When I started teaching high school English—well back in the previous century—I utilized a text called Four American Novels. Among the works within it was the Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane's masterly portrayal of a Civil War soldier thrown into battle and trying to prove himself capable of the challenge.
I don't think of Crane that much these days (though if you have never read his short stories, you're missing some of the best ever written), but every once in a while our president says something so stupid and remindful of such profound ignorance, that the mind wanders, and sometimes it lands on Crane's work.
His Red Badge of Courage traces the military experience of one Henry Fleming, an 18-year-old private in the Northern army. In the first skirmish, his unit repels the Confederate charge, but while they are celebrating their triumph, another onslaught begins and Henry, along with many others, turns and runs. (Later he learns that his unit held and won the skirmish.) Eventually Henry tries to find that unit and is struck in the head by another retreating soldier. When he eventually wanders into camp, he is treated like a hero with a head wound, maybe from a grazing bullet.
His red badge of courage is a fake; the title, ironic.
Courage and irony—not part of the Trump experience. His assertion that 95,000 American deaths and one-and-a half million cases constitute a badge of honor is worse than fake—it's offensive, if not ghoulish. It's a distortion of perspective—a photo shot with a poor quality lens and passed off as art.
Trump would like us to believe that the extraordinary amount of testing we have done explains away the number of cases, but that's fake news. As of yesterday we had tested 3.8% of the population, placing us ahead of Germany, but behind Spain, Portugal, Qatar, Belarus, and five other major countries. And even if Trump were not lying about the testing, there is no way to justify the fact that the United States—with four percent of the world's population—accounts for a third of the deaths worldwide. But there is the truth of course, that the fault lies in a willful mishandling of warnings and a continuing disregard of scientific advice that stretches beyond the realm of simple ignorance and into that of criminality.
The deaths of nearly 100,000 Americans is not some badge of honor, but a mark of shame—a stigma that in normal times would have the country's leaders standing trial and facing imprisonment. Instead we have a president, hell-bent on locking up his political opponents for imagined crimes and fabricated misdeeds, who misrepresents his own crimes as wise beneficence and trusts the starry-eyed willingness of his supporters never to question the numbers. And they oblige. It is Trump, not in fiction but in fact, who has run away from the battle. His wound? The truth of his ineptitude. His badge of honor is as phony as Henry Fleming's, but though the character in the novel agonized over his cowardice and sought atonement, Trump seems perfectly happy to blame others and never look back.
Stephen Crane was 24 when he wrote his masterpiece, and only 28 when he died from tuberculosis. Though very young, his insights into human nature and man's role in an often-unforgiving universe illustrate great wisdom and maturity. They still resonate. Donald Trump was 71 years old when he became president. He doesn't worry about man's role in the universe. Like every narcissist, he is his universe, and the Covid-19 deaths are collateral damage in keeping his domain running smoothly.
Our role remains a minor one—try to survive the next badge of honor.