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Even while sick with Covid-19, Trump sees masks as a symbol of weakness

President Donald Trump’s erratic behavior fits what behavioral scientists call “precarious masculinity.”

President Donald Trump removes his face mask while standing on a White House balcony
President Donald Trump removes his face mask upon returning to the White House following a dayslong hospitalization for Covid-19.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

President Donald Trump has been pretty active for a sick man.

After testing positive for the coronavirus, being airlifted to a hospital. and receiving experimental treatments, steroids, and supplemental oxygen, Trump began a series of public appearances. While he was still hospitalized, Secret Service members drove him around the perimeter of Walter Reed medical center so he could wave to fans. On October 5, the day he was discharged, he posed for cameras and appeared in a campaign video — removing his mask, stuffing it into his pocket, and giving a double thumbs-up, as if to say he had conquered his illness.

His appearances and facial expressions fueled ongoing discussions about Trump’s health. People wanted to see how fit or unfit he looked physically, especially in the wake of topsy-turvy and confusing statements about the president’s condition from White House physician Sean Conley.

Trump’s displays of risky or even aggressive behavior following his Covid-19 diagnosis are actually a lot more common than they may seem. His behavior, which seems to fly in the face of reports about his tenuous health, fits a pattern of what behavioral scientists call “precarious masculinity.”

It’s the idea that traditionally masculine ideals — toughness, strength, power, virility — are hard to achieve and maintain. Men who see these qualities as part of their identity are constantly trying to demonstrate them in their words and actions. And when those men are threatened, they double down by performing risky and even self-damaging behaviors in order to compensate. The more public their actions, the more they feel like they’re reasserting their manhood.

It’s as though Trump sees his diagnosis as a dare, a slight against the power and health he has tried to project. Now he’s chosen to double down and prove his virility through risk with no real reward — particularly when it comes to eschewing the face mask, an item he considers weak. This is “precarious masculinity.”

Trump has always displayed performative or precarious masculinity

President Trump waves to supporters in a motorcade outside Walter Reed medical center on October 4, 2020, in Bethesda, Maryland.
Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images

To understand Trump’s behavior and actions now, it’s necessary to understand how masks — which medical experts say are crucial to fighting the spread of the coronavirus — were politicized in the first place, as well as what they stand for.

Prior to Trump’s diagnosis, right-wing pundits and Republican lawmakers turned masks into a political issue, often framing them as indicative of weakness or meek conformity. Actions such as Vice President Mike Pence’s maskless visit to the Mayo Clinic in April and Trump’s public doubts about Anthony Fauci’s credibility further painted masks as something “strong people” don’t need. Trump mocked Joe Biden for wearing a mask back in May, and even made fun of his opponent’s mask-wearing procedures during the first presidential debate.

As experts told me in previous interviews, masks are seen as a tangible acquiescence to the virus.

Since the virus is invisible and very tiny, traditional ways to display masculine dominance — physical competitions, aggression, beating something up — don’t work. Wearing a mask means living on the coronavirus’s terms, while not wearing a mask became a way for people, men specifically, to signal they were tougher than or unafraid of it.

And that helps explain why Trump stuffing his mask back into his pocket was a symbolic gesture: It was his attempt to appear strong, as if to say he had triumphed over the virus and had nothing left to fear. After the spectacle of his hospital discharge, Trump tweeted, “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.” He even promised to attend the October 15 debate, despite medical experts saying that people who come into contact with an infected individual should quarantine for at least 14 days.

Here, logic and science are just more foes for him to best; denying the infectiousness of the virus and his danger to others is another hole punch in his man card.

This phenomenon and Trump’s behavior is called “precarious manhood,” a term coined by University of South Florida researchers Joseph A. Vandello and Jennifer K. Bosson, who used the word “precarious” because they observed that masculinity, or what society thinks is “manly,” is something that’s hard to achieve and easily lost. And when masculinity is slighted, men compensate by acting out in risky ways.

“[M]en experience more anxiety over their gender status than women do, particularly when gender status is uncertain or challenged,” the academics wrote in “Hard Won and Easily Lost: A Review and Synthesis of Theory and Research on Precarious Manhood,” published in Psychology of Men & Masculinities in 2013. “This can motivate a variety of risky and maladaptive behaviors, as well as the avoidance of behaviors that might otherwise prove adaptive and beneficial.”

It’s important to note that Trump’s actions didn’t happen in a vacuum. This way of behaving is common among his supporters, too. After the president was released from the hospital, Trump ally Rep. Matt Gaetz tweeted that Trump had figuratively beaten the virus:

Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler shared an edited video of Trump taking on the coronavirus in a wrestling ring:

And Republican pundit Tomi Lahren tweeted a very familiar refrain about how masks — and Joe Biden himself — are feminine and weak:

The “recovering from Trump” language, the imagery, and the gender ideas these three used are all in lockstep with the tenets of precarious manhood. They’re imagining a fantasy in which Trump gave the virus a beating; from that, they’re admiring how strong he is and, reflexively, how weak people who wear masks are.

And although the cocktail of steroids the president has reportedly taken could make a patient feel a rush of power and energy, others who have experienced similar treatments report the feeling wears off.

The problem is that while these gestures make Trump feel strong (and instill more confidence in his followers), the United States still hasn’t recovered from the pandemic. There were 43,562 new coronavirus cases reported in the US on October 6, and Fauci on Tuesday warned that hundreds of thousands more Americans could die if “we don’t do what we need to in the fall and winter.”

Either way, strength does not change the facts: The virus is contagious, and mask-wearing is a precaution Americans can take to keep ourselves, our family members, our friends, and our neighbors safe. While shunning masks was apparently crucial for the president to assert his manliness and strength, it’s important to remember that regular Americans don’t have access to the medical care or clinical trial therapy Trump received to make him seem so strong.

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