In November 1686, King Louis XIV underwent a successful operation to relieve the immense discomfort of an anal fistula. This was, for the time, no small feat given that part of his prior treatment included the use of red hot irons and he was just as likely to have died from the surgical procedure than to have survived and recovered. Louis’ doctors even had special implements made to address the royal abscess (pictured below), though they had spent some time practicing on others suffering from the same condition before trying their skills on the king’s posterior.
Absolutist France became a center of medical knowledge and practice after the king’s successful operation, and — no shit — made anal fistulas all the rage in the royal court at Versailles:
“To all those who suffered from a fistula, the operation brought hope of a cure, and like everything else that the Sun King undertook, this also became fashionable in Versailles. The courtiers lined up to have the same procedure done, whether or not they had a fistula. Those with no fistula were turned away by the surgeons.“
Clearly, this was not a procedure one should undergo with a faint heart or a relatively healthy anus, and yet the fawning attention to the king’s well-being extended to the fervent desire to suffer the same affliction. Did Louis appreciate this, even encourage it? It seems hard to imagine that anyone with an anal fistula would casually wish it upon another, or that a coterie of fops walking around with their asses in pretend bandages would engender anything other than contempt from one who must actually suffer the pain of both the condition and its cure. Perhaps Louis did indeed appreciate the obsequious attempts at empathy and imitation, though he would have been unable to share his fistula directly with his admirers, as this condition is of course not communicable.
Now, jump ahead to October 2020 and a different kind of asshole. Donald Trump, President of the United States, has returned to the campaign trail after leaving Walter Reed Medical Center, where he was given supplemental oxygen and pumped full of high-powered steroids and an experimental antibody treatment after testing positive for the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. There should perhaps have been little surprise at the October 2 announcement that the President, his wife, and several other people in and around the White House tested positive. Besides looking like a sweaty bag of angry hamburger meat at his debate against opponent Joe Biden shortly before the positive test announcement, the White House team had been notably and dangerously lax in their coronavirus prevention technique for months. While Trump himself is famously a germaphobe, he is also exactly the kind of person who would mercilessly mock one for taking the slightest precaution, such as wearing a mask. And apparently this has been the case not only in public, where Trump has made fun of Biden and numerous reporters for public mask wearing, but also in the cozy confines of the White House itself. Even Mitch McConnell has publicly stated that he has avoided the White House since early August because he found the commitment to covid control there too loose. Other Republicans, especially in the Senate where Democratic control looms after November 3, have also started (finally) to distance themselves from Trump over the administration’s unwillingness to tackle the covid-19 pandemic seriously.
At some point in the not too distant future, Donald Trump will no longer be President. One thing or another will take him out of office, whether it be an election now or four years from now, or complications from covid, or any number of other conditions that might incapacitate a septugenarian who eschews exercise and eats Big Macs and Filet O’ Fish every day. But when the White House announced that Donald Trump did indeed test positive for coronavirus, the question immediately arose, is he fit to be President while ill? How ill is he, and what is the prognosis? Fair questions, though his fitness for the office was already urgently in need of an answer given the first 3+ years of his term. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and British PM Boris Johnson had already been hospitalized with covid-19, with Johnson ending up in the ICU and Bolsonaro needing three weeks of recovery time in isolation. Unbowed by the experience, Brazil’s far-right president argued just a few weeks ago that in facing down coronavirus, “weak talk of staying at home is for sissies.” No consolation to the 150,000 of his fellow Brazilians who have died from covid but if your image is based on populist strongman bluster, then learning a lesson about material reality is not your bag and you forge ahead, virus or no.
With intense media scrutiny on his condition and semantic gymnastics from his team of attending physicians in response, the question of Trump’s health continues to loom large over the upcoming election. More generally, Trump’s covid diagnosis should make us question how we see the mortal, living bodies of our political leaders in relation to the body politic. We learned a lot, perhaps more than we want, about the President’s body, about what is going in (experimental treatments and powerful steroids) and out (viral particles and bullshit) of it. We also know that covid is a bumpy ride with swings and remissions and flare-ups, and a host of other associated potential problems. While Trump has now tested negative, the long-term effects of infection and his treatment are also important to consider.
