What’s Behind America’s Obsession With Presidential Masks?

From nose-picking Nixon to Trump-kissing-Clinton, Americans have long imitated their political candidates

Presidential Masks
The presidential mask offers Americans a particularly playful—and anonymous—entrance into political humor. Getty Images

In 1969, thousands of anti-war marchers gathered the day before Richard Nixon’s inauguration to protest the Vietnam War, marching in a raucous “counter-inaugural” parade along Pennsylvania Avenue. One of these protesters wore a Nixon mask, attracting the attention of The New York Times, which wrote that he “marched the entire-20-block distance in a mime of picking his nose.”

The identity of the nose-picking Nixon is still unknown, but the moment helped spawn what is now a familiar Halloween sight—the presidential mask. The phenomenon has become so well-known that some pundits (either ironically or seriously) believe that it can help predict election outcomes: Since the Nixon era, the presidential candidate with the best-selling costume mask has always taken the White House.

The anti-Nixon protest may not have been a Halloween gag, but it marks the first time a presidential mask was mentioned in newspapers. Ten months later, Tricia Nixon, the president’s daughter, threw a Halloween party at the White House for 250 underprivileged children associated with Urban Service Corps, one of her volunteer efforts. Vampires, gypsies and a cross-dressing Marine entered the White House through an enormous wooden pumpkin constructed on the North Portico. The press spotted another "president" there, too, a female guest who showed up "in an LBJ face mask, 10-gallon hat, and riding britches, swiveling heads and provoking giggles wherever she went.”

The 1973 Watergate scandal sparked widespread interest in Nixon masks, as manufacturers recognized a growing consumer demand for political costumes. Why do people take on the faces of politicians to begin with? Jack Santino, professor of popular culture at Bowling Green University and the author of Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life, says it is easy to romanticize the symbolism behind costumes, but that holidays like Halloween showcase people’s fascination with “engaging in parody and social critique.”

Nancie Loudon Gonzalez, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Maryland, College Park, agrees. She links the role of performance during political campaigns to the theory of “carnivalesque,” in which people use humor to come together and fuel social change. Campaign rallies foster this same carnivalesque attraction, writes Gonzalez, using rhetoric to build “the adulation of the crowds, along with their questions, their hopes and their fears.”

The anonymity offered by Halloween rituals encourages this spirit, says Amber Day, associate professor of English and Cultural Studies at Bryant University. Political costume “makes the election part of a larger popular cultural event by bringing it down to a more common discourse,” she says.

That discourse means big business to people like Paul Johnston, who has been a manager at Philadelphia’s Halloween Adventure store for eight years. “This year I’ve found that the sales on masks are higher,” says Johnston, who works at the store's flagship location. But in a city and location where college students make up a large portion of Halloween Adventure’s customer base, one politician’s likeness has failed to meet Johnston’s sales expectations.

“Poor Bernie,” laughs Johnston. “I would have thought he would have done better.” President Obama masks have also dropped in demand.

Johnston has spotted a new trend—one that defies the deep divisions of the 2016 election cycle. “A lot of people are buying Hillary and Donald as a pair this year," says Johnson. "I doubt they would like to hear that,” he laughs. Perhaps selfies are fueling the trend: Johnston and his staff have had to chase away kids who try on Trump and Clinton masks and pose for pictures while kissing.

Although costume material has changed since Irish immigrants brought the Halloween tradition to America in the mid-19th century, the intentions of costumers have largely remained the same. “Costumes have always had a transformative quality,” says Santino, from the holiday's Celtic origins to the first mass-produced costumes of the 1930s.

Santino isn’t surprised that Trump masks are outselling Clinton’s, or that Philadelphia college kids are purchasing the masks of two presidential candidates instead of one. “The Halloween masquerade is an opportunity to express sentiments that are taboo, to speak out against power,” he says. Presidential masks act as a voice for the masses, he notes, allowing people to physically participate in political humor and political protest.

Santino sees spectacle in America's obsession with presidential masks, but that doesn't mean that consumers just sit and watch. Instead, they revel and participate, relishing an anonymous opportunity to participate in a larger conversation. In a divisive election season, the presidential mask offers a particularly playful entrance into political humor.

Public displays of political affection aside, whose mask has sold better this year? Regardless of polls projecting a Clinton win, national retailers report that Donald Trump’s image is selling better. And whether or not the prediction pattern holds, people likely won't stop wearing presidential masks any time soon—whether on a protest march, at a pumpkin party, or in a lip-locked embrace with an opponent.

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