Justin F. Thulin: Is the mask President Trump’s Scarlet Letter?

(Erin Schaff/The New York Times) "TRUMP 2020" merchandise, including a face mask, on sale near the BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla., on June 20, 2020.

Donald Trump knows that his chances of re-election hinge on a strong economy. If the economy is strong and the stock market soaring, enough voters who otherwise disapprove of Trump’s divisive and authoritarian leaning style might hold their noses, and vote for him again.

Certainly his political advisors have told him that the economy will only be strong if the coronavirus is prevented from running wild. When COVID-19 is on the rampage, Americans, whose consumption contributes to 70% of our GNP, prioritize safety and stay home rather than go to the mall and shop.

Until a vaccine is available the medical consensus is clear for what citizens should do to protect themselves and their fellow citizens: Wear a mask, social distance and quarantine for two weeks if exposed to an infected individual. Only if all of us do this will case counts fall and will local economies be able to open with a reasonable degree of safety. Yet just this week, as if existing in an imaginary world, Trump opined that he thought the virus would at some point just “disappear”.

With only 4% of the world’s population, the United States has 25% of the world’s COVID-19 cases. Daily cases have grown from 20,000 one month ago to over 55,000 now. Republican states that opened early without adequate safeguards such as Florida, Texas and Arizona, and were lauded and encouraged by Trump then, are now raging out of control and close to not having enough ICU beds to care for their citizens.

Chastened by the impending human catastrophe in their states, these governors are being forced to shut down bars, restaurants, and beaches and are promoting, when not requiring, mask-wearing in public. Their citizens are suffering and so will their economies as a consequence of their ill-conceived policies.

So what about Trump? He may not need to wear a mask, as this germaphobe is living in a plastic bubble, invisible to much of the public, which requires all who regularly interact with him to be frequently temperature-tested and nasal-swabbed for the virus.

He may not wear a mask because he wants to promote the illusion to the public that there is nothing to worry about and that everything is under control. What me? Big, tough, Donald Trump worry? The overwhelming evidence, even in Trump world, makes this illusion too difficult to maintain.

It may be that when the president puts on a mask in front of a mirror, he may not like what he sees, or perhaps Melania laughs at him. To not look good or, worse, to be laughed at? Not in Trump’s world, where image is at least as important as substance. Trump wants to appear strong, manly and fearless when facing unseen and deadly microscopic foes.

Scarier is the possibility that wearing a mask now is an admission, like a Scarlet Letter, of being wrong about the coronavirus. Wrong about the threat it posed. Wrong about delaying in our response. Wrong in delegating the response to the states. Wrong in opening up too early before case counts were falling. Wrong in suggesting dangerous treatments like injecting Lysol. Wrong in hawking an unproven treatment, hydroxychloroquine, as a game changer. Wrong about the merits of testing. Wrong in saying it will just go away.

Being wrong, and admitting it publicly, is especially difficult when the consequences of your decisions are counted in tens of thousands of needless deaths and economic hardship.

Bright, secure, high-performing individuals recognize that mistakes are inevitable and try to limit the damage from them. They learn from their mistakes, and use them to inform future decisions.

Can you remember when Donald Trump ever admitted to being wrong on anything of substance? It may be that a vain, insecure man like Trump cannot bear looking bad or being so badly wrong, especially when the admission is so publicly displayed.

Wearing a mask is what a president who cares about the health of his citizens and wants to model best behavior should do. But I fear that President Trump won’t routinely wear a mask because it’s a Scarlet Letter, a badge of admission of being wrong, terribly wrong.

And frankly, even though his election chances hinge on at least tacitly admitting his errors by wearing a mask, his fragile ego won’t allow it.

Justin F. Thulin

Justin F. Thulin, M.D., is a dermatologist practicing in Salt Lake City.