The analogy suggests Trump needs a lesson in mask-placement protocol. But still, the guy who instigated an incomprehensible cross-aisle clash over the utility of a piece of cloth now says he’s “all for masks” indoors where distancing isn’t possible. So what gives? The right-wing retreat suggests there’s only so much reality-warping this administration can get away with.
The president’s concession to basic science came after a cascade of allies offered olive branches of their own, following weeks of scoffing at the need for CDC compliance. Some semi-moderates had long been subtly urging mask use, so it was hardly a shock when Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) cued in a chorus of blunter language with the declaration, “Everyone should just wear a damn mask.” What followed, however, was more surprising.
“We must have no stigma, none,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) exhorted on the chamber’s floor earlier this week, pushing his caucus to fall in line.
“I went to my grocery store every week, guess what? They wore masks,” Sean Hannity said on Fox News. “Nobody at my grocery store, thank God, got coronavirus. I think they work.”
And then there really were none — except the one who started it all.
Of course, the anti-mask army never really had an argument for its obstinance except that the president said so — and the president said so, it seems, to try to downplay the epidemic out of existence, even though he has ended up downplaying the worst of it back into existence instead.
The naked-cheeked were trying to project toughness, but the point of personal protective equipment was never really personal protection so much as the protection of other people. This contempt reached its peak of embarrassing absurdity at the reelection rally in Tulsa, where a man arrived clad in an adult diaper that read, “I COVID my ass to stop the spread!”
The combination of mask-loathing with a conservative trope about liberal babyism is clarifying: This was supposed to be an ideological split in the mode of so many before it, yet the nifty trick of picking a rallying point for the country to polarize around hasn’t worked this time. These divides depend on a measure of subjectivity, and here’s what happens when the objective truth is too obvious and too immediate to ignore.
Americans have been living in what look like different worlds for years now. Sometimes, a difference in opinion really is just a difference in opinion even when the right answer seems abundantly obvious, and abundantly opposite, to the two sides: whether Confederate statues ought to come down, say, or whether Starbucks’s nondenominational holiday cups are an attack on Christianity. Sometimes, what’s marketed as a difference in opinion really is a difference in ability to accept the facts. Is human behavior causing the globe to warm? The only right answer there is “yes.”
Trump lies — a lot. So as many differences of opinion as there are between his supporters and his opposers, there are at least as many differences of facts — and the enduring willingness of his allies to land on the wrong side of those facts has allowed him to survive. Think of the infamous quid pro quo transcript on which the impeachment inquiry hinged: “Do us a favor, though.” The words are what the words are, yet congressional Republicans were at the ready to twist their meaning into impossible shapes.
Experts didn’t all prescribe masks from the start, but the evidence has become ever clearer that they help slow the spread of the virus. Which you would think, given how intuitive that seems, wouldn’t be all that hard to sell: We shouldn’t have needed scientists to tell us a barrier between dangerous droplets and the air everyone else is breathing is better than no barrier at all.
The jelling of expert opinion left Trump with no choice but to manufacture facts (one of his special talents). “Masks are a double-edged sword,” he insisted, because “people touch them.” Even this, however, proved too difficult to sustain. Because while climate change may play out over the course of hundreds of years, the consequences of masklessness are playing out over the course of days: disease, death and, for the purely politically minded, a forestalled economic recovery that would promise a catastrophic Nov. 3.
Trump wanted to make masks a symbol, a marker of political identity, much as the Lone Ranger’s signature non-disguise tells everyone who he is and what he stands for. But symbols have to exist at a distance for us to abstract them, as many do with the statues or with the flag. They have to stay untethered from actual everyday life. The decision of whether to wear a mask is as tethered as can be to how we live every one of these monotonous, epidemic-defined days. Masks are right here, right now, in front of our noses. Or not.
The president attempted, as he has so many times before, to bend reality, but this time reality refused to yield. There is a limit to what we will go to war for, even when our tribe’s leader calls us to arms. This might even be a happy lesson if people had not had to die to teach it.