Now, questioning the relation between the body of the leader, a real, material body in the figure of a human being, and the body politic, a metaphoric body in which the whole is meant to be greater than the sum of its individual parts, is not new. Colleague and expert on the history on medicine and rhetoric Stephen Pender put me on to the classic work on this theme, Ernst Kantorowicz’s 1957 book The King’s Two Bodies, in which the historian examines early modern thinking on the relationship between the sovereign as the body politic and the sovereign as mortal body. As Kantorowicz writes, the fiction of the King’s two bodies rests on the updating of medieval theological-legal arguments by jurists in Elizabethan England:
“For the King has in him two Bodies, viz., a Body natural, and a Body politic. His Body natural (if it be considered in itself) is a Body mortal, subject to all Infirmities that come by Nature or Accident, to the Imbecility of Infancy or old Age, and to the like Defects that happen to the natural Bodies of other People. But his Body politic is a Body that cannot be seen or handled, consisting of Policy and Government, and constituted for the Direction of the People, and the Management of the public weal, and this Body is utterly void of Infancy, and old Age, and other natural Defects and Imbecilities, which the Body natural is subject to, and for this Cause, what the King does in his Body politic, cannot be invalidated or frustrated by any Disability in his natural Body.“
These two bodies were simultaneously consolidated under the doctrine of quia magis dignum trahit ad se minus dignum, or “the worthier draws to itself the less worthy.” If the body politic can neither be seen nor handled, in what material form can it actually exist, so that sovereignty may be enacted and exercised? Only in the mortal body of the sovereign, which becomes indivisible with the body politic despite the former’s limitations and frailties. The king is dead, long live the king. Kantorowicz places the evolution of this mystical relation between body natural and body politic firmly in early modern attempts to resolve and adapt medieval legal and theological traditions at a time when new and more impersonal forms of state and economy began to appear.
If this was based on legal, religious, and mystical thinking and doctrine handed down from the Middle Ages, it still has not fully disappeared today. The sovereign’s corporeal presence continues to mystically provide a synecdoche of the body politic, enacting and mirroring (sometimes even in an obscene funhouse mirror kind of way) national and community ideals in life and often in death. When the mortal body is a detriment to the image that leadership wants or needs to project, all manner of illness and limitations will be covered up as much as possible. Autocrats have no monopoly on this. Franklin Roosevelt rarely allowed himself to be seen publicly in his wheelchair during the Depression and World War II. Woodrow Wilson concealed a major stroke that left him partially paralyzed and, for all practical purposes, unable to carry out the remainder of his second term as President, though he refused to resign and his wife Edith performed much of the work behind closed doors. Francois Mitterand hid his cancer from the French public until the end of his presidency and his death shortly after. More recently, the condition of North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un became cause for speculation when he disappeared from public appearances in April 2020, and media outlets around the world sought to detail every possible way in which Kim’s body could go wrong.
And so we are confronted with the enigma of Trump’s covid diagnosis. An unofficial “White House Gift Shop” online store was already selling “Trump defeats covid” commemorative coins for $100 a pop before the President even left Walter Reed. Back on the campaign trail, Trump touts his superior genes and the marvels of modern medicine as evidence that he is perhaps invincible but more likely just a rabid eugenicist, while everyone else points out that he is very lucky to have access to a level of medical care that few others in the world can enjoy. Right wing grifters online joke (kind of? it’s so hard to tell) that Trump has dominated covid and that he can even be a source of antibodies for a cure, like Will Smith’s character in the film I Am Legend, in which, of course, Smith dies at the end. Jokes, jokes, jokes. These are exactly the type of courtiers who would fake an anal fistula to get a retweet from the Don.
This kind of joke, such as it is, reveals that Trump is a contradictory cypher for those who faun over him, the king in two bodies, but both sick, propped up by smoke, mirrors, duct tape, and the complicit lethargy of the official political opposition. He is the superman who won’t let a virus that you can’t even see anyway so how is it even real keep him from doing what real men do, which is, apparently, not give a single shit about anyone but themselves. But he is also the ultimately mortal, fragile figure at the head of a movement precariously balanced on the edge of political loss, cultural atrophy, and revanchist violence. If he goes, then what? Après moi, le déluge, as they say.