Despite knowing full well the furor that Vice President Mike Pence raised by not wearing a mask during a Mayo Clinic visit in late April, Donald Trump refused to wear a mask when visiting Honeywell factory in Arizona earlier this week — a factory that makes masks. This wasn’t just a symbolic nose-thumbing at people’s reasonable desire to be safe. Trump and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows were putting the lives of Honeywell employees in danger.
After all, masks are not primarily meant to protect the mask-wearer, but to protect others, since there’s clear evidence that people who are infected but have no symptoms can spread the coronavirus. Trump is regularly exposed to the virus, in fact — one of his personal valets just tested positive — and is a prime candidate to be such a carrier.
Of course Trump doesn’t care about other people, only his ego and his appearance. Reporting from the Associated Press confirms this, as a Thursday article explained Trump told advisers that wearing a mask would “send the wrong message.”
“The president said doing so would make it seem like he is preoccupied with health instead of focused on reopening the nation’s economy,” the AP reporters write.
This is another example of Trump’s false dichotomy between saving the economy and fighting the virus. After all, the economy isn’t going to recover if millions are sick and people are afraid to leave their houses — and early evidence from the states that have tried to “reopen” their economies makes that clear. But there’s also good reason to believe that the Trump-Pence antipathy to wearing masks signals to something deeper and darker.
Even before Trump started to make a big show out of not wearing a mask, it was common, at least in my South Philadelphia neighborhood, to see MAGA-hat-clad white men walking around without masks, delivering contemptuous sneers to the rest of us suckers who are covering our noses and mouths. Fox News host Laura Ingraham, in her friendly competition with fellow host Tucker Carlson to see who can be the most obnoxious, has started to demonize mask-wearing by claiming that public health advisories are somehow a conspiracy to sow “fear and intimidation.”
(Considering that mask-wearing to protect others took off in Asia long before Trump even ran for president, Ingraham’s conspiracy theory doesn’t possess even the most remote logical consistency.)
Between Trump and Fox News, the practice of mask-wearing is swiftly becoming another culture-war flashpoint. But the question is why. After all, masks seem to make people feel more comfortable with going out in public and going to work, and those are both things Trump dearly wants Americans to return to doing.
But Trump and his most ardent supporters seem almost physically repulsed at the very idea of wearing a mask. One Republican Ohio state legislator even claimed that since “we are all created in the image and likeness of God,” covering the face with a mask is an affront to God’s creation. (Many have noted that this same argument could be made against the practice of wearing pants.)
Ultimately, the rejection of mask-wearing really goes back to the fact that Trump, Ingraham and their most faithful followers are guided by fascist impulse, even when they don’t or can’t articulate a fully fleshed-out fascist ideology. Above all other things, the fascist personality is one that rejects even the possibility of sickness. To wear a mask is to publicly admit that one’s body is suspectible to illness, which is coded as “weak” and therefore unacceptable.
Natascha Strobl, an Austrian political scientist who is an expert in far-right organizing and rhetoric, had an important English-language Twitter thread in early April about why the far right was embracing the view that the coronavirus should simply be allowed to run wild. From the beginning, this has been the view Trump clearly prefers on an emotional level and has pushed federal policy toward all along. While Strobl didn’t mention masks, her observations also help explain why these same folks are repulsed by mask-wearing.
The fascist narrative, Strobl explained, is that “men aren’t men anymore, but nervous, urban, overly intellectualized and (here it comes) sickly weaklings.
“Weakness is never worthy of protection and has to be cast out. This is fascism,” she continues. The fascist believes that those viewed as “weak” have an obligation to die “without protest for the greater good” and that if “they don’t do it, they are weak and the weak drag everyone else down and therefore must be done away with.”
To wear a mask, in other words, indicates a belief that your personal body can become infected. A fascist-minded person like Trump cannot admit such a thing, either because he genuinely believes he is too strong to be affected by the virus or because he fears looking weak in public. Just as important, wearing a mask indicates care and concern for others, especially those who are high-risk. But the fascist-minded person doesn’t want to protect those viewed as “weak” — in fact, those people are expected to die so as not to be a burden on others. As Strobl points out, the far right believes that by becoming seriously ill or dying in service to some warped conception of the greater good, the “weak” can prove themselves strong through their sacrifice.
Trump hasn’t exactly concealed his impulse to see the coronavirus as a force that culls the herd of its weakest members, or to perceive that the “weak” can be redeemed through this morbid, sadistic ritual sacrifice. This week, he repeatedly insisted that Americans should think of themselves as “warriors” who bravely go forth and face the virus for the cause of, well, his re-election, which he is convinced depends on reopening the economy without bothering with the testing protocols, contact tracing and other precautions that could make doing so both safe and feasible.
(Even if people are willing to die for a noble cause, it’s worth pausing here and observing gently that Donald Trump’s re-election campaign is not such a cause.)
Moreover, Trump has always made a point of presenting himself as the fascist version of the Übermensch, even as he is likely too dim to know that word or what it signifies. Trump is forever bragging about his alleged “good genes,” which he often invokes as being so powerful as to render him a genius-level expert in any number of subjects, from medicine to economics to military strategy, without any need to do anything as weak and effeminate as learning stuff. Wearing a mask would go against his effort to present himself as possessing near-supernatural genetic powers to repel the sorts of viruses with which mere mortals must contend.
Of course, Trump doesn’t actually believe his own lies on this subject (nor on many others). As NBC News has reported, when Trump found out that a White House valet had the coronavirus, he became “lava level mad” at his staff and accused them of not doing enough to protect him. His public bravado is, as with all things Trump, a thin mask plastered over a deep well of insecurity. He may want you to believe his immune system is superhuman, but he knows full well that his obese and shattered 73-year-old physique puts him in the category of the high-risk people he and his fellow Republicans are treating as weaklings better off culled from the herd.
Unfortunately, because face masks have become such a potent symbol to far-right culture warriors of values they reject, such as equality and compassion, we can only expect the symbolic clash over masks to escalate. More and more conservatives, especially men, will try to prove their superior masculine strength and power by refusing to wear them. This is childish, selfish and entirely counterproductive, of course. What else can we expect from Trump and his followers, who are the real weaklings in this unhappy social equation?