It is strange, about the masks.
That it’s masks that have become charged objects, signifying the difference between Americans who want to protect themselves and others from COVID-19 and those who refuse to believe in COVID-19, is no longer in doubt. As Ryan Lizza and Daniel Lippman wrote in early May, as the pandemic has progressed, the American left has largely been willing to sacrifice personal liberties in exchange for containing the virus. And while most on the political right have agreed to take precautions like staying home, a “vocal activist wing of conservatism that has enormous influence on social media and Fox News, has been far more willing to attack the various infringements on where people can go and what they have to wear.” As a result, Lizza and Lippman conclude, “the mask has become the ultimate symbol of this new cultural and political divide.”
Nowhere has the split been more pronounced than within the White House itself, where the Trump administration’s own guidelines ask Americans to wear masks in public spaces to slow the spread and yet the president himself does not. After a White House valet tested positive for COVID-19 last week, President Donald Trump announced that the valets who serve food and work around him are now required to wear masks, although he and Vice President Mike Pence continue to refuse to do so. As Ron Elving notes, political leaders often do symbolic things to model behavior they want emulated, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been adamant that modeling such public safety measures is essential. (She matches her masks to her pantsuits.) But for Trump and those around him, refusing to don face coverings—even during visits with vulnerable populations like 95-year-old World War II veterans—seems to signal, well, something. But what?
Frank Bruni argues that the message from the White House is that “masks are emblems, maybe the best ones, of the Trump administration’s disregard for, and degradation of, experts and expertise.” Lippman and Lizza wonder whether the rejection of masks says something like “I don’t have to wear a mask because I have access to regular testing,” adding that “in that sense, being in close proximity to people without covering your face is a kind of new status symbol for the pandemic era.” Liz Plank argues that Trump would rather endanger himself and others. Anna North makes a parallel argument: “Such militaristic, tough-guy messaging, along with Trump’s refusal to wear a mask, may encourage ordinary people—especially men—to minimize the risk of coronavirus for the sake of appearing manly.” North further points out that American racial bias also plays a fundamental role in the refusal to cover one’s face: Whereas young black men are perceived as doubly dangerous when they are masked, some white men like to perform their own immunity from criminal consequences by refusing to cover up.
And that is the point. Trump and Pence’s public defiance of the guidance that suggests covering one’s face is best for your own safety and the safety of others is itself contagious. When Trump visited Phoenix recently, some of his fans harassed and insulted local journalists who were wearing masks, insisting that the reporters were “only wearing masks to instill fear,” BrieAnna Frank, with the Arizona Republic, later said. She posted a viral Twitter thread of journalists derided for being “on the wrong side of patriotism” and “like communists.” One man said of assembled male journalists in masks, “It’s submission, it’s muzzling yourself, it looks weak—especially for men.” Around the country, we’ve seen retail workers and restaurant employees violently assaulted for asking customers to cover up. The guiding theory seems to be that since only the weak will die, the burden shifts to them alone to protect themselves.
There is no question that there are race, gender, and power distortions that lead some Americans to see face covering as a sign of vulnerability, weakness, or surrender. But it strikes me that there is another layer—even above and beyond a denial of facts and science—that must be at play: There is an obsession with being seen and recognized that feels quintessentially American, even in situations of life and death.
It can’t be mere coincidence that some of the loudest objectors to masking try to advance First Amendment arguments about their right to express who they are. Paradoxically perhaps, state laws that ban the wearing of masks have been on the books for centuries in this country—and almost always survive constitutional scrutiny. (Many were adopted in response to the Ku Klux Klan’s use of hoods and masks to hide identities as members terrorized black communities. Now that mask wearing is allowed, and encouraged by the left, perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that the California man who wore a Klan mask to go shopping last week will not be charged.) But there is something about the affirmative choice to refuse to wear a mask right now that feels connected to yet another distinctly American pathology. Just as some dissenters resoundingly fail to understand that the First Amendment doesn’t give them the right to be heard and seen by everyone at all times, or to say whatever they wish without consequences, some appear to believe that their right to perform their freedom, up to and including with weapons of war, is constitutionally limitless. Right now, the right to breathe unobstructed into everyone in your path is, in its way, a weapon. And wanting the world to see your face unobstructed as you do so feels like a damaged idea of freedom. Historically, masks were preferred by mobs who wanted to do violence unrecognized. Now the masks impair the performance of violence, and the credit and fame that go with it.
Because we are in the midst of a reality show presidency, in which the unending public performance of self by the president is the only coin of the realm, it is hardly surprising that Donald Trump refuses to be masked. The carnival, the play, the show, after all, is the entirety of governance. And that people who believe that the hallmark of constitutional democracy is the loud, unfettered performance of self, regardless of its consequences for others, similarly refuse to go unseen and uncredited, is the obvious corollary. If you maintain that your freedom to ritually enact your ineffable you-ness at the expense of everyone else is what makes America different, it stands to reason that masks feel akin to tyranny. As Lydia Denworth put it in Scientific American, one of the reasons the wearing of masks has never become a norm in America is that the impulse to think collectively about disease was never necessarily fully integrated: “The point is that masks do not just protect the wearer, they protect others. Such community-minded thinking fits with collectivist cultural norms in some parts of Asia, where masks are routinely worn when one is sick—and where there is more experience with serious epidemics.”
This may even explain why some root their refusal to cover up in religious arguments, also swept in under the First Amendment. An Ohio lawmaker, Republican state Rep. Nino Vitale, declined to wear the mask required by his state’s Department of Health director, because, as he explained in a Facebook post last week, “This is the greatest nation on earth founded on Judeo-Christian principles. One of those principles is that we are all created in the image and likeness of God. That image is seen the most by our face. I will not wear a mask.” His logic was uniquely illogical: “No one is stopping anybody from wearing a face mask. But quite frankly everyone else’s freedom ends at the tip of my nose. You’re not going to tell me what to do and there’s a lot of people that feel that way.” The idea that God wants to see our faces so very badly that we should be allowed to harm and possibly kill everyone with whom we come in contact is a uniquely self-regarding view of religious faith. But if one believes that the self is the only meaningful actor in a democracy, or a theocracy, it perhaps stands to reason.
The simplest explanation for the insistence that wearing masks is for thee, but not for me, rests in the fundamental narcissism of Donald Trump, and the booming cottage industry on the part of right-wing media in so-called vice-signaling—the performative acting out of malice and cruelty toward the weak. The more complicated answer, it seems, is that in a country founded on a long mythology of the Lone Ranger, Batman, Zorro, and Captain America, the mask has somehow come to signal invisibility, and the death of rugged individualism—perhaps even more so because everyone is now wearing one. For those who have come to feel devalued, degraded, left behind, or shunted aside, being asked to hide one’s face must be the ultimate act of public cruelty. If we have come to believe that each of us is only as important as our ability to be seen and heard, the mask must make that erasure complete. It’s not just the toxic myth of rugged individuals pitted against government and the weak that is gutting us. It’s the poisonous notion that unless we are being seen acting out rugged individualism, we don’t even exist.
For more of Slate’s politics coverage, listen to The Political Gabfest.