vladimir Putin could say whatever he wanted—no matter how patently absurd. Because he knew it was BS. And they knew it was BS. And he knew that they knew.

But the Russian people would go along with it anyway. Because he was powerful and they were weak. It was a display of dominance over the very idea of truth.

Workers of the world, Unite!

I was thinking about these old pictures of Putin this weekend watching Donald Trump struggle to lift a glass of water and walk down a simple ramp at the West Point graduation.

The image of an old man carefully making his way down a ramp wasn’t what was striking, though. What got me was Trump’s reaction to people observing his frailty.

As the Washington Post’s Philip Rucker put it, this explanation “strained credulity”:

Trump’s claim that the ramp had been “very slippery” was inconsistent with the weather, which on Saturday in West Point, N.Y., was sunny and clear-skied. The grass plain on which the commencement took place was dry.

This isn’t the first time. Back in early March, Donald Trump’s surgeon general, Jerome Adams, went on Jake Tapper’s show and said this:

Just to underline: Adams, who is trim, in his mid-40s, and a doctor who understands health outcomes—said that Trump—an obese then-73-year-old—“is healthier than what I am.”

This is not possible. Unless Dr. Adams is suffering from a serious disease, there is simply no measure by which Trump could be deemed “healthier” than Adams.

It’s preposterous.

Back in 2018, Mike Huckabee—who knows from obesity—patiently explained to Fox Business that the reason there was such high turnover in the White House among senior staff was because the president’s aides simply couldn’t keep up with him. Physically.

No, really:

I think [turnover] may be a little higher than normal but there’s always transitions going on in the White House staff. More so in this case for two reasons. One, this is a tough president to work for, and not because he’s a difficult person individually, but he is very demanding and very few people can keep up with him. He may be 72 years old but he’s got the vigor of somebody who’s about 32 years old. . . . And he absolutely is just without the capacity of exhaustion. I’ve been with him on the campaign trail and was shocked at his stamina.

Lord, yes. When you look at Donald Trump, “vigor” is the first word that comes to mind. I mean, after “butter.”

(Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

In March, when the president had not yet saved “millions of lives” because he was still pretending that the outbreak was a hoax, White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham was asked whether or not Trump still planned on holding mass rallies. She took the opportunity to add her own testimonial to Trump’s amazing physical vigor, telling reporters:

Yes, he plans on still holding rallies. And I’ll tell you what, with our president—this man who doesn’t sleep and who I have seen work 15-16 hours a day every day—I have no problem thinking that he’s going to be just fine and just healthy.

Does Donald Trump “work” 15 or 16 hours a day? Maybe he does! Judging by his Twitter output, it would not surprise me, since he seems to spend a great many hours every day staring at his phone.

But the idea that his low-sleep regimen would keep him immune to a pathogen? This was either ill-informed nonsense or blatant propaganda: Trust the Dear Leader, because he is not like you mortals.


My favorite testimonial to Trump’s physical dominance came from his personal physician, Dr. Harold Bornstein. In December of 2015, the good doctor issued a letter to the general public declaring:

“If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”

This assessment was ridiculous on its face. To take just one example, when George W. Bush arrived at the White House, he was 55 years old, weighed 189 lbs, and had a resting heart rate of 43 bpm—which is what you would expect for a high-level athlete.

The truth about Trump is what was revealed in this photo last February:

(BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

That picture was not photoshopped. It showed a jowly geriatric, whose pale skin is hidden by makeup while his bleached hair struggled to maintain its highly manufactured structural integrity. The photo made it clear that putting Donald Trump together each morning is a little like how Immortan Joe hides the old man underneath.

None of this is important to Trump’s abilities as president. We have had excellent presidents who were infirm and bad presidents who were in good physical health.

It’s not the physicality that’s interesting. It’s the psychology.

Because the false assertion of physical dominance by leaders is always less about vanity and more about authoritarian power dynamics.

Whether it’s Putin’s judo or Mussolini popping Hormovin in order to prove his virility or Jair Bolsonaro bragging that he couldn’t possibly be harmed by the coronavirus because he is “an athlete.”

The point isn’t to actually convince us that these men really are physically strong. It’s to remind us that no matter how ridiculous their lie is—the Greek urns were just sitting there; he’s the healthiest president ever; the ramp was slippery—they will get away with it.

Because they are powerful. And we are weak.

Until Election Day.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is executive editor of The Bulwark.