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What face masks and sex scandals have in common

While Donald Trump’s legacy will be marked by many things, we can add to the list his resistance to wearing a face mask in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which up until recently he had not done in public. The overt reason for his hesitancy to follow this mainstream medical advice is that Trump sees masks as a political statement. He has recently claimed that the public was trying to spite him by wearing masks, and has also justified his own lack of a mask as a move meant to roil up the media. Many of his supporters seem to share these sentiments. Even though officials at a recent Trump rally in Oklahoma offered masks at the door, participants overwhelmingly chose to remain unmasked despite their close physical proximity. In fact, Trump’s resistance to the practice has become so infamous that his own allies have lately begun to chide him into compliance as rising rates of the virus have contributed to his decline in the polls.

It is easy for many to dismiss Trump’s behaviors out of hand as a function of his singular dispositions. But if we want to understand why so many in the public seem to respond favorably to this latest act from the nation’s top politician, we might look to an unlikely place: the dynamics of contemporary American political sex scandals. This connection may sound outright absurd, and yet studying political sex scandals is instructive because they reveal who is able to violate the social norms in a society with little consequence. The public relations survival techniques used by those at the center of political sex scandals may shed some light on the dynamics driving our current political and health situation.

It is a virtual truism that politics is an image game. For white men in particular, marketing oneself as a cowboy of sorts has been a highly successful tactic in garnering public support, along with other images that reinforce white, aggressive hetero-masculinity. For instance, in 2004, Montana gubernatorial candidate Brian Schweitzer was able to close the gender gap among male voters with an ad that featured him on horseback, toting a gun. Similarly, during his 2008 presidential bid, Mitt Romney was scheduled for a big-game hunt ASAP after admitting that his hunting career amounted to little more than shooting at rodents.

The rhetoric of hetero-masculine imagery and aggression that successfully garners votes in an election is the same one that generates public support in a time of crisis (say, a pandemic or scandal). Indeed, a common rhetorical tactic used by those who politically survive their own sex scandals involves deploying aggressive speech positioning themselves as a protector against any number of dangerous national enemies. This move distracts from their sexual misbehavior but also makes them appear strong and virulent, as a figure necessary for national well-being. On the other hand, those politicians who are less likely to politically survive their sex scandals are often those who take the moral high road by admitting their transgressions and providing a public apology, which is often perceived by the public as weak. Put simply, the public tends to reject politicians who admit to failure, even when that same public claims to desire greater honesty and ethics in political leadership.

While there is a sizeable pool of political sex scandals that can illuminate this point, there is perhaps no better example than Rudy Giuliani, whose own sex scandals appear to have had little negative impact on his career. Giuliani is the former mayor of New York City, former presidential candidate, and current lawyer to Donald Trump. In Giuliani’s case, his highly publicized affairs and ongoing domestic disputes from the late 1990s were punctuated by a press conference in 2000 where he announced his divorce from his wife (all without informing her of the matter), introducing the name of his mistress in the same breath. Yet when 9/11 happened, Giuliani’s substantial personal liabilities all but evaporated in the minds of many. Having been granted the title “America’s Mayor,” he has gone on to sustain a career based in large part on his reputation as a figurehead of American patriotism in the fight against Osama bin Laden and foreign terrorism, more generally. Giuliani has continued to be notoriously cavalier about charges of ongoing adultery, calling it something “everyone does” and claiming that the topic has no place in the public realm because he’s confessed to his priest. Lest we forget, this is much the same tactic that Trump, himself, displayed during the 2016 election in his flat denials or sidestepping of his marital affairs, even though he discusses his sexual history quite openly in his books on business and success.

All of this indicates that white male politicians who can maintain a public persona built around images of strength, aggression, and masculinity (while also minimizing wrongdoing) are often able to break the rules because the public is more likely to choose those traits over ethical consistency. But touting this brand of masculinity is hardly the practice of elites alone. White aggressive masculinity is an emotional touchstone through which many sectors of the public read a leader as their representative, an extension of themselves. This fact is, perhaps, born out in the data indicating that American men wear masks less than American women because they perceive it as a sign of weakness, and in the recent Twitter campaign to goad men into mask-wearing that reads #realmenwearmasks.

We should thus not be surprised at Trump’s current attitude towards masks in the time of COVID-19. But as we know, viruses do not care about aggressive, masculine rhetoric. Thus it remains to be seen whether Trump’s supporters are more afraid of COVID-19 or the possibility that his persona, and the role model it provides, may prove lethal.

Featured image: President Trump in Maine, public domain via Flickr.

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