Wearing a face mask while in close proximity to other people—at a time when one cough or sneeze has a not-insignificant chance of spreading a deadly virus—should have nothing to do with politics. Yet here we are.
We have seen extremist protestors—some of them right-wing militia members armed with high-powered weapons—gathering in Michigan’s state capital. Protestors have even started targeting healthcare workers. Anger over the masks specifically led a senior citizen to commit assault by wiping his nose on the shirt of a Dollar Tree employee who had informed him that the store required customers to wear one. That anger has also led to a broken arm and, by all indications, a murder.
To say that such essential workers deserve better is an understatement larger than Donald Trump’s ego. First of all, they deserve access to good health care, a living wage, hazard pay, and appropriate PPE. But at a bare minimum, these service workers—a group who are disproportionately economically vulnerable with no choice but to risk their lives, as well as more likely to be Americans of color—deserve to not be treated like the personal Kleenex of a bonafide asshole.
This is just straight up disgusting.
Police in Michigan asking for help identifying assault suspect who wiped his nose and face on a Dollar Tree employee's shirt after authorities say she informed him of the store's face-mask policy. https://t.co/SUpzE1UT4C pic.twitter.com/jDHg1miAT9
— ABC News (@ABC) May 5, 2020
Even worse, the person elected to lead our country has acted in a way that reflects the polar opposite of leadership. We’re all concerned, scared, and maybe even angry at times about having our lives turned upside down. Rather than seek to calm some people’s natural resentment over being told what to do while still encouraging folks to wear masks—steps any true leader would take—or even just say nothing at all, Trump is out there actively making things worse.
The decision to wear a mask in public is becoming a political statement — a moment to pick sides in a brewing culture war over containing the coronavirus.
While not yet as loaded as a “Make America Great Again” hat, the mask is increasingly a visual shorthand for the debate pitting those willing to follow health officials’ guidance and cover their faces against those who feel it violates their freedom or buys into a threat they think is overblown.
That resistance is fueled by some of the same people who object to other virus restrictions. The push back has been stoked by President Donald Trump — he didn’t wear a mask during an appearance at a facility making them — and some other Republicans, who have flouted rules and questioned the value of masks. It’s a development that has worried experts as Americans are increasingly returning to public spaces.
It’s not just Trump, as the Associated Press notes. Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky—a frickin’ doctor, no less!—recently added fuel to the anti-mask extremists’ fire when he asked: “Who knows what the truth is on masks?” Compare that with New York’s Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who asked a different question: “How people cannot wear masks—that to me is even disrespectful. You put so many people at risk because you did not want to wear a mask?”
One to two thousand Americans have died from the novel coronavirus every single day since the beginning of April—some days more—and over 82,000 have died as of this writing. Given that, it makes no sense that Cuomo should even have to ask that question. But Trump isn’t most people.
Trump spits in the face of our police officers by siding with these protesters who literally screamed in the face of our police officers!!! pic.twitter.com/5fbWZXU71R
— (((DeanObeidallah))) (@DeanObeidallah) May 1, 2020
“Very good people.” While such a statement may not be quite as bad as Trump having characterized the neo-Nazis who chanted “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville as “very fine people,” it’s not as far off as you might think. The Michigan protestors brought Trump flags to the Capitol, and also brandished symbols of the Confederacy and Nazi Germany. Included among those protesting were the Michigan Liberty Militia and the Proud Boys; the Southern Poverty Law Center has characterized the former as an “extreme antigovernment group” and the latter as a hate group.
Daily Kos’ Jen Hayden has also delved into the connections between these protestors and white supremacy/racism, as did Jamelle Bouie at The New York Times—one of this country’s most insightful writers on racial issues. His analysis was, as usual, spot on.
I don’t think you can separate the vehemence of anti-lockdown protesters from their whiteness, nor do I think we can divorce their demands to “reopen” the economy from the knowledge that many of those most affected belong to other racial groups. It’s not so much that they’re showing racial animus (although some are), but that their conception of what it means to be “free” is, at its root, tied tightly to their racial identity.
Meanwhile, going back to Charlottesville, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden launched his presidential campaign in April 2019 with two words: “Charlottesville, Virginia.” In his announcement video, he condemned Trump’s “very fine people” line as having “stunned the world and shocked the conscience of this nation.” Biden continued: “With those words, the president of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it.”
