In the end, the most surprising aspect of President Donald Trump’s decision to finally, months after his own advisers recommended it, bow to medical wisdom and wear a face mask was not that he did it at all — even in his alternate reality, where we are winning against the virus, that was probably inevitable — but the mask that he chose.
After all, his first mask was never going to be just another mask. He had to have known everyone would be looking, given his previous refusal to don face covering. He had to have known the selection would be studied and parsed. He is nothing if not an expert at branding. And masks are fast becoming a short of shorthand for self-branding: a highly visible and easy-to-read identifier of self for the world. That’s why they keep being talked about as a fashion/political statement (fashion being essentially driven by identity politics, when you come down to it).
So, for his visit to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Saturday, what did he go for?
Not a generic white or blue mask, the kind that subsumes the personal to the community. Not — as one might have expected — a bright red MAGA mask, the facial equivalent of the famous baseball cap (they already exist, selling for $19.99 and “shipping from the great state of Pennsylvania” by Trump2020Masks). Not one with the sort of gold “TRUMP” logo famous from so many of his real estate ventures. Not even one that displayed any humor or sports preferences.
Rather he chose a simple navy blue covering: a plain rectangle that matched his signature suit as well as the masks worn by the members of the military and Secret Service who flanked him, though his also had a gold presidential seal embossed in a bottom corner. Still, it was relatively subtle; the equivalent of a dark suit for the face. Above the mask, his trademark squint was visible.
Unfortunately, at a certain point, his nose was visible, too — a mistake that obviates the effectiveness of the mask as a protection for others, or the image of himself as a mask-wearing role model, since what he ended up modeling was how not to wear it. But it was a start!
Despite that, and perhaps as positive reinforcement of the effort, many of his supporters were quick to weigh in on his platform of choice, Twitter, to crow about how good it looked.
Trump’s reluctance to don a mask in the past seemed connected to a belief that it would somehow make him look weak — as if he had caved in to the virus or was afraid of it — not to mention serving as a visual taunt to the mask-wearing Democrats (especially House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has made her variety of masks a personal trademark). But when it finally happened, the whole thing seemed pretty unremarkable. Anticlimactic, even.
Even kind of … boring.
And it made for a notable contrast with the other major mask-moment of the weekend: Roger Stone’s appearance, post-presidential commutation of his prison sentence, in a black-and-white mask blaring the words: “Free Roger Stone!” (It matched his T-shirt, which read “Roger Stone Still Did Nothing Wrong,” also in white letters on black.)
It’s rare to consider the president restrained in his messaging, but in comparison to Stone, his mask looked positively understated. However, that could well change, especially on the campaign trail.