On April 30, 1789, George Washington was inaugurated at Federal Hall on Wall Street in New York City. Today a statue of the father of our nation stands almost upon the exact spot. The 1883 depiction of Washington by John Quincy Adams Ward shows the hero of the Revolution staring out at the nation and the people he must now lead; his face is dressed in a look of determination. The image of the president matters, and that is why today President Trump should not be wearing a face mask in public.
Scolds have been on a rampage over the past few days regarding Trump’s unwillingness to don the face covering that has come to define our current moment of Chinese virus. Some, like Nancy Pelosi argue that Trump is setting a bad example for Americans; others say he is fueling a politicization of masks that harms public health. What Trump is really doing is projecting American strength and health at a time when strong leadership is needed.
The fact is that optics matter in politics and governance. One image can come to capture an entire politician or presidency. Gerald Ford falling down stairs or Michael Dukakis wearing an absurdly oversized tank helmet are but two famous examples. Is it reasonable or fair that these images came to define these men? Maybe not, but this isn’t about fairness, it’s about public perception.
An image of Donald Trump wearing a protective face mask while performing his duties, behind the Resolute Desk, or in the White House briefing room would be a searing image of weakness. It would signal that the United States is so powerless against this invisible enemy sprung from China that even its president must cower behind a mask. That simply should not happen.
Beyond the astonishingly awful optics of a president of the United States wearing a medical mask there is a practical reason for the commander in chief to forego them at public events. Masks are inimical to communication. Many of us have experienced the phenomenon of smiling at someone at the grocery store only to realize that the gesture is hidden and therefore unseen.
When the president is performing public duties one of the primary things he is doing is communicating with the country. To attempt to do so while wearing a mask would communicate only one thing, fear of the virus. A mask is never simply a mask; whether religious, theatrical, or mythical, a mask always fundamentally changes those who wear it.
There are two forces that must be brought to bear to fight any crisis like this virus, compliance and defiance. Americans have largely and wisely complied with lockdowns and stay-at-home orders thus far, but many are eager to defy irrational alarmism that cannot contemplate a return to normal life, one in which we may be in each others company again and see each other’s faces.
It is absolutely right for the President of the United States to model this defiance. Not a defiance of facts of science, but of the idea that this Chinese virus must fundamentally alter our lives and appearances forever. By bearing his face he sends a much needed gesture indicating that yes, we will get back to normal. Should Trump put on the mask he will never take it off. It will be the enduring image of his presidency, an image of defeat in the face of crisis.
In that year 1789, when George Washington stood aloft on the balcony of Federal Hall and became the nation’s first president an influenza epidemic was, as it happens, crippling New York City. But in the then capital of the country, James Madison labored away at the Bill of Rights, Alexander Hamilton fixated on the nation’s finances and the people of New York went about their business.
By the dictates of the current mood and moment, George Washington probably should have been wearing a mask as he swore to uphold the constitution. The statue on that spot today should hide his visage in the aim of public safety. But this is a thing we can scarcely imagine, nor should we wish to. This is a time when we need President Trump to exhibit strength, to help give the nation courage and perseverance, neither he, nor any other president, can effectively do that behind a mask.