The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Even within his own party, Trump’s damn-the-torpedoes view of masks and rallies is a minority position

In this Feb. 28 photo, President Trump speaks during a campaign rally in North Charleston, S.C. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

With a brashness familiar to any parent, President Trump has repeatedly waved away the idea of wearing a face mask. It’s an odd bit of machismo, both obvious in its focus on image and yet passive in how Trump presents it.

It’s true, of course, Trump is the only person in America whose interactions with others are all pre-cleared for the coronavirus, obviating most concern about his being an asymptomatic carrier, but that safety is a function of his position as the leader of the country. And on face masks, he’s leading his supporters down a path experts find worrisome.

President Trump visited a face mask factory in Phoenix on May 5 but declined to wear a mask. (Video: The Washington Post)

What’s more, mask-wearing now overlaps to some extent with partisan politics. Republicans are less likely to indicate they wear masks regularly and, for some, going without a mask serves as a sort of inverse Gadsden flag. Trump reinforces this partisanship, telling the Wall Street Journal in an interview this week that some people might wear masks specifically as a way of demonstrating opposition to him. As he prepares for his first presidential campaign rally since March, Trump has indicated he would be happy to have supporters wear masks, if they wished — even as he insists that masks are “a double-edge sword.” (Trump’s press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, said she wouldn’t wear a mask at Saturday’s rally.)

Trump rally, protests and pandemic set to collide in Tulsa

This position, though, isn’t the majority one even in Trump’s party. Americans broadly view wearing a mask favorably, according to new polling from Fox News. More than three-quarters of people overall say they have a favorable view of those who wear masks, as do more than two-thirds of Republicans.

Trump’s relative indifference to mask-wearing is one thing. His fervent insistence on campaign rallies is another.

For the president, these rallies tick a lot of boxes. From a personal standpoint, he enjoys the energy and adulation. He also clearly believes they’re an important tool both for demonstrating his support to the world and for fostering it directly. He’s lamented repeatedly that he hasn’t been able to hold rallies as the pandemic has raged, and he leaped at the opportunity to resume them as soon as federal authorities — which is to say, him — determined social gatherings could resume.

Trump’s rally in Tulsa is problematic for a few reasons. Coronavirus cases are increasing rapidly in Oklahoma broadly and in Tulsa County specifically. While any large event is cause for concern, a large indoor rally where people (many in the older, higher-risk population) are staying in one place for hours on end presents risks an outdoor rally or march doesn’t.

Fauci says he personally wouldn’t attend Trump’s Tulsa rally, citing coronavirus

Interestingly, most people understand that risk, even if Trump refuses to. The Fox News poll found that more than half of Americans think presidential candidates shouldn’t be holding large events and rallies at this point. Less than a quarter think they should be.

Notice that even among Republicans, most think either the rallies shouldn’t be held or should be held only if social distancing measures and masks are in place. Trump’s Tulsa rally will offer masks to participants, though not make wearing them mandatory; there is apparently no social distancing effort that will be incorporated.

Sure, many Republicans think it’s fine to move forward without those precautions, Trump among them. But they’re in the minority even within the party.

Trump, of course, dismissed this poll in broad terms on Friday.

This had nothing to do with the questions about the masks and the rally but, instead, about the poll showing him trailing former vice president Joe Biden by double digits in the national presidential contest. Fox News’s polling in 2016, incidentally, was quite accurate. A poll released two days before the election had Hillary Clinton leading Trump nationally by a 48-to-44 percent margin; she won the popular vote by a 48-to-46 percent margin.

All of this discussion of the politics of how Trump’s rally overlaps with the pandemic is academic compared with the risks that exist from an outbreak related to the event. Trump will reportedly speak twice on Saturday, once to the crowd outside — where risks are lower — and once inside a packed arena. He’ll be speaking to his most fervent supporters, people who traveled to Tulsa to hear him speak and to cheer him on, despite the risk posed by doing so.

The Fox News poll inadvertently serves as a reminder of how limited that level of support is nationally. Trump sends a signal about the virus and risk, and even most Republicans reject it. With this rally, Trump wants to demonstrate how good his position is going into November. That so few Americans think the rally is a good idea suggests his position is much weaker than he’d like us to believe.

The Fix’s Amber Phillips on what to watch for as President Trump prepares to hold his first campaign rally in more than three months on June 20. (Video: The Washington Post)