Trump as AIDS: How To Survive A Plague.
Michael Bouldin shares a blueprint for surviving HIV and Donald J. Trump's opportunistic infection of public office
Bouldin sees Trump as an opportunistic infection of the US political system
Last week, I went to a reading and book signing at Manhattan’s Roosevelt House, a townhouse on the Upper East Side that today belongs to the City University of New York but was once the Manhattan residence of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.
The reading was of How To Survive A Plague, the monograph about the AIDS crisis authored by David France, who also directed the Oscar-nominated documentary of the same name.
As David suggested from the dais, his book and the lessons it contains about the fight against AIDS, what was won, what was lost and at which price, may have acquired a particular salience for Americans in the dawning age of Trump. History may not repeat, but it does rhyme.
Let me start with some background. AIDS – ‘Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome’ – is a viral infection of the human body that progressively destroys the body’s immune system, leaving it ultimately unable to fend off other infections, to the point where even the most simple can be lethal. And while it can be treated, held in abeyance, “tamed” as David says – yours truly wouldn’t be writing this were it otherwise – it cannot be cured.
AIDS is also, as Susan Sontag once said, “more than a disease, it is a metaphor”, most abjectly of the failure of a bigoted and narrow rightwing Weltanschauung, a failure that ultimately cost around six hundred thousand lives in this country alone and millions more worldwide. In the United States, those lost were mainly gay men, at the time the most despised demographic in America.
And yes, I do see value in drawing a functional comparison between Trump – or more broadly and accurately Trumpism – and AIDS. He intuitively understood and exploited the weaknesses in two ostensibly healthy organisms, the republican and Democratic parties. He did so against the backdrop of a political system already severely weakened by the relentless partisan warfare waged by his party against the legitimacy of every Democrat, of every Democratic administration, majority, ballot, policy or law. Under this model, think of Trump as an opportunistic infection.
The means to fight him off failed as demonstrably as did any medical intervention in the first decade of AIDS. And he may well yet reduce our government and the nation itself to the equivalent of the walking dead haunting the streets of New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Paris and London that I at least remember all too well. The pervasive grief of the nation, the apprehensiveness and yes, the fear also strike me as eminently familiar.
Ultimately, many or maybe even most of we queers survived the gay holocaust. And where twenty years ago we feared and witnessed our own genocide, today we’re getting married, have mortgages and children and dreadful sitcoms to our credit; how’s that for a big fat Fuck You, Ronald Reagan?
That’s right motherfucker: you’re dead, we’re not, see you in hell.
Lastly, speaking as one of the survivors of the great plague, I’m here to tell you it’ll be hard, but at the risk of cliché: it gets better. We ain’t done here yet.
That outcome is not an accident, it is a blueprint, and here’s how it happened.
Get angry and stay angry. This is not a time for decorum or to be polite, for observing the niceties of respect for an office Donald Trump did not actually win. He’s illegitimate, howl it from the rooftops. Whatever you do, do not stay silent; if someone’s bullied, stand up for them. If your government overreaches, remind it forcefully that it is in fact your government and answerable to you.
Define goals and the milestones to reach them. The fight against AIDS began as a panic in the face of inescapable death and turned into a systematic and ultimately successful battle against the agents of that death, from the virus to the structures that helped it thrive.
Be creative. One reason why the tide turned medically and socially – towards greater acceptance of queers and others affected – was the world-class art produced by ACT UP and a predecessor group, Gran Fury. Like that AIDSGATE image? Made by a friend of mine who’s still very much alive and active. Full disclosure: I’m an on-again off-again member of ACT UP New York.
Channel inward grief into outward rage. ACT UP is not everyone’s cup of tea, so the fuck what, they did the work, laid down their bodies on the streets, occupied the FDA and shut down both Wall Street and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. It pissed some people off, but here’s the thing: some people need to be pissed off. These actions raised awareness and forced a recalcitrant, homophobic, racist and otherwise deplorable government and society into action to address our concerns. Either that or live with the consequences.
Subvert institutions. ACT UP was successful for several reasons, but one of them stands out: the group’s ability to get a seat at any table of any bearing on the epidemic, from government agencies to the private sector. It took years, but they did it. Hold. Them. Accountable.
Build institutions. We survived public indifference or hostility by building our own organizations to care for the sick, comfort the dying, feed the hungry and shame the powerful into action. Today, they’re worth billions. Plague victims were just that, victims, despised, voiceless, powerless? Yeah really? Fuck that plan.
Be holistic. Trump is less cause than symptom; he’s the culmination of a decades-long onslaught by the right wing on the institutions of our government, their legitimacy and power for good, of a war against empirical fact, against traditions of democracy itself. We can’t just fight Trump, we need to also go up, relentlessly step by step, against the peddlers of rightwing dogma disguised as fact, against state-level legislators and governors, against the courts, the lickspittle media, the cowards of big business and a whole lot more. As noted, it can be done, it has been done. The fate of the Republic depends on it.
Seek allies. You or I may not agree with the politics of Evan McMullin, David Frum, John McCain or Jennifer Rubin. What of it? Right now, they’re doing their duty to our nation and opposing this horror. As Churchill said, “if Hitler invaded hell, I would at least make a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons”.
Care for each other. By that, I mean several interconnected habits of mind and deed. We here can disagree with one another and should, but we can do so in a spirit of solidarity and kindness. If someone’s in trouble online or off, help them. Bring them a meal, hold their hand, tell them they have value. Because the only way we get through this is together.
Silence still equals death. Get ready to fight.
This article by Michael Bouldin previously appeared at Daily KOS, here.