In the eight weeks since Donald Trump first publicly addressed the spread of the coronavirus, he’s maintained a remarkably consistent message. As epidemiologists and global health institutions have issued sterner and graver warnings and recommendations, Trump has said, time and again, that there’s little reason to worry.
If you’ve been following the news, you’ve probably heard or read a few of these statements. Still, I urge you to read the Washington Post’s timeline of 29 of them, which gets more ludicrous and terrifying as it goes on. The daily projections and preparations ramp up, and Trump’s still bragging about what good shape the U.S. is in, saying, “One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear” and “It’s going to go away.”
According to some reports, Trump has privately expressed concerns about the fast-spreading disease, for which the U.S. has been uniquely unprepared. But in public, Trump has been brazenly shaking hands with supporters and colleagues, showily defying health authorities’ advice to cease hand-shaking, guidance that is meant to pertain particularly for people over the age of 60 and at greater risk of death or serious complications from the virus. (Trump is 73.) “I love the people of this country, and you can’t be a politician and not shake hands,” Trump said last week. “And I’ll be shaking hands with people—and they want to say hello and hug you and kiss you, I don’t care.”
This week, as our understanding of the coronavirus’s spread grew grimmer, Vice President Mike Pence said he and the president are still refusing to stop shaking people’s hands. “As the president has said, in our line of work you shake hands when someone wants to shake your hand,” he said. “I expect the president will continue to do that. I’ll continue to do it.” On Friday, during a widely televised press conference in which Trump declared a national emergency, the president shook the hands of several CEOs.
There is a recognizable vein of masculine bravado running through this stubborn rejection of common-sense public health recommendations meant to keep Trump, Pence, and their colleagues—but also the public—safe. Taking health precautions like limiting physical contact requires a tacit admission of vulnerability—a public recognition of the specter of one’s own physical frailty. To Trump and Pence, charging boldly into a field of hands of dubious provenance and hygiene is a macho show of supposed courage. Leave the fear of respiratory failure to the beta males—if someone wants a handshake from the president, and that someone isn’t literally Nancy Pelosi, he’ll get one.
Given Trump’s unparalleled egoism, perhaps none of this is surprising. Handshakes have long served as vehicles for performances of male virility. In classical kernels of business lore, a firm shake demonstrates trustworthiness and vigor; a limp one is weak or suspect. No wonder it’s one of the least likely gestures our famously germophobic president will give up. In the midst of a pandemic, forging on with the salesman’s greeting has an added impact: It shows Trump is willing to trigger overreacting libs with his carelessness and is confident enough of his own strength to risk exposure to a virus that has proved fatal for a not-insignificant proportion of his infected generational peers. Rejecting an outstretched hand, or failing to proffer one, would make Trump look like a scaredy cat, a sissy cowering in the face of a microscopic threat.
Attitudes like Trump’s explain why men are notoriously bad at visiting health professionals for preventive and maintenance care until they’re already very sick. Research has shown that men see health complaints as admissions of weakness, so they’re more likely to ignore symptoms of illness until they build up to a more severe condition. Men are so averse to seeking medical care and see health appointments as so emasculating that some health care practices, including New York’s Mount Sinai Health System, are creating explicitly man-friendly facilities in partnership with a nonprofit called Man Cave Health. Mount Sinai’s Man Cave urology center shows sports games on the TV and has sports memorabilia hanging all over the walls. The Man Cave’s home base is a urology center because, Mount Sinai believes, men are most likely to go to the doctor when something’s wrong with their penises, such as difficulty urinating or getting an erection. Once the reluctant penis patients are in the door, those urologists can convince them to visit other specialists as needed. This is the baseline from which many men—less than half of whom wash their hands after using a public restroom, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—are operating during the current pandemic.
Of course, Trump isn’t just trying to safeguard his masculinity by neglecting his health and pretending the coronavirus is no big deal. He’s also trying to keep people from panicking and the markets from crashing by underplaying the severity of the pandemic. But this financially motivated posturing isn’t wholly divorced from the machismo that undergirds Trump’s public insistence that everything is fine. Historically, masculine bluster has helped artificially inflate markets, masked the consequences of undue risks, and justified reckless, temporarily self-enriching financial behavior that has ravaged the social and economic stability of societies around the world. Lying about one’s own susceptibility to a fast-spreading disease, just to prop up investors’ confidence while a greater, inevitable collapse looms, is the ultimate use of macho performance for self-advancement at the expense of public safety and well-being.
But unlike the 2008 recession, which found most of the culprits responsible for the crash insulated from the financial strains suffered by much of the rest of the world, a novel respiratory virus knows nothing of political power structures, massive bailouts, backroom deal-making, or offshore bank accounts. Financial advantage will likely help people in power get better, faster testing and treatment—if and when such testing becomes widely available in this country—but it won’t keep the coronavirus away. A man who scoffs at public health recommendations and keeps shaking hands—and evading quarantine—through the first stages of a pandemic is not going to be able to shield himself, nor his friends, from its worst effects. The coronavirus won’t be fooled by foolish bravado. It’ll thrive in it.