America's Culture Wars Are Now Literally Killing People

Wearing a mask could have been a simple, no-nonsense public health measure. Instead it's another thing to scream about.

Welcome back to What Went Wrong?, a newsletter about the failures, inefficiencies, and screw-ups that define 21st-century American life written by Harry Cheadle.

Face masks work. So why are they so controversial?

Image via publicdomainpictures.net

On Friday, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he was “frustrated.” Despite all the advice he and all the other other coronavirus experts had given the public about avoiding large crowds and wearing face masks, a lot of Americans still weren't doing the right thing. 

“It's a combination of leadership on the one hand, but even sometimes, when the leadership calls out for people to obey certain types of guidelines, they don't do it,” he told an interviewer on CBS radio.

On mask-wearing in particular, people aren't just ignoring the guidelines, they're deliberately flouting them to make what I guess you have to call a political point. Last week, a trollish conservative activist named Brandon Straka was kicked off an American Airlines flight and banned from that company's planes after he refused to wear a mask. (According to the airline, he contradicted himself about having a medical condition.) Other right-wingers have embraced the idea of claiming that they have a mysterious disability that prevents them from wearing a mask and refusing to disclose what that disability is. (As noted in that Daily Beast article, businesses can still legally bar maskless individuals in the name of public safety.)

By now, we're all used to this kind of BS culture war preening, where small gestures become totems in a symbolic war against tyranny, or the social justice snowflakes, or whatever. But face coverings aren't just symbols—the consensus is that they help contain the spread of COVID-19. One study “found that the per-capita mortality tended to increase by 43% weekly in countries where people were not wearing masks, compared with a 2.8% increase in countries where people were wearing masks.” Another study found that states that mandated mask wearing were able to slow the COVID growth rate. After a period of telling Americans not to wear masks, the Centers for Disease Control has been saying since April that they're a good idea, especially in public places like grocery stores. 

Masks should be uncontroversial. Yet late last week, the AMC theater chain announced it wouldn't require customers to wear masks in an effort to avoid “political controversy.” Ironically (and predictably) that stance was so controversial itself that AMC flip-flopped less than 24 hours later. So how did masks get sucked into the culture war?

Problem #1: Some Americans are wackos

Fauci’s quote above seems to indicate that he blames anti-mask sentiment on people refusing to follow the rules, rather than a failure of leadership. It’s definitely true that many Americans won’t believe anything the authorities tell them. There are people who believe that the Earth is flat or that the Holocaust never happened; it's only natural that people also think that the coronavirus is a plot engineered by Bill Gates. 

There's likely a portion of anti-mask sentiment that can be attributed to nutjobs, in other words. But we can’t just blame conspiracy theorists. A recent Fox News poll found that while 80% of Americans “have a favorable view of mask-wearers,” that number drops to 61% among strong supporters of Donald Trump. That indicates that partisan politics is fueling the mask backlash, and in this case as so many others, partisanship starts at the top.

Problem #2: The president is an anti-masker

I really want to emphasize that it's not inevitable that masks would become politically divisive. Some right-wing media figures have been pro-mask: Fox News' Tucker Carlson went on a “masks work” rant when the CDC was being weirdly anti-mask, and his colleague Sean Hannity (who has on occasion spread COVID misinformation) criticized a crowd of young partiers for not wearing masks. There’s a not-hard-to-imagine alternate universe where conservatives got angry at the CDC for lying about masks, and embraced MAGA-branded face coverings as a way to own the libs who were anti-mask snobs as recently as March. 

The culprit here isn’t right-wing media broadly, but Trump himself.

In a story about how New York’s leaders failed during the early days of the pandemic, the New Yorker noted that communication with the public during disease outbreaks should be handled carefully. The lead spokesperson should be a nonpartisan public health official like Fauci, and that spokesperson should “be a living example of the importance of, say, wearing a mask.” Trump, by contrast, put himself in front of cameras repeatedly to talk about COVID-19 and doesn't publicly wear a mask. “With the masks, it is going to be a voluntary thing,” Trump said at a White House briefing after the CDC announced people should wear masks.  “You can do it. You don’t have to do it. I am choosing not to do it. It may be good.”

