When President Trump returned to the White House after four days in Walter Reed Hospital due to contracting COVID-19, his first act was to remove his face mask on camera and to shove it into his pocket. We lack Sarah Cooper’s Trump-whispering skills, but his facial expressions seemed to signal a sneer that was angry and disgusted, but then turned defiant and triumphant, as he pumped his fist. His “covita” moment was brilliantly parodied in an ad by The Lincoln Project, a PAC formed by current and former Republicans dedicated to ensuring Donald Trump is not re-elected.
The White House defended this reckless act that flouted any sound medical advice—since Trump was still contagious and put people around him at risk—by explaining that he needed to project “strength” as a world leader. Trump seeks to cast himself as a “hero leader who conquered COVID-19,” even as COVID-19 has become the third leading cause of death in the United States—and each day more people in the White House and his administration test positive for the virus. But a more apt reading is that Trump’s performance of “strength” shows a dangerous conception of masculinity in which “strong leader” means being a “strong man” akin to an authoritarian or dictator who brooks no disagreement. His defiant removal of his mask is yet another example of this toxic form of masculinity—or, more aptly, “mask-ulinity”—which associates not wearing a mask with toughness and wearing one with shame and weakness. This defiance of mask-wearing is a performance with serious, indeed lethal, consequences, given the symbolic impact of the bully pulpit and leading by (bad) example.
Democratic presidential nominee Vice President Joe Biden offers a different performance of masculinity, countering these misguided notions about strength and leadership. After expressing wishes for Trump’s recovery, he referred to it as a “bracing reminder’ to “take this virus seriously,” including by wearing masks: “Be patriotic. It’s not about being a tough guy. It’s about doing your part.”
Biden then tweeted a video with starkly contrasting images of him and his opponent: Trump, confirmed carrier of active COVID-19 infection, tearing off his mask, and Biden, uninfected, but wearing a black mask. The images came with a tagline: Masks Matter. They Save Lives. It was this ad that provoked Fox News commentator Tomi Lahren to quip “Might as Well Carry a Purse with That Mask, Joe” on Twitter, prompting a resurgence of the “Fellas, Is it Gay” meme—“Fellas, is it gay to want to live?” was the essence of many replies to Lahren’s tweet.
If we view this 2020 presidential race between two septuagenarian white men as a battle over competing models of American masculinity, then Biden offers one that embraces the empathy for which he is famous and shows strong leadership through seeking to protect Americans and take—rather than evade—responsibility.
Being a “tough guy” is central to Trump’s entire political persona, so much so that his supporters predicted that he would certainly beat COVID-19 because he was tough, not weak (like liberals), and had superior, even “God-tier” genes (again, unlike liberals).
This “tough guy” image has warped any chance for Trump to learn from his experience with COVID-19, even though he promised he had learned some “interesting things” he would share with the nation. Instead, what he learned is that because he beat COVID-19 (or so he reports)—with multiple experimental treatments and the highest available level of 24/7 medical care—others should not “fear” it or let it “dominate” their lives. Of course, this is an outrageous message for relatives of the more than 210,000 people who lost their lives to COVID-19 and the numerous people who still dealing with health consequences from their own cases. He doubled down on this message by posting a video directed to “seniors,” which says, in a confusing word salad, that they should not let people call them “vulnerable.”
As if battling COVID-19 were an athletic competition, Trump implies that he not only competed successfully, but emerged feeling better than he had in twenty years. He claims to have beaten the virus because he is “a perfect physical specimen.” One cannot help but recall his boast several years ago about his excellent health and stamina—that when he looked into the mirror, he saw a man half his age. Perhaps next will be a reworked version of the meme Trump retweeted of Trump successfully wrestling CNN to the ground in the ring, this time with COVID-19 in one corner and Trump the victor. (Georgia GOP Senator, Kelly Loeffler already posted her own version of a Trump-wrestles-Covid-to-the-ground video.)
One implication of Trump’s unscientific takeaways based on his experience is that those who don’t defeat COVID-19 either were not strong enough or did not try hard enough. He called into a Fox News show and explained his experience: “You catch this thing. A lot of people caught it. What happens is, you get better. That’s what happens: you get better.” He expresses this despite the fact that America has one of the highest COVID-19 death rates in the world—and hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives to the virus (including one of his supporters, former presidential candidate Herman Cain, who almost certainly contracted the disease at a maskless Trump rally and died a few weeks later.) The distillation of Trump’s extreme narcissism and lack of empathy stands here in sharp contrast to Biden’s consistent expression of care and empathy for the millions who have contracted COVID-19 and the tragic number of people who have lost someone to the virus. While Trump never questions the lethal consequences of his reckless risk-taking with the Nation’s health, Biden continually argues that it did not have to be this way and, at least, going forward, we can take measures to minimize the loss of life and to move toward economic recovery in a more equitable way.