Biden effectively used Trump’s own words to put him on the side of an extreme minority. Today’s radical coronavirus protestors are a minority within a minority, as far more Americans worry that states will reopen businesses too soon rather than not soon enough, according to multiple recent polls. Additionally, a solid majority of Americans disapprove of the protests themselves.
The great populist revolt against stay at home orders continues to be a wildly unpopular phenomenon driven by Republican Party elected officials, conservative donors, and Fox News personalities. https://t.co/wFegg1gslf pic.twitter.com/CkgpyJp946
— Matthew Yglesias (@mattyglesias) May 8, 2020
Using Trump’s own words against him reminds those voters who dislike the Orange Julius Caesar but don’t love Biden that they need to vote for the Democrat, if only to stand against the extremists and deny them victory. The former vice president ought to employ a similar tactic now as part of his broader denunciation of Trump’s incredibly inadequate response to COVID-19—rightly characterized by former president Obama in recent private remarks as “an absolute chaotic disaster.” Biden used Trump’s own words, and did it skillfully, in the first part of the ad embedded below.
Real presidents lead. Reality TV presidents don’t. pic.twitter.com/2lMwnRXLcG
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) May 7, 2020
There’s reason to believe this approach will be quite effective. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that people who disliked both Trump and Biden said they would end up voting for Biden by a 60-10 margin. Compare that to four years ago, when those who disliked Trump and Hillary Clinton—two historically unpopular major party nominees—went 47% for Trump, 30% for Clinton, and 24% for a third-party candidate.
It’s an unfortunate truth, but the aforementioned NBC/WSJ poll, along with another survey from Monmouth University that found similar results, suggests that people voting for Biden primarily as a vote against Trump will be a significant chunk of the Democrat electorate. Negative partisanship remains one of the most powerful forces in persuading and motivating voters, as elections expert Charlie Cook explained: “For years my unfortunate suspicion has been that the strongest emotion in politics is not love but hate, that opposition unites, that more passion is often found among those con than pro.” For a more scholarly analysis that relies on research, check out Negative Partisanship: Why Americans Dislike Parties But Behave Like Rabid Partisans, by political scientists Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster.
One of the most important developments in American politics over the last 40 years has been the rise of negative partisanship—the phenomenon whereby Americans largely align against one party instead of affiliating with the other. Though it has the power to reshape patterns of political behavior, little is known about the microfoundations driving negative partisanship. In this article, we show how the growing racial divide between the two major parties, as well as the presence of partisan‐friendly media outlets, have led to the rise of negative partisanship. We also utilize the growing literature on personality and politics to show how the Big Five personality traits are predictive of negative partisanship. The results suggest that the psychological roots of negative partisanship are both widespread and, absent drastic individual and structural‐level changes, likely to persist.
Having now defended the coronavirus militants, Trump would have a hard time reversing himself even if he wanted to. If he does, he risks alienating some of his base, not to mention looking weak in the face of criticism. However, given his record of never apologizing, I don’t see The Man Who Lost The Popular Vote doing so in this instance (although he could always just pull another “I was being sarcastic” routine—not that anyone believed that malarkey). He’s much likelier to double down and defend what he said, as he did after the Charlottesville statement.
To be clear, Trump is not responsible for every act of anti-mask-related violence, and not everyone who commits such an act is necessarily a Trump supporter. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that Trump has, through his words and his actions—such as not wearing a mask in situations where he definitely should—given aid and comfort to the most extreme elements of the anti-safety protestors.
Beyond the politics, there’s also the ideological substance behind the Trumpist anti-mask radicals. It boils down to a rigid, ultra-libertarian “you can’t tell me what to do” ideology, combined with a Social Darwinist/Ayn Rand-influenced loathing or even hatred of anyone seen as weak—including anyone “weak” enough to actually die from a COVID-19 infection.
"Sacrifice the Weak" – imagine not just thinking of this but actually writing it out AND taking it out on the street in Nashville, Tennessee. pic.twitter.com/dLPutBoJzG
— Conor Blennerhassett (@ConorBlenner) April 22, 2020
While the lockdown has certainly caused real pain for people, wearing a mask is—by any rational standard—relatively painless. Yet these zealots are unwilling to put one on and help other people stay healthy and alive. These so-called “patriots” not only don’t care about their fellow Americans—in some cases, such as that sociopath at the Dollar Tree, they appear happy to help push them along into an early grave. There is a complete lack of empathy on their part. Really, though, this is little more than an extreme version of the same old Republican values that preach “I got mine, go get yours (or just go fuck yourself).”