The president has undercut even that mild endorsement of masks by retweeting a jab at Joe Biden for covering his face—even as the coordinator of the White House Coronavirus, Deborah Birx, was emphasizing mask-wearing. Trump’s stance clearly had an impact, as this exchange between a maskless man on a beach and CNN reporter Gary Tuchman illustrates:

MAN: I mean, if he's not wearing a mask, I'm not going to wear a mask. If he's not worried, I'm not worried.

TUCHMAN: The President?

MAN: Yes, sir.

Problem #3: Once a culture war starts, it's hard to stop

The roots of anti-maskism can be traced to the hostility to science and expertise now common among conservatives, or maybe to a kind of performative masculinity. But it doesn't really matter where the impulse came from—once Trump decided to make an anti-mask stand, it became a partisan issue. Liberals are probably more likely to wear masks because Trump is anti-mask, and look upon the unmasked with disdain. And conservatives are probably more inclined to go bare-faced now that they know it will piss liberals off. 

And as masks acquired a kind of ideological power, ideologues have had to change their views on them. Fox News host Laura Ingraham deserves a prize for brazenness: She went from making some pro-mask statements to saying on-air that masks were a “constant reminder” that “you are not safe. You are not back to normal. Not even close.”

It’s not as if the entire GOP is just ignoring reality, however. A recent uptick in COVID-19 cases in red states has had some Republican governors to embrace masks. Ohio's Mike DeWine—who issued a mandatory mask order in April before flip-flopping a day later—has been emphasizing the importance of face coverings. Arizona's Doug Ducey, who is facing a severe outbreak in his state, only recently allowed local leaders to require residents wear masks.

Not all Democratic leaders have acquitted themselves during the pandemic, but Republican governors have an added problem: mandating mask wearing means defying their party's leader and a large chunk of the right-wing media. If the culture war has made them hesitant to get their constituents to wear masks, it has helped the virus spread, and probably killed people as a result. 


The strategy behind all of this

One explanation for Trump being anti-mask is that our famously vain, image-obsessed president just personally thinks they look dumb and would make him look weak. But I think there’s something else going on. 

From the beginning of the pandemic, Trump has tried to downplay how bad things were. In February, he said that the number of cases would soon drop from 15 to zero, then said it would disappear “like a miracle.” By March, as cases rose, he was advising Americans, “Just stay calm. It will go away.” His administration has repeatedly pushed for an economic reopening as thousands of people died. Earlier this month, Vice President Mike Pence told governors that any recent spike in cases could be blamed on an increase in testing, which is not true. (Trump himself said something similar at his recent Tulsa rally, where he joked about slowing the testing down.)  

Wearing a mask and encouraging other people to wear masks would damage that it’s not so bad narrative. The CDC may be able to reverse course once it realizes it screwed up, but Trump will never be able to. His strategy for years has been to repeat the same messages over and over again until his media allies are following his lead and a substantial minority of Americans believe him. 

Well, it worked this time too: People really do believe Trump. From March to May, as the death toll mounted, fewer Republicans saw COVID-19 as a serious health threat to the country, according to Pew. Trump’s most ardent fans now resist wearing masks even though the pandemic is still raging throughout the U.S., especially red states.

Of course, a virus doesn’t care about the inanity of our culture wars. It’s killed more than 122,000 Americans, and will probably kill more than it would have otherwise because the president decided that masks were lame. No wonder Dr. Fauci is “frustrated.”

Thanks for reading What Went Wrong?, a newsletter by Harry Cheadle that publishes every Tuesday. If you have questions or comments, please email me at harrydcheadle@gmail.com. If you enjoyed it, please subscribe and tell someone about it.

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