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Reading Pandemics

Parallels of HIV/AIDS in Tony Kushner's 'Angels in America' and COVID-19 in Trump's America

Emma Thompson in HBO's Angels in America (2003) (IMDB)

Tony Kushner's Angels in America foreshadows our current state of sick politics and bodies and, in particular, the presence of Trump in a time of plague.

The Y2K anxiety around the turn of the calendar on 31 December 1999 seemed to come to nothing when the sky didn't cave in on 1 January 2000. Technology did not fail, leading to government and business catastrophes, as many feared. However, revisiting Tony Kushner's epic play, Angels in America (first performed in 1991 [Part I] and 1992 [Part II]) reminds us that the final story of that millennial turn has yet to be written.

What does it mean, for example, that a wider lens reflects the turn of the century as bookended by two historic viruses, HIV/AIDS and COVID-19? Or that politics of confusion, fear accompanied both viruses, and hatred that perverted science and sought not simply to maintain -- but reinforce -- existing power structures?

These two viruses, in particular, are instructive because the politics surrounding them would appear to be very different, and yet they converge in important ways. HIV/AIDS, for example, was labeled the "gay" disease in the 1980s (as its initial name Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, or GRID suggested) and from its onset was an illness used by politicians such as President Ronald Reagan to demonize gay men and other marginalized groups.

COVID-19, on the other hand, has the potential to be a unifying force as everyone around the world seems to be dealing with a common enemy. Recently, of course, we have seen that class and racial lines make this issue very different from country to country, neighborhood to neighborhood and that a twisted politics of "freedom", especially in the US, along with the implications of the virus to the economy, have also contributed to division and derision on all sides.

Both parts of Kushner's play, "Millennium Approaches" and "Perestroika", resonate eerily in these times, as they foreshadow our current state of sick politics and bodies and, in particular, a demagogue like Trump in a time of plague. Reading the play in 2020 reveals incredibly accurate descriptions of what we are experiencing today: the power grasping and anti-intellectualism of our leaders and those who follow them, despite that the emperor has been naked, if you will, for some time now.

Angel Wings by Zorro4 (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Reading the play today reminds us that we are living in the world Kushner imagined three decades ago. It was not a world that many predicted, and yet, he did.

Look, for example, at how often Donald Trump's warped values and characteristics come up in Angels in America . Even though he never appears as a character (a real possibility given Trump's status in 1990s New York and Kushner's use of real people, such as Roy Cohn (Senator Joseph McCarthy's chief counsel and Trump's real-life mentor in the play). Instead, characteristics of Trump—his casual malice and strange lack of normal human feeling —are embedded in the character of Cohn, the infamous, gay (yet queer-bashing) power broker whose manipulation of US politics foreshadowed men such as George W. Bush's Senior Advisor and Deputy Chief of Staff, Karl Rove, and far-right senior advisor for policy to President Donald Trump, Stephen Miller.

Cohn, who manipulated the famous Rosenberg spy trial to ensure that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed and who was a major player in Senator McCarthy's 1950s anti-Communist hearings, clearly left a strong mark on Trump when he was young. Looking at Angels in America today, it's easy to observe that mark, and to be frightened by it, as Cohn's methods so clearly influence Trump in his dealings with 2020 America. Cohn's politics of evil have spread like a virus through generations and intersected in critical ways with the two worst US pandemics in the last 50 years.

This ability to "spread" his brutal brand of politics is suggested when we meet Cohn in the play. We see Roy operating from a "very elaborate phone system", with "rows and rows of flashing buttons…". The stage directions note that "Roy conducts business with great energy, impatience, and sensual abandon; gesticulating, shouting, cajoling, crooning, playing the phone, receiver and hold button with virtuosity and love" ("Millennium" 11). The significance of this imagery is driven home in Part II of the play, "Perestroika", when Cohn is in the hospital with a phone that has only one line. He complains, "And get me a real phone, with a hold button, I mean look at this, it's just one little line, how am I supposed to perform basic bodily functions on this" (19).

The visceral references to "sensuality", "playing the phone", and "bodily functions" are not accidental, and remind readers that Cohn's phone, like Trump's Twitter account, was his way of spreading his politics of white male supremacy, a politics that glorifies the worst impulses of capitalism and is based on the degradation of others.

Cover of Angels in America, Part I: Millennium Approaches (revised ed. paperback) Theatre Communications Group. December 2013.

The intimate links between Cohn and Trump go deeper in Kushner's play. Look, for example, at the way queer, left-leaning Louis (a Tony Kushner-like character) describes Roy when finding out that Joe, the conservative Reaganite he is involved with, is a Cohn acolyte who may also have been Roy's lover. Louis is stunned because in Louis's world, Cohn is "like the polestar of human evil… like the worst human being who ever lived" ("Perestroika" 93).

A quick Twitter search for "worst person" and "Trump" pulls up hundreds of bitter, humorous, yet very serious tweets reflecting ideas like "How did we let the worst person in the world (or US) become in charge of keeping the world safe?". Many truly cannot imagine a worse person leading such a powerful, troubled state and respond like Louis with despair and hyperbole.

