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Trump vs. Biden? This coronavirus mask photo may be 2020's best Rorschach test

Fox's Brit Hume looked at Biden in a mask and perceived something negative, perhaps even unpresidential. But what do others think? I decided to conduct a very unscientific poll.
Image: Joe Biden, Jill Biden
Joe Biden and Jill Biden depart after placing a wreath at the Delaware Memorial Bridge Veterans Memorial Park, on May 25, 2020, in New Castle, Del.Patrick Semansky / AP

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the apparent Democratic nominee for president, made his first public appearance in two months over the Memorial Day weekend, visiting a veterans memorial near his home in Delaware. Joined by his wife, he laid a wreath while wearing a black mask. Shortly after his surprise appearance, Fox News analyst Brit Hume tweeted a picture of Biden with the message, “this might help explain why Trump doesn’t like to wear a mask in public…” The tweet was then retweeted by the president of the United States.

My first reaction to Hume’s tweet was frustration. The idea that wearing a mask in public is in any way a discussion for public debate illustrates how much things have deteriorated under the Trump presidency. To be clear, according to the guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), wearing a mask or face covering is critical to “slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others.” Even the surgeon general, a Trump appointee, publicly posted about the need to “protect each other” by wearing a “face covering when out in public.” That should be the end of any conversation about the necessity to wear a mask in public.

And, somehow, wearing a mask in public has become a type of political Rorschach test, even though common sense would dictate public health should trump vanity. A lot of this has to do with the president himself. Trump has publicly pushed back against wearing a mask, a decision applauded by those on the far-right who argue a mask suggests weakness.

David Marcus at The Federalist wrote, for example, that Trump wearing a mask would seem “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.”

Meanwhile, research in May concluded that men were less likely than women to wear masks. These findings are at least partially upheld by a Gallup poll showing 29 percent of men always wore a mask or cloth face covering in public, compared to 44 percent of women.

Clearly, Brit Hume is not the only one who looked at Biden in a mask and perceived something negative, perhaps even unpresidential. But what do others think? I decided to conduct a very unscientific poll of my own.

Ron Klain, a longtime Biden adviser and the man President Barack Obama selected to serve as his Ebola czar in 2014, told me that when he looked at the photo of Biden, he saw “the consequences of our current president’s botched handling of COVID, and the man who will replace him to fix the health and economic messes Trump is incapable of addressing.” To Klain’s point, as we saw throughout the Memorial Day weekend, too many Americans following Trump’s lead and ignoring guidelines and directives from the medical community.

Dr. Jason Johnson, a Morgan State University journalism and communications associate professor and an MSNBC contributor, made this analogy: “You wouldn’t characterize a photo of George W. Bush or Barack Obama in a car wearing a seat belt as a safety issue. The fact that it’s being framed as a political message or symbol is part of the problem. What we should be asking or questioning are the people who don’t wear a mask. It doesn’t matter if you look cool or not.”

Of course, to Trump, everything is about optics. After all, campaigns are about perception — and so are reality television shows. So is the president’s "no-mask in public" campaign a winning strategy? Not so much.

Richard Levick, the chairman and CEO of the crisis and public affairs firm LEVICK, made the point that “over 70 percent of Americans think people should be wearing masks, no one thinks it’s a fashion statement — it’s a health statement.” That doesn’t mean that Levick likes the look. “Does Biden look good in the mask? No, none of us do,” he said. “That’s not why we wear it. We wear it because we are willing to sacrifice our attractiveness for health. It’s reality vs. reality TV.”

Liz Allen, an Obama White House alum who now serves as a managing director at the Glover Park Group’s strategic communications division, thinks the picture of Biden needs more context to be fully understood. Trump spent much of the holiday weekend golfing. This is ultimately about modeling good behavior. “Sure it’s about protecting himself and those immediately around him, but more than that, it’s about understanding the mantle of leadership,” she said.

Trump spent much of the holiday weekend golfing. This is ultimately about modeling good behavior.

And what about all the concern over masks and masculinity? Conservative commentator Tara Setmayer, whom I’ve known since 2006 when we both worked for Republican congressmen from Southern California, told me the mask really is symbolic of a man who is secure in his manhood, “not a petulant man-child driven by faux bravado and malignant narcissism.”

Another former colleague of mine, conservative commentator Matt Lewis, made the observation that “one man creates the illusion of masculinity by projecting invulnerability. The other lives the virtues of manliness by protecting others.” Perhaps former Missouri senator and NBC/MSNBC contributor Claire McCaskill said it best: “Real men wear masks.”

Following the Bay of Pigs debacle, President John F. Kennedy famously said, “victory has 100 fathers, defeat is an orphan.” Trump has made himself the literal (and uncovered) face of the coronavirus. His “do as I say, not as I do” mentality is putting the lives of the citizens he swore to protect at risk. And out of fear or vanity or toxic masculinity — or sheer stupidity — he is willing to risk exposure to a pandemic that has claimed more than 100,000 lives in the United States alone.

There are a lot of things you can say about Biden. But he’s enough of a leader to know that you sometimes have to make tough choices for the greater benefit. The good news is, wearing a mask isn’t a tough choice at all.