Aaron Blake: Trump's seeding of a culture war over masks just got a lot less subtle

Summary: What's most inexplicable, though, is that wearing a mask is one of the simplest things to do — and something that could actually help when it comes to lifting those restrictions. Masks help people reemerge in society without infecting one another.

Aaron Blake photo
Aaron Blake photo Courtesy of The Washington Post

On Friday, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, R, offered an emotional plea that has been rare among President Donald Trump's allies: to stop a senseless and counterproductive culture war over the wearing of masks during the coronavirus outbreak.

On Monday, Trump reinforced his own role in subtly seeding that culture war.

In perhaps his most overt effort to shun the wearing of masks, Trump retweeted a tweet from Fox News analyst Brit Hume ridiculing Joe Biden for appearing with a face mask during a Memorial Day ceremony in Delaware.

"This might help explain why Trump doesn't like to wear a mask in public. Biden today," Hume tweeted about the former vice president.

Trump apparently thought this was a message his supporters needed to consume.


There are two apparent motivations for the retweet. The first is the more obvious: to ridicule his presumptive Democratic opponent, in which Trump was characteristically happy to join. The second is less obvious, but it becomes more so when you look at Trump's history with this issue: to suggest that people don't need to actually take this precaution — and to lift it up as a symbol of health officials' overzealous efforts to prevent the country from returning to business as usual.

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first recommended wearing masks or face coverings in early April, Trump made a conspicuous point to say that the measure was voluntary.

"So with the masks, it's going to be, really, a voluntary thing," he said. "You can do it. You don't have to do it. I'm choosing not to do it, but some people may want to do it, and that's OK. It may be good. Probably will. They're making a recommendation. It's only a recommendation. It's voluntary."

When Trump was pressed on why he wasn't wearing a mask himself, despite the guidance, he again reinforced the voluntary nature of it and suggested he didn't need one because he didn't feel ill.

"Well, I just don't want to wear one myself. It's a recommendation; they recommend it. I'm feeling good," the president said, adding: "Somehow, I don't see it for myself. I just — I just don't. Maybe I'll change my mind, but this will pass and hopefully it'll pass very quickly."

This explanation, of course, glossed over a reality of the coronavirus outbreak: that asymptomatic people can be carriers. The idea that a mask isn't necessary because the potential wearer has no reason to believe they're sick also ignores the benefit that masks could provide when it comes to contracting the virus oneself.

Trump has clung to his own reluctance to wear a mask since then, even as White House officials have begun wearing them. Vice President Pence also declined to wear a mask during a visit to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota a month ago, despite the hospital's policy requiring them and everyone around him donning them. He later admitted he should have worn one.

Trump has continued to hold out for weeks though, declining to wear one when the camera is on him — including at a factory that produces masks — but putting one on at other points.


In explaining his decision, Trump suggested he was holding out in public because he didn't want to allow reporters who have continually pressed him on the issue to win.

"I wore one in this back area, but I didn't want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it," Trump said.

The implication was pretty clear: When it comes to wearing a mask, public health isn't the only consideration. So, too, are pride and Trump's appetite for provocation. That message, perhaps better than anything, summarizes his attitude toward masks. Whatever can be gained by a president setting an example for the American people, there are other considerations.

And it's not difficult to see the public consequences to this more laissez-faire approach to masks. In the days before Trump's Monday retweet, anecdotal images showed Memorial Day weekend revelers in places such as the Lake of the Ozarks flouting not just mask-wearing guidelines but also social-distancing guidelines.

And polls have indicated that members of Trump's party are much more likely to flout the mask guideline. A Quinnipiac University poll last week showed 90% of Democrats thought Trump should wear a mask in public, but just 38% of Republicans said the same.

As for their own mask-wearing tendencies, a poll in Minnesota last week showed 87% of Democrats reported wearing one while leaving home in the previous week, while just 53% of Republicans did. A national Gallup poll this month showed similar numbers: While 18% of Democratic-leaning voters said they never wore a mask, 46% of Republican-leaning voters said the same.

It's impossible to say exactly what these images and numbers would look like if Trump had adopted a more stringent personal policy and attitude toward masks. Republicans tend to be more skeptical of government mandates, in general, so it's possible they'd buck the recommendation even if the president approached it differently. It's also possible that Trump's posture has actually pushed Democrats to embrace masks somewhat more, given their distaste for the president.

That being said, Trump supporters' affinity for him is extremely strong, as he himself routinely reinforces (and more often than not exaggerates). It's hardly a stretch to argue that GOP adherence to the guideline would be much stronger if Trump urged people who support him to follow them.


And this is a divide that is, as Burgum noted Friday, completely regrettable and unnecessary. Even if people don't opt to follow a voluntary guideline themselves, there is increasing evidence that flouting the guideline has become a point of personal pride — a symbol, even, of disagreeing with politicians' and health officials' supposedly draconian actions that are damaging the country and the economy.

What's most inexplicable, though, is that wearing a mask is one of the simplest things to do — and something that could actually help when it comes to lifting those restrictions. Masks help people reemerge in society without infecting one another. And even if one is skeptical of that claim from health officials, donning them could help alleviate others' fears about reemerging themselves.

A president taking part in the ridiculing of his opponent for participating in that process would only seem to make things more difficult. But at least Trump scored his political point.

Aaron Blake is senior political reporter, writing for The Fix. A Minnesota native, he has also written about politics for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and The Hill newspaper.


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