A litany of Cohn's characteristics and statements from the play also do more than suggest Trump; they are Trump. For example, Cohn's focus on loyalty at all costs (a one-way loyalty that does not make Roy accountable to others) is suggested in both "Millennium" (64) and "Perestroika" (50). We also see the one Black character in the play, the under-developed voice of reason and Cohn's nurse, Belize, noting "From what I read, you never paid a fucking bill in your life" ("Perestroika" 51), while in another section, Roy advises Belize, " Hire a lawyer, sue somebody, it's good for the soul" (79). Roy mocks pity as "repulsive" (80), while his man Joe ridicules sympathy as "contemptible" ("Millennium" 77) and "softness and weakness" as bearing their own kind of "violence" ("Millennium" 70).

And more. Cohn insists to his doctor that having sex with men does not make him homosexual; the "reality", he asserts, is that he is a heterosexual "who fucks around with guys" because, in his mind, gay men are weak and politically impotent and he is neither of those because he can bring his lover to meet President Reagan. Just as we see with Trump today, the white men of power Roy Cohn walks with, winking and nodding, let him force his own reality upon others and change the very definition of words to suit (46).

Indeed, all of Cohn's attributes in the play are deeply familiar to anyone following the travesty of US politics and leadership in recent years. Trump is notorious for his litigiousness, failure to pay his debts, and his contempt for what he deems "softness". The US president lies at will and makes things up to fit his perceived or desired reality, one that involves him as all-powerful and universally loved/feared.

Most prophetic, however, may be Cohn's statement explaining why the "Establishment" hates him: "Because I know no rules," he states ("Millennium" 66). This observation is followed by another telling example from Roy's mentee Joe (a clerk for New York's Second Appellate court). Going to work accidentally on a Sunday, Joe enters the "Hall of Justice" and naturally finds the building empty. Thinking it is Monday and that something earth-shattering has occurred, he imagines that the "whole Hall of Justice" is "deserted, it's gone out of business. Forever" ("Millennium" 72). Joe's deep connection to Cohn has made a world without formal structures of justice imaginable, just as Trump makes many fear that US justice, deeply flawed as it is, may be inalterably changed for the worse under his administration.

These statements were written 25 years before Trump took office and yet capture the essence of his presidency: his failure to respect rules of any sort—and disdain for those who do—and his use of the US justice system as a weapon, an extreme form of his narcissistic tendencies to see all things (even a federal justice system that has worked for centuries to keep personal interests in check) through his own narrow sense of self.

The parallels between the "fictional" Cohn in Kushner's Angels in America and Trump today remind us how easily politics of power transmit from one generation to the next. How stories of the privileged -- those drenched in unearned credibility -- can help us understand the impulses toward power embedded in capitalist white supremacy. Kushner was very deliberate in making his "AIDS" play an intersection between physical illness and the rhetorics that create the realities of our lives. He knew we can't assess the health of a nation without understanding its intersecting moral and political values.

Today, as outlets such as Vox announce "Police Brutality and Covid-19 Are Both Public Health Crises", the intersection between viruses and politics remains fundamental. The new century -- which has given us new technology, America's first Black president and, at times, new hope for a better democracy -- could not change that fact. A reading of Kushner's master work does not offer the final answers to how we should understand politics as virus or HIV and COVID-19 as politics, but it does offer a great deal of insight into some of the roots of the many public health crises we are dealing with today. And we need all the insight we can get.

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Works Cited

Brenner, Marie. "How Donald Trump and Roy Cohn's Ruthless Symbiosis Changed America". Vanity Fair. 28 June 2017.

Gibson, Caitlyn. " A Disturbing New Glimpse at the Reagan Administration's Indifference to Aids". Washington Post. 1 December 2015. Accessed 4 June 2020.

"Global Information and Education on HIV and Aids". History of HIV and AIDS Overview. Avert. Accessed 3 June 2020.

Kushner, Tony. Angels in America, Part I: Millennium Approaches (revised ed. paperback) Theatre Communications Group. December 2013.

Kushner, Tony. Angels in America, Part II: Perestroika. Broadway Play Publishing, Inc. January 2017.

Little, Becky. "Roy Cohn: From Ruthless 'Red Scare' Prosecutor to Donald Trump's Mentor". History. 12 March 2019. Accessed 4 June 2020.

Logue, Gina. Roy Cohn. The First Amendment Encyclopedia. Accessed 4 June 2020.

Page, Susan and Nick Penzenstadler. Exclusive: " Trump's 3500 Lawsuits Unprecedented for a Presidential Nominee". USA Today. 1 June 2016. Accessed 4 June 2020.

Reilly, Steve. " USA Today Exclusive: Hundreds Allege Donald Trump Doesn't Pay His Bills". USA Today, 9 June 2016. Accessed 4 June 2020.

Resnick. Brian. " Police Brutality Is a Public Health Crisis. Vox. 1 June 2020. Accessed 4 June 2020.

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