As Trump had hoped, good news began to arrive in the early part of May. Cases were trending down, as were deaths. On May 11, he tweeted: “Coronavirus numbers are looking MUCH better, going down almost everywhere. Big progress being made!” Trump ran another victory lap on May 17. “Doing REALLY well, medically, on solving the CoronaVirus situation (Plague!). It will happen!” That same day he added: “The number of Coronavirus cases is strongly trending downward throughout the United States, with few exceptions. Very good news, indeed!” That was fateful timing. The COVID-19 news from mid-May on would almost all be bad.
What went wrong? Early reopening could only have worked if stringent safety measures, including the use of face masks and social distancing, were incorporated. Yet the president sabotaged the reopening he himself had forced. Throughout his presidency, Trump has subordinated rational policy in order to provoke virulent culture wars. And the mask has become a rallying symbol for his supporters.
Trump never wears a mask in public, and he has mocked Joe Biden for wearing one. “I see Biden. It’s like his whole face is covered. It’s like he put a knapsack over his face. He probably likes it that way,” Trump told The Wall Street Journal on May 21. The Journal’s Michael C. Bender then followed up. He remarked that Trump often negatively commented on masks, especially when worn by White House reporters. “Do you view that as a protest of you? Do you feel like people wear masks to show their disapproval of you?” Trump allowed that it could be—then attacked the health hazards of masks—then expressed indifference whether his supporters wore them or not.
Rush Limbaugh mocked the mask as a “symbol of fear” on May 15. The former Fox anchor Brit Hume joined in. On May 27, a writer at the pro-Trump web publication The Federalist posted a piece headlined, “Mandatory Masks Aren’t About Safety, They’re About Social Control.” The author, Molly McCann, warned: “If everyone is wearing a mask, it telegraphs a society-wide acceptance that the status quo has changed.” That morning, a pro-Trump writer named Lee Smith tweeted a link to the article, amplifying McCann’s paranoia. “Terrific @molmccann piece in @FDRLST — masks aren’t about public health but social control. Image of Biden in black mask endorses culture of silence, slavery, and social death.” Smith is a major figure in the pro-Trump media landscape. Formerly a Middle East correspondent for Bill Kristol’s Weekly Standard—and still connected to the eminently mainstream Hudson Institute—he has plunged deep and thick into the pro-Trump cause. In the early morning of May 28, Smith’s tweet got a retweet from Trump himself.
You might not imagine that there would be much room to escalate anti-mask rhetoric from “silence, slavery, and social death.” You would be wrong. An Arizona city councilman derisively appropriated George Floyd’s dying words, “I can’t breathe,” to mock mask-wearing. Sebastian Gorka, a former Trump adviser, found a way to go even further than that on his June 23 radio program.
Caller: I wanted to discuss what I call the Democrat Islamo-Maoist masks that their dictators demand.
Sebastian Gorka: You mean the COVID burqas, the COVID masks. … You know, there’s something inhuman about it, isn’t there? The idea that you cover the face. Not only does it dehumanize the individual in that interaction with another human being, but also it is, you’re right, an act of submission.
Millions of citizens obeyed the cues from Trump, the right-wing media, and the medical crackpots who predominate Facebook. While the great majority of Americans approve of mask wearing in public, only 40 percent of Republicans do. On June 20, a short video showed up on Twitter of a middle-aged man in shorts trying to enter a Florida Walmart unmasked. When a masked store employee politely reminded the customer of store rules, the man shoved the employee so hard that the shover actually fell over from his own momentum. The customer got up and pushed the same employee again to force his way in. Perhaps the customer was carrying one of the fake “anti-mask exemption cards” now circulating on the internet and social media for printing at home.
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