By contrast, empathy is a core value for progressives. Concern for one’s neighbors and one’s fellow Americans more broadly undergirds progressive policy approaches on matters as varied as tax policy, the minimum wage, health care, the environment, and civil rights. For progressives, wearing a mask when you’re unable to stay more than six feet away from another American (or any human being) is not only common sense, but vital to how we view our responsibilities to one another.
We are, in Obama’s words, “one American family.” It doesn’t seem too much to ask that one wear a mask to protect members of one’s family. Yet for Trumpist Republicans and, in particular, the anti-mask extremists, no such responsibility to others exists. Except, of course, for those near (if not necessarily dear) to Trump himself, who on Monday decreed that anyone who comes into the West Wing must “wear a mask or face covering” now that COVID-19 has broken through into the Trump-Pence inner circle. Everyone must now wear a mask at all times, unless they are alone at their desks. Predictably, early indications are that Trump and Vice President Mike Pence will not be bound by the new rule. Trump himself won’t wear a mask because “he’s a unique individual,” according to a White House official. “He can’t be seen walking around wearing a mask.” Well, “unique” is certainly one word for him.
Empathy was perhaps the single most important value of the Obama presidency. It’s what makes him, as I’ve written, “the exact moral opposite of Donald Trump.” In an interview with James Corden of CBS’s The Late Show last month, Biden made that same criticism of Trump’s response to COVID-19, juxtaposing Trump’s lack of empathy with the real patriotism and spirit of community we expect and need a president to display.
“I’m going to sound like the ugly American here but I’m so proud of the country. The country is standing up. People are making real sacrifices. They’re reaching out to their friends, they’re reaching out to people they don’t even know,” Biden said, before paying special tribute to the low-wage but essential workers who have kept the country running during the shutdown.
“When this is over, we better damn well not forget them. Because what’s happened is, this and the way Trump has handled it, we’ve taken the blinders off. All of a sudden, we’re realizing there’s a lot of incredible people out there who are making six, seven bucks an hour, who are out there making sure we continue to be able to eat, we continue to be able to have electricity,” Biden said. “We continue to be able to have our way [of life] even when we’re in quarantine, we’re able to be taken care of. I’m sorry but I just think this frustrates me so much because I’m so proud of what the American people are doing. The president, my impression is he doesn’t have a whole lot of sense of empathy.”
Watch the full interview below.
Biden isn’t the only one who’s noticed Trump’s deficiency. CNN’s Maeve Reston wrote an analysis on Saturday exploring Trump’s lack of empathy. She argued that the former VP, on the other hand, “has built a political career out of his ability to channel frustration, anger and grief of ordinary people.” Such a sentiment is widely shared among other political observers.
As evidence, Reston quoted at length from a statement Biden made Friday. “To everyone who is struggling with this virus who I talk to, or grieving a lost loved one, or losing sleep worrying about how you are going to make ends meet for another week: I want to offer my heartfelt condolences. I know that we will get through this. We’ll get through it together. I know because I know the American spirit, and the American character. We’re seeing it on display every day.” Similarly, in a Washington Post op-ed, Biden proclaimed that we need “empathetic, unifying leadership,” and lamented that all Trump is interested in is “deflecting blame and dividing Americans.”
Going on four years now, we’ve been saddled with someone occupying the Oval Office who is so nakedly narcissistic, so pathetically focused on his own personal interests that he revs up political outrage and divides the American people over the simple measures we can take to avoid spreading a disease during a pandemic.
Turning the masks into another front in the MAGA culture wars may exemplify Trumpism, but it represents the antithesis of patriotism. For Herr Twitler, it’s about optics—Trump officials told the AP that Trump “fears he would look ridiculous in a mask and the image would appear in negative ads.” For his extreme followers, it’s about their very identity.
I don’t expect any of us imagined we’d see a president act this way, yet this is what it’s come to in Trump’s America. At long last, it’s time to put someone else in charge. Someone who actually does put America first, above himself. On Election Day, we’ll finally get the opportunity, but it will only happen if we work for it.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump