The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump is losing even the mask war

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) wears a protective face mask after a news conference outside the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday. (EPA-EFE/Shutterstock) (Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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President Trump’s approval ratings have tanked recently. In RealClear Politics averages, his net approval is -11. While we have gotten used to the cynical talking point that “nothing matters” — meaning Trump’s approval is resistant to outside events — double-digit unemployment and nearly 100,000 dead Americans may have finally chased away all but the hard-core MAGA crowd.

His attempts to divert attention and reconnect with a broader base of support have failed miserably. Defaming MSNBC host and Post contributor Joe Scarborough and torturing a dead woman’s family with conspiracy talk have been widely condemned, even on the right. Now, his defiance on wearing a mask seems to be failing as well. (Disclaimer: I’m an MSNBC contributor.)

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Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, made clear in a CNN interview how important it is to wear a mask: “I think we should be recommending it. As you know, I wear it whenever I’m outside,” he said. “We can try and keep the usual distance, but sometimes it is out of your control.” He stressed that if we want to move ahead with reopening (as Trump so desperately wants), “there are certain things that you can do and still do as you reopen. One is wearing a mask.” He added: “The other is avoiding crowds of more than 10 people, depending upon where you are and where the dynamics of the outbreak are.” So much for the idea of a fully packed Republican National Convention. (While Trump insists on holding a convention in person, I find it hard to believe any governor or mayor would willingly create a new hot spot for the pandemic.)

Moreover, mask defiance is losing its hold on the right-wing media, a vital part of Trump’s political life-support system. None other than Fox News and Trump sycophant Sean Hannity scolded partyers in Missouri who crowded in and around a pool with no masks:

“I see no social distancing. But if they get the virus and they’re in contact with older, more vulnerable Americans, that could be a disaster,” he said, echoing the words of sane and responsible leaders everywhere. “If you can’t social distance, please wear the mask for your mom, dad, grandma, grandpa.”

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Hannity is not alone in refusing to add his voice to the mask-defying chorus. By their own conduct, mask-wearing Republican governors and senators who otherwise have supported Trump effectively communicate that they are not following Trump’s example on this one. Trump’s lonely mask defiance is a powerful symbol of his political and cultural isolation.

When things have gone poorly, Trump has been able to attack the media (as he did responding to criticism about his tweets on Scarborough), behave in outrageous ways that alarm “elites” and generate sympathy, as he tried while sitting literally at the feet of Abraham Lincoln’s statue, insisting, "They always said, ‘Lincoln — nobody got treated worse than Lincoln.’ I believe I am treated worse.” Rather than “nothing matters,” perhaps the catchphrase for Trump should be “nothing works,” because the stakes are so much higher, and the damage he has wrought is no longer abstract (“eroding democratic institutions”) but a matter of life and death.

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Distracting, acting out, insulting others and refusing to abide by safe public health practices are not working for Trump. Perhaps he has finally worn out his welcome even with some Republicans.

With severe shortages of protective equipment, nurses and other workers are having to choose between helping others and ensuring their own safety. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Patricia Lafontant/The Washington Post)