Vile Bodies

The March of the Guards to Finchley by William Hogarth
Foundling Museum, London
William Hogarth: The March of the Guards to Finchley, 1750. ‘At right,’ Fintan O’Toole writes, ‘the notorious brothel-keeper Mother Douglas looks out on [English soldiers] from the King’s Head Tavern, while her employees display themselves from the other windows. On the left, an infected soldier grimaces in pain as he attempts to piss against a wall to which is affixed a flyer advertising the services of a well-known VD specialist.’

In May 1998 Donald Trump and Howard Stern discussed on the radio the threat of sexually transmitted diseases to promiscuous heterosexual men. Trump agreed with Stern’s suggestion that he might tell a woman, “Look, you’ve got to go take a medical test before I do you.” (Neither man seemed to imagine the possibility that he would take a test himself.) But Trump added that “the problem is that sometimes your own chemicals take over and you can’t wait.” Stern responded, “So you’ll just have straight intercourse with a rubber with them, right?” Trump seemed uneasy with the idea that he would be expected to use a condom: “Well, I don’t know, you know there’s lots of different ways of doing it. It’s a very complicated subject. They say that more people were killed by women in this act than killed in Vietnam, OK?” Later in the interview, he repeated the comparison: “It’s Vietnam. It is very dangerous. So I’m very, very careful.” Stern assured Trump, “You’re braver than any Vietnam vet because you’re out there screwing a lot of women.” “Getting the Congressional Medal of Honor, in actuality,” said Trump.

This analogy with Vietnam—a war that Trump of course avoided—upset many people when CNN excavated the tapes of the show in October 2016. But there was more going on here than the obvious contempt for women and for the sacrifices and suffering of veterans. The exchanges between these two self-regarding alpha males took the lid off a strange stew of preening and paranoia, of terror and lust, of claims both to exemplary courage and to hypervigilant caution. A great silence surrounded them—the men did not directly discuss HIV or AIDS, which was then the only STD that might kill people. The ostensible vectors of deadly disease were germs, not viruses: Stern introduced the subject by saying to Trump, “You’re as germ paranoid as I am.” An unnamable fear (AIDS) was sublimated into phony military posturing, a misogynistic and nightmarish analogy between women one might “screw” and foreign enemies (the Vietcong and Vietminh), and a wider paranoia about infection from without. All of these would become aspects of Trump’s political persona.

It is not likely that Trump was aware of the literary antecedents of his analogy between military valor and male sexual adventure. In “The Maim’d Debauchee,” first published in 1680 shortly after the death of its…

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