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Gender and health security in the US presidential debates


Gender and health security in the US presidential debates

by Dr Ben Fermor

So far, this year’s presidential and vice-presidential debates have been uniformly painful to watch. In the first debate, Joe Biden often seemed lost for words in the face of Donald Trump’s constant barrage of interruptions, with Trump meanwhile determined to occupy every second of airtime available to him. A week later, Mike Pence and Kamala Harris offered a civil and polite but equally vacuous counterpoint. In both cases, the independent moderators proved more or less incapable of steering the candidates towards any meaningful answers to their questions. At the time of writing, the second presidential debate has been cancelled following Trump’s refusal to participate in a virtual discussion (O’Keefe, 2020).

The backdrop to this has been Trump’s health. Since his 90 minute filibustering of the debate in Cleveland, the leader of the free world has tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, been admitted and discharged from the Walter Reed Medical Center, declared himself possibly immune, and ultimately continued to address rallies first from the White House and then in Florida.

On returning from hospital, Trump released a bizarre come-back video from the White House balcony in which he told the American people not to fear the virus, and not to let it dominate them. He has since released a series of tweets, often typed in block capitals, with the apparent aim of giving his 87 million followers an alternative list of things they should be very scared of (including, but not limited to election rigging, late term abortions, “Castro-Chavistas”, court-packing and Antifa).

While all of this has undoubtedly been emotionally draining, a lot of it has been spoken in the language of security. Various referents and threats have been evoked by the two candidates, however the purpose of this post is to focus in on the ways the two candidates have spoken of health and coronavirus, and to highlight how this has happened in a specifically gendered way.

First, Biden’s messaging has been relatively clear: Donald Trump does not take COVID seriously, doesn’t understand the science, and has put himself and Americans in danger by downplaying the threat and refusing to follow medical guidance. None of these are particularly controversial claims, and those Americans who previously had doubts may have been persuaded by the list of people who tested positive for COVID in the days after what Anthony Fauci labelled a “superspreader event in the White House”. Recently, Biden has also taken to directly speaking to his audience’s ideas of American masculinity, saying of masks: “Be patriotic, it's not about being a tough guy. It's about doing your part.”

In contrast, Trump’s position, like so many other things, is a mess. His impulse has been to downplay the threat, and yet he still tries to gain political capital out of referring to COVID as the “China Plague” and insisting a vaccine will be available within a matter of weeks. One reason for this chaotic messaging is his personal unwillingness to show anything less than heroic masculinity in the face of any illness. “Don’t let it dominate you, don’t be afraid of it,” he urged viewers in the video released on the evening of his return to the White House. An odd statement from someone who, in the past, has done everything to ensure his supporters are kept afraid and dominated by various threats that are statistically much less likely to cause the average American harm (“radical Islamic terrorism” and universal healthcare spring to mind). It is revealing that on the rare occasions Trump has been willing to talk up the virus, he has felt the need to give it a racialised nickname.

Despite his occasional willingness to use the virus to explain a flagging economy, when it comes to personal health, the idea of wearing a mask in particular has conflicted with Trump’s brand of nationalist masculinity, to the extent that he would rather put millions of American lives at risk, as well as those of his family and staff, than cover his face in public.

"I just don’t want to wear one myself… somehow sitting in the Oval Office behind that beautiful Resolute Desk, the great Resolute Desk, I think wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens, I don’t know, somehow I don’t see it for myself."

For months, he refused to wear a mask at all, even ridiculing a journalist for his “political correctness” when he opted to follow official medical guidance (Bennet, 2020). In May, Trump did wear a mask on a visit to a manufacturing plant, but took it off before journalists could photograph him, explaining “I don’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it” (Roberts, 2020). The gendered nature of Trump’s attitudes towards COVID can also be seen in what he tries to claim as his successes. In the first debate, when faced with the accusation that his reluctance to declare a national emergency had resulted in widespread job losses and school closures, Trump indignantly retorted “I’m the one that brought back football!”.

It is tempting to brand Trump as uniquely narcissistic in this sense, but we should also ask ourselves questions about how we expect our leaders to carry themselves. After all, Trump is not the first president to attempt to hide personal health concerns from the public. Palmer and Peterson (2020) have written on masks as a gendered symbol of toughness, and polling data suggests that while political identity is relevant to mask wearing, there is also a significant correlation between negative attitudes towards masks and those with “highly salient” masculine gender identities (Cassino & Besen-Cassino, 2020). Is it so surprising that a country that has never elected a woman president has ended up, in the midst of a global pandemic, with a leader who sees PPE as a symbol of femininity and weakness?

On this topic, it has been morbidly fascinating to look at Trump’s actions since contracting the virus. Broadly speaking, there have been two key elements to this: 1. The projection of personal strength, and 2. (as ever with the reality TV president) the production of a televisual spectacle. We know that Trump needs to feel connected to and adored by his fans at all times, even if that means temporarily leaving hospital in an infectious state to wave at them from the safety of a presidential SUV. Trump prefaced this surreal episode with a reality TV style promo video in which he teased “so I’m not telling anybody, but you. But I’m about to make a little surprise visit. So perhaps I’ll get there before you get to see me”.

By his own admission, Trump’s impulse with political opponents is to ‘counter punch’ and seize control of the media landscape. This seems to be the only way he knows how to deal with disease: to dominate the airwaves and assert his personality. On leaving Walter Reed, Trump’s televised return to the White House and melodramatic unmasking seemed like a cross between an Easter re-enactment and a disappointing episode of Scooby Doo. For good measure, Trump made sure to reassert his masculinity in saluting Marine One as it took off from the White House lawn, before making a rambling speech about his leadership skills and courage in the face of danger.

Even at the time of writing, Trump has once again attempted to assert his fragile masculinity to a friendly crowd in Florida. There, he boasted “I feel so powerful”, before telling them “I’ll kiss everyone in that audience. I’ll kiss the guys and the beautiful women – everybody” (Singh, 2020). In contrast, he derided “sleepy Joe” Biden as having “no strength left, no power left”, after “hand[ing] control to the socialists, the Marxists and the left-wing extremists”(C-SPAN, 2020).

Trump is clearly hoping that people will see his personal triumph and “power” over illness as proof of his administration’s ability to beat the pandemic at a national level. In any case, his ridiculing of Biden in the first debate for wearing the “biggest mask I’ve ever seen” has not aged well, and, judging by polls conducted since Cleveland, his post-debate antics have only made it even more difficult for him to win in November.


Ben Fermor is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Global Security Challenges at the University of Leeds. He researches US security and foreign policy and his PhD thesis investigated racialised and Orientalist discourses of security and threat in Barack Obama’s language on the Middle East.


Latest publications:

Fermor, B & Holland J, (2020) ‘Security and polarization in Trump’s America: securitization and the domestic politics of threatening others’ Global Affairs, 6:1, 55-70. DOI: 10.1080/23340460.

Holland, J. & Fermor, B. (2020) ‘The discursive hegemony of Trump’s Jacksonian populism: Race, class, and gender in constructions and contestations of US national identity, 2016-2018’, Politics. DOI: 10.1177/0263395720936867



Twitter: @BenFermor