Masks and Masculinity: Trump’s Strong Man Performance

President Donald Trump’s refusal to wear a mask in public serves as a form of masculinity performance that characterizes Trump as a strong man—tougher than the COVID-19 virus, and unable to be controlled by establishment forces telling him what to do. While angered that staff at the White House were not doing enough to protect him, after his own valet tested positive, Trump has been dismissive of wearing a mask himself. At a tour of a Ford plant in Michigan, Trump reportedly acquiesced to factory policy in wearing a mask during a private meeting with executives, but wouldn’t keep the mask on in public. Trump claimed he “didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it.” Conservative journalist David Marcus wrote for The Federalist that wearing a face-covering “would signal that the United States is so powerless against this invisible enemy sprung from China that even its president must cower behind a mask.” Trump’s position on masks feeds into the image of his “manhood,” signifying practices of dominant masculinity that shape his appeal, as my co-authors and I found in research we conducted in the lead-up to the 2016 election.

Supporters celebrated Trump’s “politically incorrect” spirit, admiring Trump’s ability to be brazenly honest and “tell it like it is.” One male respondent in our research claimed that Trump “was saying a lot of stuff upfront that needed to be said that nobody else would say,” defying the perceived censorship of a politically correct (PC) establishment. (In the present moment, that “PC” establishment is often medical experts attempting to disseminate public health information, often silenced by Trump as he makes dangerous suggestions such as the possibility of injecting disinfectant as a treatment for COVID-19.) His most egregious actions were excused as going hand-in-hand with his “natural self,” a masculine power that could not be stifled. Many supporters used a “boys will be boys” frame in minimizing his faults. Some men even identified with his misogynistic language: during a discussion of the Access Hollywood tapes, in which Trump discusses sexually grabbing women without consent, as one male supporter advertised, “You should hear what I say around my friends.”

Trump’s “fighting” spirit was valued by respondents as an indicator that he would not be “bossed around” by the political establishment. Many explicitly identified Trump as “tough” or “strong,” admiring Trump for “never backing down.” In a culture where masculinity is measured through conquests and dominance, aggressive business strategy was a plus for Trump supporters. Respondents extended Trump’s reputation to “make deals” into the political realm, arguing that he would prevent the United States from being “taken advantage of” by rival nations. A male respondent discussed how Trump had “the guts” to “stand up to Iran,” and later stated, “If Trump wins I think we’re going to have a return to patriotism on the national stage, a return to championing American exceptionalism… we’re gonna have a military that is stronger, and that has not been, you know, emasculated, I see us having a leader that other countries will respect and that our enemies will fear. I think it would be like Reagan-esque, it would be like a sort of new nationalism, and it would be like America returning to prominence in a lot of ways.” This kind of reference to the idea that the U.S. had been feminized under Democratic leadership appeared frequently in comments by interview subjects. His authoritarian “tough talk” reinforced masculine ideas of strength and violence as necessary for problem-solving, and respondents repeated these ideas to claim that Trump would not allow competing nations to “step out of line” without severe consequences. Trump’s combative approach to China over the COVID-19 pandemic is illustrative of this approach.

With findings that female-led nations are dealing better with the COVID-19 pandemic, the attraction to the presentation of hegemonic masculinity carries tangible repercussions in the present moment. A recent survey in the U.S. found that men are less likely than women to wear masks because they are seen as “shameful” and “a sign of weakness.” As Trump feeds his macho image, ignoring public health risks, he signals to other men what a “real man” should act like.