Masking — the Trump-Moses leadership divide

The Federalist Society fervently supports President Trump.  Not a secret; never has been. Astonishingly now, though, it chooses to even support his refusal — indeed, his adamant, in your face, refusal — to wear a mask. Basically, it’s beneath the president – “the image of the president matters.” He needs to present as strong, resolute and impenetrable in the face of a pandemic.  They even call to mind the 1883 depiction of George Washington at Federal Hall staring at the nation, determined.  Perhaps they’re planning Trump’s encasement alongside the Hall of Famers at Rushmore?

It’s frankly astonishing. Every thoughtful political and scientific leader tells us that the primary purpose of wearing a mask is to protect others.  Meaning, if the wearer is positive for COVID-19 (whether or not diagnosed), his wearing a mask will help protect those whom he encounters. But because the president apparently needs to demonstrate his strength above everything, he must be affirmatively indifferent to the safety of others — even his loyal subordinates, some of whom are family members. His “presidential” appearance supersedes everything, and everyone.  Ever more astonishing since, at least as of now, everyone else in the White House is required to wear a mask — presumably to protect him now that the threat of disease is finally apparent.

Forget that we’re in pandemic times or that White House personnel are demonstrably at risk.  Let’s assure that the president “looks good” – he is no wuss.  He shouldn’t come across, The Federalist tells us, looking like Gerald Ford falling down in public or Michael Dukakis foolishly wearing an oversized helmet. True leadership.

But is there any precedent where a leader felt compelled to wear a mask “in the public interest” — which may have likewise degraded him in the public’s eye?  Of course. After Moses descended from Mount Sinai and observed the people worshiping the Golden Calf, he put on a mask whenever he addressed the people. (Exodus 34: 29-35)  You see, Moses returned from Sinai with a radiance, his having encountered God. By wearing a mask, and hiding that radiance, the rabbis tell us, Moses protected the people from overly deriding themselves for losing God’s grace resulting from their sinfulness. In other words, he wore the mask so others would not be reminded of their own, personal sins (Be’er Moshe).

So it seems that Moses, a true leader of man, was willing to risk impairing his own appearance — the risk, in modern terminology, of seeming un-presidential — all to protect his people. How differently Moses chose to respond to his own very tribal society.  And he did this even though his people so often questioned his leadership, challenged his relationship to God (effectively, whether he was worthy of that radiance bestowed upon him). Indeed, they often even rebelled against him.  Mere appearance, for him, was not the issue; rather, he held the people and the welfare of the House of Israel paramount.

The president, however, only cares about the physicality of his “appearance”.  He has no such insecurity about how we actually see him, or who he really is. He seems to fundamentally lack any concern that we see him void of empathy for those he now affirmatively puts in harm’s way by refusing to wear a mask. He has no concern either that, to lead, one must show his followers what is right and necessary.

So maybe, after all, the president doesn’t really care how he really looks to us; he doesn’t even care enough to pretend.  Indeed, Trump wearing a mask would probably paint a false face on reality.

Mount Rushmore, right?

 

 

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” Dale J. Degenshein assists in preparing the articles on this blog.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers.
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