reading the signs

Losing Face

Trump’s refusal to cover up actually reveals his greatest fears.

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Yesterday the White House finally began requiring masks of everyone entering the West Wing. Everyone, that is, except the president. A few predictable reasons have been suggested for Trump’s refusal to mask up: that the president thinks masks look “weak”; or that, since he’s tested daily for COVID-19, he cannot possibly infect others; or that he can’t interact with world leaders while wearing a mask.

Whatever the stated or implied reason, it’s no surprise that Donald Trump would scoff at following any medical protocol — after all, this is the man who once looked directly at an eclipse, and declared exercise bad for one’s health. Eschewing protective measures like mask-wearing is simply part of the president’s strongman image — a theatrical gimmick meant to underscore his invincibility (like Mussolini’s fondness for skiing bare-chested). We all know, though, that even self-proclaimed strongmen can contract the coronavirus.

But the president manages to turn even physical susceptibility to illness into a weapon, for in remaining unmasked, he telegraphs the menace he poses to others, and his utter indifference to it. Given the outbreak in the White House, anyone, including Trump, could be a vector of contagion. So an unmasked president is tacitly identifying himself as a potentially deadly bioweapon, someone to fear, someone who could kill you — and someone perfectly untroubled by that.

Refusing the mask, then, is completely in keeping with Trump’s typical heedless, bullying style. Yet there is more to it. Long before a pandemic made face coverings de rigueur, masks and masking, in a metaphorical sense, were central to Trump’s persona and his pageant of power. Think about it: This president’s persona relies on overtly theatrical disguise. He sculpts and teases his obviously tinted hair (inches of gray regrowth are routinely left visible) into artful swoops and poofs, spraying it all into place to disguise a balding pate. He applies his unnatural-looking orange makeup so unevenly that bare white skin remains visible along the sides of his face and in pale circles around both eyes. This look is a choice. The president could easily avail himself of the finest hair and makeup artists. He could sport the statesmanlike gloss of a Joe Biden or a Mitt Romney. But that is not what Trump wants. In his grooming practices, he strives not for naturalness or subtle embellishment, but for theatrical extravagance.

Trump’s unusual daily arrangement of hair and face amounts to a self-conscious, highly artificial construct, which leaves all seams showing — the gray roots, the patches of pale skin. In other words, Trump is wearing a mask of his own design, which functions very much like the masks of classical theater — as a signal to viewers that they are witnessing performance, not real life. Trump’s mask says, “I am acting. This is a character. Enjoy the excess and outsize emotions that I embody. Experience catharsis through me.” Whether we support him or not, all of us understand that this is spectacle. We understand the transformative meaning of the mask.

But with COVID-19, masks have exited the theater to become part of everyone’s daily life. And the masks we wear now represent the precise opposite of the Trumpian mask. The humble cloth coverings necessary to brave the grocery store or a walk in the park do not set their wearers apart, or make them stylized characters in a solo drama. On the contrary, the COVID-19 mask is the most homogenizing, democratizing accessory imaginable. I have learned this firsthand.

I’d had little experience with masks before the pandemic hit, and I expected that wearing one would feel isolating and desolate. But I was wrong. I actually find the experience weirdly uplifting. When I step out into the street in my mask, I feel as if I’m melding into a vast new club, a brother- and sisterhood of stalwart New Yorkers doing our best to keep one another healthy. I meet the eyes of passing masked strangers and it feels friendly. We nod or “smize” as Tyra Banks would put it (smiling with our eyes), as if to say, “We’re in it together.” Normally in New York City, when we can see everyone’s faces, few people make eye contact. Now though, with faces obscured, we are looking and connecting in a momentary bond of solidarity. We “see” one another although we cannot see one another.

The COVID-19 masks display a shared understanding, a shared humanity. And in them we all look basically alike — just two eyes and a piece of cloth. I find it freeing that the masks make it harder to discern age, race, sometimes even gender. It doesn’t matter if you are wearing makeup under your mask, or if your teeth are orthodontically straight. Such niceties are incidental now. This is an emergency and we are all just people together — lives to save.

This is the deeper reason why Trump refuses to wear one. For the president to don a mask would mean climbing down from the stage to join the rest of us in this sea of humanity. He would lose his exceptionalism — his iconic (if peculiar) personal “mask.” A simple, shield-style COVID-19 mask would essentially unmask Trump, depriving him of the elaborate mask he relies on so heavily. He could not perform without that mask; his persona might crumble.

And in fact, as this pandemic rages on, the president seems more erratic than usual, abruptly leaving his press conference yesterday, raging at staff and reporters. As many have noted, a global plague is one thing that cannot be dismissed as “fake news,” so the president’s usual theatrical tools of distraction, deflection, and rage-tweeting are proving less effective than ever. How ironic that perhaps his greatest theatrical tool, his highly constructed stage mask, that concoction of Creamsicle skin and teased bouffant coiffure — part Mafia don, part 1950s hausfrau — could be undone by a single square of cloth. As the great French writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau once wrote, “The masked ball unmasks.”

Losing Face