The president, a self-professed germaphobe, could hardly have been more explicit about his worldview: This potentially deadly illness is something to dominate or be dominated by. It does not matter whether a person is an essential worker, is in a high-risk demographic, has a chronic health condition, or is simply and sometimes tragically unlucky: Illness is a weakness, and those who succumb are feeble, even pathetic. Those who conquer it are, conversely, strong and morally admirable. This view is a crucial element of toxic masculinity, which festers and causes harm, not just to individual men but to everyone around them.
U.S. presidents have long downplayed their medical conditions and cast their health crises in a positive light. Trump, however, seems acutely, personally invested in appearing physically vigorous, to the point of absurdity — and no matter who his pageant might endanger behind the scenes. On Sunday night, he left his room to drive by and wave at a small crowd of his supporters who had assembled outside the hospital. Everyone involved in this publicity stunt was put at risk, much to the chagrin of some doctors. Similarly, Trump’s theatrical removal of his mask Monday underscored his hubris — and it, too, increased the already serious risk to the people around him. “He was so concerned with preventing embarrassing stories that he exposed thousands of his own staff and supporters to a deadly virus. He has kept us in the dark, and now our spouses and kids have to pay the price. It’s just selfish,” a White House source told Axios.
Trump’s toxic masculinity is on display as well in his repeated insistence that his recovery makes him a conquering hero, stronger than ever before — and not someone in a high-risk demographic group whose life has been, and may continue to be, in danger. On Twitter, Trump quoted a fawning description of himself as an “invincible hero” in the making. In a video shot upon his return to the White House, he claimed that he had “stood out front” of the disease: “And I know there’s a risk, there’s a danger, but that’s okay. And now I’m better and maybe I’m immune, I don’t know.” (He doesn’t know, and isn’t even “out of the woods” yet, according to his own physicians.)
It’s one thing for Trump to hold himself to this toxic masculine ideal. It’s another to insist that the American public not “let” the coronavirus “dominate” — as if it were somehow irrational (or, in the words of the president’s son-in-law, “hysterical”) to be alarmed by the pandemic. “We are not the land of the timid and the home of the scaredy cats,” Newt Gingrich told the Daily Beast. A Fox News commentator blamed the continued economic shutdown on “older people or neurotic people who are timid and afraid and won’t come out of their basements.”
This hyper-masculine worldview holds that any change in our behavior, any restriction on normal activity — no matter how beneficial and rooted in scientific evidence — constitutes an unacceptable “retreat.” Taking precautions against catching or transmitting a potentially lethal disease somehow means that we have allowed the virus to win. When former vice president Joe Biden tweeted an image of himself donning a mask responsibly, conservative commentator Tomi Lahren mocked him: “Might as well carry a purse with that mask, Joe.” (Clearly, it’s not only men who harbor this view of what constitutes “correct” masculine behavior.) According to this ideology, mask-wearing — and perhaps all forms of caring for other people — is feminine, and hence a contemptible quality in a man. Lahren’s words were also a depressing echo of a depressing episode in the depressing debate on Sept. 30: “I don’t wear face masks like him,” Trump said. “Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away … and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.” Apparently, whoever demonstrates the least care is the strongest man, the most fearless leader — as opposed to the most feckless.
The Trump administration has allowed the virus to rage in this country not just because of its incompetence, but also because of the president’s toxic masculine ideology, which recasts obstinacy as virtue. Bankrupt machismo feeds Trump’s denialism about this disease, whether he’s contemplating his own frailty or that of the American people. Whatever it means to be a “real man” (a concept I doubt has any genuine value), it’s clear that our era’s incarnation of toxic masculinity has little to do with the real strength it takes to protect and serve the community. Instead it’s about weakness, and the fearful inability to admit to human vulnerability — and it takes an appalling pride in endangering those around you.
This story has been updated.