When masks become part of 'a brewing culture war'

Trump can't even bring himself to promote responsible mask-wearing, in part because he fears campaign commercials that almost certainly wouldn't exist.
Image: Boxes of N95 protective masks for use by medical field personnel are seen at a New York State emergency operations incident command center during the coronavirus outbreak in New Rochelle
Boxes of N95 protective masks for use by medical field personnel are seen at a New York State emergency operations incident command center during the coronavirus outbreak in New Rochelle, New York on March 17, 2020.Mike Segar / Reuters
Get the Msnbc newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Steve Benen

It was practically a scene out of an over-the-top satirical film. Donald Trump traveled to a Honeywell plant in Arizona this week, spending some time at a factory that's manufacturing millions of N95 masks during the pandemic. As "Live and Let Die" played over the loudspeaker, it was hard not to notice the president did not wear a mask at the mask-making facility.

It's against this backdrop that the Associated Press reported today that Trump has told advisers that he believes wearing a mask would "send the wrong message."

The president said doing so would make it seem like he is preoccupied with health instead of focused on reopening the nation's economy -- which his aides believe is the key to his reelection chances in November. Moreover, Trump, who is known to be especially cognizant of his appearance on television, has also told confidants that he fears he would look ridiculous in a mask and the image would appear in negative ads, according to one of the officials.

It's a dangerously strange perspective, which has reverberations beyond the president himself. The AP report added that those around Trump have taken note of his decision not to wear a mask, leaving them unsure whether they should follow his lead. At this point, most White House aides aren't wearing masks, and the president's Republican allies have sought guidance, not from the CDC, but from the Trump re-election campaign about "how it would be viewed" if they were seen in masks.

To capture just how deeply strange our political environment has become in 2020, the AP report went on to note, "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."

The Culture Warrior in Chief in the Oval Office clearly isn't helping.

When the White House announced new guidelines in April, encouraging Americans to wear masks in public in order to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the announcement coincided with the president's remarks that he intended to step on the directive.

"So with the masks, it's going to be, really, a voluntary thing," Trump said at the time. "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 okay. It may be good. Probably will. They're making a recommendation. It's only a recommendation."

Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, told Greg Sargent this week, "Particularly to his supporters, the behavioral choices [the president] makes carry far more weight than virtually anything else." Konyndyk added that even if Trump and those around him benefit from special testing, "what's seen" by Americans is, "don't wear a mask."

We're left with a dynamic that defies comprehension: thanks to the White House, there is effectively no coordinated federal response to the deadly pandemic; the president and his allies celebrate states that are prematurely reopening; and Trump can't even bring himself to promote responsible mask-wearing, in part because he fears campaign commercials that almost certainly wouldn't exist.

If there's a defense for such a posture, I can't think of it.

Postscript: Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told the AP, "Who knows what the truth is on masks?" Given the Republican senator's recent history, maybe he should take a back seat on this discussion.