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Trump's coronavirus mask standoff reveals the dangerous ripples of fragile masculinity

Imagine being so scared of appearing vulnerable (to a deadly virus) that you're willing to potentially hurt yourself, or others — or even die — to keep up the masquerade.
Image: President Trump Delivers Remarks At The White House On COVID-19 Testing
President Donald Trump speaks during a press briefing about coronavirus testing in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 11, 2020.Drew Angerer / Getty Images

In 2010, a car insurance company conducted a study that concluded the average man will drive an unnecessary 276 miles a year before he asks for directions. How many American lives will President Donald Trump negatively affect before he has the courage to ask for directions?

The president was already the poster child for an outdated, dangerous and defunct form of masculinity before the coronavirus hit. But now that we are in the midst of a global pandemic, he has become a pathetic parody.

The president was already the poster child for an outdated, dangerous and defunct form of masculinity before the coronavirus hit.

While female heads of state in New Zealand and Germany have led with a mix of compassion and informed strength, Trump has taken the opposite approach.

”'I don't take responsibility at all,” the president said in March after downplaying a virus that has killed more Americans than the two-decades-long war in Vietnam. Instead of taking rapid action, he dragged his feet and called the virus a “hoax.” Instead of unifying the country, he deployed racism, refused to even mention victims, and suggested people might want to casually inject themselves with bleach. Instead of modeling safety, he has shaken hands with visiting CEOs on live television.

But nothing reveals the dangers of Trump’s ego more clearly than his refusal to wear a mask. Even when he delivered his own agency’s guidelines of wearing cloth masks in public, Trump said he himself wouldn’t be complying with them. Now, predictably, the virus has reached the White House. As of this week, all staff must now wear face masks. Everyone except the alleged man in charge.

But this isn’t about masks (at least, not entirely) — this is also about manhood. Sources close to the White House have leaked that the president believes that wearing a protective cloth covering is “a sign of weakness.” This is no surprise, given that Trump loves to publicly humiliate other men for falling short of society’s expectations of masculinity. Whether it was mocking Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., for crying, former Vice President Joe Biden for being “physically weak,Sen Marco Rubio, R-Fla., for being “little” or claiming former Energy Secretary and onetime presidential rival Rick Perry didn’t have the “toughness” to debate him, Trump’s sense of self-worth has always depended in tearing down men around him.

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Trump is as afraid of masks as he is of women. As Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., told me over Zoom last week, “we have a president who acts like he’s this big macho guy but he doesn’t take responsibility for anything. ... Donald Trump is like the apotheosis of a kind of manhood that leads us straight to hell.”

Maybe the president is scared to wear a real mask because it would mean removing the figurative one he’s been hiding behind his whole life.

In other words, maybe the president is scared to wear a real mask because it would mean removing the figurative one he’s been hiding behind his whole life.

Trump’s refusal to protect himself and those around him has been criticized by health experts who contend, as they have for weeks, that masks are one of the key ways to stop the spread of the coronavirus. But the decision is also being hailed as a man’s man portrayal of virility and valor by some of his loyal foot soldiers. For instance, the conservative writer David Marcus at The Federalist noted that he is relieved the president refuses to protect himself, as wearing a mask would be “a searing image of weakness” and “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.” Nothing like a deadly pandemic to show us to what extent men are expected to hide the fact that they are human.

God forbid people would find out that men and boys are worthy of protection, too. Men are already more likely to die from drowning, early death, work-related accidents and now COVID-19. The last thing we need is a president who uses his bully pulpit to promote an outdated male code that disproportionately endangers his own gender, especially given that wearing a mask doesn’t just potentially help protect the person wearing it, it protects others. In this sense, not wearing a mask is actually antithetical to (still outdated) masculinity stereotypes that suggest a man’s job is to be the protector and provider.

But ultimately, Trump’s petulance says more about him than it does about men. Imagine being so scared of appearing vulnerable (to a deadly virus) that you think a 6-inch piece of fabric will undermine your entire presidency. A man so afraid to reveal weakness he’s willing to potentially hurt himself, or others — or even die — to keep up his own masquerade.

No wonder his army of conservative yes men are standing by him. They know his base’s support is just as fragile as his manhood. Republicans aren’t secure enough to make it without him.

While we know that men (particularly white men) were a huge voting bloc for Trump, data shows fragile masculinity could be a strong indicator as well. For instance, data chronicled by the researchers Eric Knowles and Sarah DiMuccio showed that areas where more men had googled “erectile dysfunction” were more likely to go for Trump. This correlation did not exist with other Republican candidates like John McCain in 2008 or Mitt Romney in 2012. And remember when Trump bragged about his penis size on the debate stage and once called an opponent "a pussy"? The message to these men was and still is clear: Voting for me will help you feel powerful again.

There are several instances of male leaders trying to handle this crisis with compassion (and masks!). But unfortunately they are not in charge.

During my reporting on the 2016 election, Trump supporters told me time and time again that they loved him because he was a tough guy. But isn’t it about time we changed the definition of what a tough guy is? Many female leaders have shown us what toughness looks like. Trump should take notes.

I started my book "For the Love of Men: A Vision for Mindful Masculinity" by arguing “there is no greater threat to humankind than our current definition of masculinity.” People told me I was being hyperbolic. But right now, it doesn’t seem like an exaggeration to say that the consequences of toxic masculinity have deadly ripple effects.

It’s likely the majority of Americans in my generation will know someone who got ill from the virus. For many Americans, it’s too late. But we can choose this moment to steer the ship in a different direction. November is the chance to hit reset and demand a leader who puts his duty toward others above any male code. We can challenge male leaders everywhere to model a form of masculinity that includes deferring to experts (even women!), showing compassion, expressing regret and openly and humbly seeking advice.

In an attempt to appear strong, Trump has made all of America weaker.