By Francis Wilkinson / Bloomberg Opinion
When a man in a MAGA hat was asked to put on a mask last week at a suburban Kansas City restaurant, as state law requires, he said he had an exemption; he lifted his shirt to reveal a holstered firearm. A customer who refused to wear a mask at a convenience store in Michigan this week stabbed a fellow customer and was later shot dead by police.
Despite the recommendations of health officials, the requirements of an increasing number of retail stores and the force of laws — or perhaps because of them — many citizens are still resisting masks. Covid-19 has spurred a tangled knot of health-care, economic and political crises. For supporters of President Trump, however, those crises have produced another: a brutal rejoinder to the magical thinking that is foundational to the MAGA creed.
It’s not just randos. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, this week instituted a death-defying ban on local ordinances requiring masks; even as Covid-19 cases soar in his state. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was photographed maskless on a flight. When Trump finally modeled a mask, he received the kind of praise typically associated with opening your mouth to allow the airplane spoon of applesauce inside. But the presidential mask hasn’t returned.
The accretion of knowledge about the virus has been halting and muddled. By contrast, the anti-mask crowd has (so far) remained emphatic and absolute. In Orange County, California, the Republican-dominated school board voted to allow schools to reopen even as neighboring Los Angeles and San Diego announced that the resurgence of Covid-19 had rendered school openings unfeasible. The board also recommended that neither students nor teachers be required to wear masks or maintain social distance.
“Politicization is quite acute in Orange County,” state Sen. Tom Umberg, a Democrat, whose district is concentrated in the northern part of the county, told me. “The decision to disregard what science and education policy dictate is a political statement reflective of what the president is trying to do in gaslighting the country.”
Obviously, fanatical resistance to masks amid a lethal pandemic has little to do with the efficacy or decorum of cloth coverings. The mask has become a focus of MAGA angst, an impertinent reminder of Trump’s dishonesty and incompetence. As David Frum has noted, a mask “strings an accusation from ear to ear.” It’s a facial wall, and Mexico’s not paying for this one, either.
Among the MAGA crowd, the mask is also a symbolic gag. It signals not only capitulation to experts and liberal scolds, who once again expose their hero, but also the impending demise of uninhibited speech; especially the freedom to tell someone browner to “go back where you came from.”
The deaths of 135,000-and-counting Americans have altered behavior and changed opinions, including among Republicans. “If all of us would put on a face covering now for the next four weeks to six weeks, I think we could drive this epidemic to the ground,” Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said this week. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, tweeted Monday: “Right now, despite mixed messages at the beginning, it seems like masks are the best bet. They’re a hell of a lot better than widespread shut downs. Please wear one!”
Yet the partisan gap on mask use is wide. According to Gallup, 27 percent of Republicans say they “never” wear a mask, as do 18 percent of independents. Among Democrats, it’s 1 percent. Yes, some of those Republicans live in rural areas where mask use is largely unnecessary. But even rural residents go to stores more often than never.
The mask may prove to be the dividing line between conservatives who share a common reality with the rest of the nation and those who insist on a separatist life of conspiracy mongering and political fantasy. The freedom to spread a lethal disease is shaping up to be a 21st-century Lost Cause; a struggle shrouded in myth and lies that will leave behind a gruesome toll on the battlefield.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of The Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.