Four years ago, as we observed at the time, Trump contrasted his own supposed physical superiority to the lack of “stamina” shown by Democratic nominee Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. When she faltered in getting into a car because she had pneumonia, he crudely imitated her and sought to exploit this evidence that she was weak. Trump told a cheering crowd: “Here’s a woman. She’s supposed to fight all of these different things, and she can’t make it fifteen feet to her car. Give me a break. . . . We need stamina. We need energy.” Maybe to avoid a perception that he lacked “stamina” or “energy,” even while hospitalized and being treated for COVID-19 with multiple experimental drugs, Trump recklessly insisted on being taken for a Covid joyride, putting those trapped in the hermetically sealed car with him at risk of contracting the disease themselves.
Clinton was not the only victim of his toxic masculinity. Trump engaged in masculinity contests with his numerous Republican opponents, referred to Marco Rubio as “little Marco.” After an ill-advised snipe about Trump’s small hands, Trump responded by reassuring a debate audience that there was nothing little about him—perhaps alluding to the size of his penis. There’s an entire Wikipedia page devoted to the insults he uses for adversaries and the nicknames he uses for co-conspirators. His strong, manly friends are Mr. Tough Guy (John Bolton), Mike Pounce (Pence), Mad Dog (James Mattis), and Big Luther (Strange). His enemies are Sleepy Joe (Biden), Mini Mike (Bloomberg), Liddle’ Bob (Corker), Lightweight (Kirsten Gillibrand), and Fat Jerry (Nadler).
Four years after enduring his sexist rampages against Hillary, we now face Trump’s determination to have us believe that the size of one’s mask and frequency of wearing one are inversely proportional to fitness to lead the country. At the first presidential debate, just two days before we learned of Trump’s positive diagnosis, Trump criticized Biden for his obsessive mask-wearing (“Every time you see him, he’s got a mask”), compared to Trump, who erroneously claimed he wore one when he needed to do so. He also mocked Biden’s mask size: “He could be speaking 200 feet away from them, and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.”
This harkened back to his debates with Clinton, in which he engaged in bullying behavior, lurking around her as she spoke and frequently interrupting her. In his first debate with Biden, he displayed similar behavior. Trump utterly disregarded the rules and moderator Chris Wallace and continually interrupted Biden’s answers. An exasperated Biden finally said: “Will you shut up, man? This is so unpresidential.”
Trump and his team have appealed to the need to be a strong leader to rationalize not only his mask removal at the White House but also his whole course of irresponsible behavior that preceded his COVID-19 diagnosis—the large rallies with no social distancing and optional masking and the super spreader event of the Rose Garden reception announcing Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination. Back in May, David Marcus opined in The Federalist that because “optics” matter, the President of the United States should not appear in public with a mask, because it would signal that “the United States is so powerless against this invisible enemy spring from China that even its president must cower behind a mask.” Since that time, at numerous gatherings, Trump and those in attendance have seemed to revel in their masklessness. Consider the video clips of maskless politicians and other VIPs since diagnosed with COVID-19 happily standing near each other and even hugging.
In his debate with Kamala Harris, Vice President Mike Pence followed Trump’s lead. He talked over and interrupted both his female opponent and the female moderator repeatedly, forcing Harris to utter repeatedly “I’m speaking,” in an effort to get him to respect her allotted time. The moderator tried unsuccessfully to stop Pence from interrupting and violating other rules agreed to by both campaigns by repeating “thank you, Mr. Vice President” over and over. It didn’t work. And his wife, Karen Pence, took the stage to greet her husband after the debate without a mask, despite a clear rule that everyone in the venue other than the two candidates had to be masked at all times.
Trump’s experience with COVID-19 seemed only to confirm his view that if the disease is a personal test of masculinity, and that his recklessness is a sign of strong leadership. After his release from Walter Reed, Trump released some videos claiming that, as a leader, he couldn’t just stay locked away in a room but had to go out among the people, even if that meant taking risks—like completely disregarding state and federal safety guidelines about COVID-19. (This tweet captures the symbolism well.) The not-so-subtle comparison was with Democratic presidential nominee Vice President Joe Biden, whom Trump and his team repeatedly mocked for hiding in his basement in the early months of the pandemic instead of being out on the campaign trail. When Biden did make public appearances, Trump and company ridiculed his mask wearing. Trump’s masklessness and ambivalence about the effectiveness of masks became a partisan political issue, legitimating behavior putting people at risk. Further, this performance of “tough guy” masculinity may not only reflect but also contribute to a partisan divide among men: the “primary resistors” of mask wearing have been Republican men, the majority of whom also do not believe that Trump should wear a mask. Tragically, mask resistance has also turned violent and even lethal when those attempting to enforce mask-wearing rules are the targets of mask resistors.
