On his deathbed, awaiting execution, Socrates asks, “Is life worth living with a body that is corrupted and in a bad condition?” “In no way,” replies his friend Crito. Donald Trump agrees: a “crippled” America is the problem. The fear of the body, of a body one doesn’t want or like, is as old as philosophy itself. This fear is found everywhere today. We are obsessed with health. We are determined to rewrite nature’s rules gene by gene. Then, like now, we trade peace with the present for promise of unknown futures. We are bad at being mortal.
My brother and mother, who are disabled, disagree with Trump. But he doesn’t want to have that conversation. Or any other for that matter. A few weeks ago Trump declined to debate Senator Bernie Sanders. Hours later, the hashtag #ChickenTrump arose alongside a thousand memes. Trump is very chicken. There are lots of things he won’t do, won’t debate, and won’t think about. He won’t change his mind (unless he does), and he’ll never admit error. He’s got the mark of a true blue chicken: pride. But pride arises out of fear: fear of being wrong, of others, and of oneself. Why is Trump so chicken? Of what is he so afraid? I think, above all else, he fears his own body and mortality.
Take Trump’s worry over the size of his hands. Many laugh at his concern, but perhaps it is serious. Perhaps this fear is not about what it seems to be. Perhaps, despite his racism, xenophobia, misogyny, violence baiting, and serial lying, Trump has a beat on our relationship to our bodies. Is Trump not merely a new Crito? Is he not tapping into a fear of the body that exists throughout intellectual history, East and West? We fear a “crippled” America, as his New York Times best-seller is titled, because “we,” the able-bodied, fear being trapped in a body, in a place and time and situation, that we don’t want. We, and not just Trump, play chicken with ourselves and our bodies out of fear.
But here’s the catch. We aren’t trapped in our bodies. We are our bodies, as philosophers from Frantz Fanon to Simone Beauvoir have argued. These changing, leaky bodies afford us opportunity and choice. If static or permanent, they’d be less bodies and more stones or gods. To be sure, bodies marked by racism, sexism, cisgenderism, classism, and ableism get trapped. And Trump is a great trapper. But his fear of bodily change and difference is about as reasonable as a fear of breathing or eating: these things are the stuff of life. How, then, is Trump so close to a genuine philosophical insight and yet so far? The real question is: what should I do with my body? The better answers to that question are based in justice, not fear or pride. From those questions we, in our better moments, build inclusive institutions, construct just laws, and organize equitable societies.
Trump’s the biggest chicken of all because he won’t face up to any truth he doesn’t like. No amount of self-tanner or hairspray will ever keep him from aging. No amount of yelling about his greatness or America’s will make either great. Greatness comes from humility, discussion, and conciliation. Greatness comes from silence and open ears as much as it does from speeches and raised fists.
I bought Trump’s Crippled America. The earth didn’t become flat. The climate hasn’t unchanged. Not a single wall rose. But #chickentrump was everywhere across its pages. Take, for example, his stigmatization of people with disabilities. The word “cripple” stems from an old German verb kriupan, which means to creep. How would you feel if someone defined you and your body that way? My late brother Jason was born with muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, and hydrocephalus. He didn’t walk and that was fine. My family never called or thought of him as a “cripple,” a creeper, because he was perfect just the way he was. The creeps are those, like Trump, who use that term to devalue the lives of others. Those, like Trump, who use that term to hide their fear of their body.
My mother, Gail, is now disabled through TMJ, fibromyalgia, and chronic pain. Trump would call most of my family “cripples.” As a disability sibling, son, and grandson, I have witnessed oppressions and stigmas surrounding disability my whole life. From use of the R or C word to widespread abuse, the issues are many. Are common views about disability true to experience? How do our assumptions and prejudices about some bodies and minds lead to oppression? And how can we change? How can we make the world a more just, inclusive, and accessible place for all people? The questions “disability” raises can be especially hard for the (temporarily) able-bodied to swallow; the answers, even harder. But #ChickenTrump won’t even show up to the debate.
Philosopher or welder, server or politician, the truth is, we cannot do things without others. Abilities are shared. Abilities are social. Trump says he has “the best words,” and maybe I don’t. But instead of fearing the bodies of others, instead of playing chicken whenever someone disagrees with or lives or looks differently than us, why don’t we craft better policies, laws, and institutions? Ones that protect and enrich the integrity, representation, and flourishing of all?
Trump reports that his hands are slightly smaller than large. I haven’t met him, and I don’t know for sure about his infamous hands. But I do know one thing. Trump’s hands, whatever their size, are great for America…if they force us to confront our bodies, the bodies of others, and how we care for them. If we stop being chicken about ourselves and others. Is life worth living with a body that is corrupted and in a bad condition? Absolutely. All bodies are imperfect. All bodies are corrupt. The life worth living is the life lived with our differing, changing, and imperfect bodies. It is what we do with our body that defines our worth.
From slandering Mexican citizens to calling for a ban on all Muslims, Trump has been chicken from the beginning. And America is playing a dangerous game of chicken with him. But we don’t have to. We don't have to act from fear, build walls, or feed hate. Instead, we could use our hands to actually make America great again. How? By making it more inclusive and more just. By making it a better place for all bodies.
To build that America, even #ChickenTrump’s little hands could help.
Watch Joel's Tedx talk.