The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The revenge of mask-wearing Americans

A discarded face mask near the Asbury Park Boardwalk in New Jersey on May 21. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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In a reflexive impulse to defy all experts and to glorify know-nothingism, President Trump and his cult followers made mask-wearing verboten for many who identify themselves as “conservative.” Like the Gadsden flag for the Tea Party, the unmasked face in the pandemic is now an identity statement for many in the MAGA crowd. It tells the world the person is anti-liberal, anti-media, anti-elite, anti-expert. When in public, Trump does his very best to not be seen in a mask, even if that means defying safety rules and state law.

Being anti-mask is entirely unnecessary politically, not to mention dangerous to one’s health. Super-majorities say they wear a mask and understand that it provides protection for others. Trump and his brand of Republicans now extol a habit that is risky, unpopular and emblematic of why so many Americans (e.g., the elderly, suburban women) have abandoned him.

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Grant Woods, the former chief of staff to the late Sen. John McCain (R), told CNN’s Ron Brownstein: “If the Republican Party wants to continue to push in the direction of being anti-education, and they want to be the party of … the bigoted, then they are going to go down the drain in the Southwest, because that’s not what the Southwest is." Nothing says anti-education like making refusal to wear a mask a defining symbol of your movement.

The irony of the mask defiance is that the mask is actually a symbol of personal responsibility, previously claimed as a Republican value. The Democrats have snatched that away faster than you can say PPE. At his daily news conference, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) proclaimed that wearing a mask is “cool” and unveiled the winners of a state contest to create a public service announcement urging mask use. “Government this, government that,” he said mocking the notion that the pandemic is fought by government. “Forget government. This whole trajectory is decided by people. It’s personal behavior.” The value of personal responsibility — government must leave us alone so people will do the right thing! — has now become a (capital "D") Democratic value.

Some African American men are criminalized in public spaces, says sociologist Dr. Rashawn Ray. It makes it harder for them to wear face masks during a pandemic. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post)

In essence, Republicans tell anyone who believes in basic science that they are chumps and stooges of the elites. That is not a great message to attract suburban mothers, high-tech millennials or older Americans who are especially vulnerable to contracting the virus. In one sense, mask repudiation is no different than Republicans flaunting their climate-change denial. But here, the defiance of consideration for others and rejection of science is visible without them uttering a word; the harm they would inflict on others is immediate and, in some cases, fatal.

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A new USA Today/Ipsos poll shows that “1 in 5 teachers say they are unlikely to go back to school if their classrooms reopen in the fall, a potential massive wave of resignations.” The majority of teachers are women. They have not lost their love of teaching; they are understandably afraid. And they are not alone. “A separate poll of parents with at least one child in grades K-12 finds that 6 in 10 say they would be likely to pursue at-home learning options instead of sending back their children this fall.”

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The first priority for both teachers and parents is their children’s safety. They will sacrifice their jobs before they will endanger their kids.

Following the Sept. 11 attacks, we heard a lot about the Soccer Mom — the suburban woman concerned with physical security. Although they may have disagreed with Republicans on a smattering of issues, the paramount concern — protection of themselves and their families — prompted many to stick with the Republicans. Democrats have now become the party of common sense, physical security and basic public health. Get ready for the election driven by Pandemic Parents (and Grandparents).

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