But some mask resistance may stem from not wanting to piss off the boss. Within Trump’s orbit, his aversion to masks evidently led many to disregard their own health and that of those around him lest they fear angering him. As a result, after his spree of large public gatherings—indoor and outdoor—more and more staff go into quarantine.
There is hope that it is possible to reject and move beyond Trump’s reckless and retrograde model of masculinity. Some years ago, we criticized Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for characterizing political opponents as “girlie men,” a slur that tapped into the assumption that real leaders were manly and that women were incapable of strong leadership. But, in the pandemic, Schwarzenegger has not embraced Trump’s toxic mask-ulinity. To the contrary, in June 2020, after California Governor Gavin Newsom issued an order requiring that people wear face coverings in public spaces in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19, Schwarzenegger tweeted his support: “This is 100% the right move.” He noted that the science was unanimous and that it was not a political issue. (He also resorted to gratuitous insult to exclaim that “Anyone making it a political issue is an absolute moron who can’t read.”) The former bodybuilder and Terminator star wears (and sells) face masks with the slogan (referencing the movie series) “We’ll be back.” (And he says he’s unlikely to vote for Trump because of his anti-environmental policies.)
By contrast to Schwarzenegger’s reliance on science, Trump has warred with the scientific experts on his own Coronavirus Task Force and trusted his own “gut” and intuition more than expertise. His announcement, after his hospitalization for COVID-19, continued that reckless disregard, claiming that his experience was “the real school,” better than “book learning.” His dangerous pronouncements about the virus since his release have led to social media sites removing some of them. Earlier this week, Dr. Rick Bright, who filed a whistleblower complaint after being removed from his position of leading efforts to develop a vaccine, resigned from the NIH declared that the Trump administration “ignores scientific evidence, overrules public health guidance, and disrespects career scientists.”
This brash and reckless disregard of science, public health, and expertise is part and parcel of Trump’s brash performance of masculinity. In 2016, many Trump supporters found his style refreshing—“he tells it like it is.” By contrast, Democratic nominee Clinton was the epitome of “book learning” and expertise. After recklessly contracting COVID-19, Trump now claims he has superior knowledge about the disease—“I learned a lot about Covid. I learned it by really going to school. This is the real school, this isn’t the let’s-read-a-book school,” he explained in a video from the hospital. A veteran of political institutions and working within government, Clinton represented the very establishment Trump promised to tear down in “draining the swamp.” As we argued in our earlier column, Clinton, as a woman, bore the brunt not only of Trump’s explicit sexist remarks and behavior, but also the implicit bias directed toward female candidates, such as the trade-off between being likable and competent.
Now, Trump’s “I alone can fix it” bravado has left the United States in a dreadful condition both with respect to the economy and the pandemic. His utter lack of empathy for the disproportionate toll the economic and public health crises have taken on Black people and other people of color—overrepresented among essential workers—is manifest when he declares that Americans are learning to live with COVID-19. That lack of empathy is also glaring in Trump’s “tough guy” embrace of “law and order” and denial of systemic racism, while refusing to condemn unequivocally the resurgent white supremacy that is the greatest domestic terrorist threat the country faces.
To paraphrase Joe Biden’s take on Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic: “It didn’t have to be this way.” More empathic leadership that cooperated with, rather than defied, scientific and public health experts and urged Americans to follow guidelines for protecting themselves could have resulted in a less catastrophic toll from the pandemic. As one of us written elsewhere (with Naomi Cahn), one aspect of Trump’s toxic masculinity has been an exaggerated emphasis on “reopening” the economy without sufficient regard to how to protect workers and public health while doing so. That emphasis continues with Trump’s impatient tweeting, in recent days, about reopening the economy and his discounting of the dangers of COVID-19, since he lived to tell his tale about beating it (at least so far).
Notably, empathy and cooperation are skills often coded feminine. Women are prominent among the national leaders who have been most effective in fighting the pandemic. (New Zealand has eliminated the virus completely for a second time.) It’s hard to imagine President Trump emulating some of the qualities associated with this leadership style, such as listening with humility to other voices and making sure people with diverse backgrounds and expertise are at the table! However, it is not unreasonable to believe that Biden could model such leadership and that, longer-term, it would be possible to retire Trump’s toxic form of masculinity—and save the rest of us from COVID-19.