Trump's Inexplicable Politicization of Masks

This is my final new column of 2020.  Professor Dorf will, as is his custom, post his ConLaw final exam tomorrow, and I plan to run a Dorf on Law classic on the 31st.  I considered writing a column for today that was shorter than usual, but it is not as though I am in a hurry to get anywhere.  In any event, Happy New Year, everyone!
by Neil H. Buchanan 
What to write about at the end of this horrible, horrible year?  Although there are plenty of important topics -- two of the most prominent being the probably-temporary preservation of the rule of law in the United States and the racial justice movement that rocked the country in the middle of the year -- it seems obvious that the COVID-19 pandemic will define 2020 in all of its awfulness.

It is difficult to know how many fewer people would have died this year had the United States been run by a non-sociopath, but credible estimates range well north of 200,000 unnecessary deaths.  Much of this is a matter of Donald Trump's utter incompetence, ignorance, and lack of compassion, which interacted with his pathetically short attention span to create what amounted to a deliberate dereliction of duty.  Trying to do something is difficult and can end in failure, so why try?  Failure by passivity and buck-passing got Trump through life before now, and he chose not to change in 2020, even when it meant that his own supporters were getting sick and dying.

What especially puzzles me, however, is one of Trump's very specific failures, that is, his affirmative choice to vilify the wearing of masks.  This has had disastrous effects, but what makes it categorically different from most of the rest of Trump's active and passive decisions is that it seems not to be tied to anything that he cares about.  My theory, in fact, is that this was all caused by Trump's making what amounted to an on-the-spot coin toss about whether to support mask-wearing.  Unfortunately for the world, it came up tails.

The distinction that I am drawing is not between defensible choices and indefensible ones.  For example, I think that the religious extremists (including the hyper-conservative majority on the Supreme Court) who insist that churches be given special treatment during the pandemic are making an indefensible demand.  Even so, I understand their internal logic and how it leads them to make crazy statements about how states are supposedly disfavoring churches by allowing some stores (where people spend a few minutes) to stay open while churches (where people spend at least an hour, often unmasked and singing/chanting) were ordered to close.

As much as I disagree with this argument, especially its false notion of grievance, I understand what these people were thinking: "Christian churches are important to me, and we want to hold services.  We will say anything to achieve our goal."  This is the same as people who wrongly believe in trickle-down economics insisting on passing regressive tax cuts, people who think that whites are superior to all other races passing bigoted laws, or people who think that women are too emotional voting only for male candidates.

Similarly, for nearly everything that Trump has done as president, one can figure out what he was thinking.  His Muslim ban was a stain on the country, but it makes sense in that it follows from Trump's bigotry.  Allowing for-profit colleges to continue to rip off their students makes sense in that Trump believes in grifting and took the side of the con men rather than their marks.  Treating would-be immigrants in subhuman ways makes its own kind of terrifying sense, too.  He was going to deny -- in the most absurd ways -- his election loss because accepting the verdict of the voters makes no sense to him.  And his pardons?  Of course those make Trumpian sense.
Even on most aspects of the pandemic, one could at least figure out a line of argument -- a morally indefensible line of argument, to be sure, and one that is supported neither by evidence nor reasoning -- that could explain what Trump did and did not do.  For example, pushing responsibility for dealing with the public health crisis onto the states in order to make Democratic governors look bad made sense in a way that was horribly cynical but fully consistent with what we know about Trump, Jared Kushner, and the rest of that crowd.

Trump's hostility to mask-wearing, however, does not fit with anything else that seems to motivate Trump.  Some have suggested that he wanted to keep the economy strong and viewed masks as potentially weakening the economy (perhaps by seeming to validate reasons to panic).  If that is true, however, it merely means that he made a choice that he viewed as pro-economy while ignoring other choices that were actually more likely to help the economy.  Unlike, say, achieving his goal of sticking it to Muslims by sticking it to Muslims, or helping grifters by helping grifters, Trump did not have a deeply awful reason to be stupid about the economic impact of mask-wearing.  Getting the pandemic under control would have been good for the economy and for Trump, and unlike coordinating a massive federal response in coordination with the states, telling people to wear masks would have been easy.

But perhaps Trump's response "made sense" in the limited way that I am using that idea here in that he was too vain to wear a mask and thus decided that others could die so that he looked manly.  But that was not necessary, because Trump could have said something like this: "I happen to be the President of the United States, giving me great control over who comes in contact with me and under what circumstances.  Other people should wear masks because they're not the President, but I don't have to."
That approach also would have neutralized the "set a public example" suggestion, because he could have emphasized his own specialness by constantly contrasting his exalted position with those of his inferiors.  "The President is different, full stop."  Being the only person not wearing a mask and insisting that all others do so would have enhanced his sense of superiority.

As I discussed in a column this past summer, Trump also passed up the opportunity to make loads of money by selling and promoting masks.  As I put it there: "By turning mask-wearing into a question of machismo, his instincts to stoke the culture-wars have caused him to make the pandemic worse by causing millions of people to fight against wearing masks, thus further damaging himself politically."  This at least raises the possibility that we can find the logic of Trump's anti-maskism in his default to macho posturing and, even more pointedly, his desire to divide people whenever possible.

Again, however, that does not quite get us where we need to go, because there was nothing about opposing mask-wearing that was inherently manly or uniquely divisive.  Plenty of macho characters in movies and TV shows are associated with mask-wearing, so Trump could easily have associated mask-wearing with anti-hero outlaws.  Moreover, he could have pretended that "radical liberals" were against mask-wearing (even though they were not), getting his minions to harass people on the street who were not wearing masks.  In fact, some number of people in the non-Trump universe would surely have felt the need to become anti-mask simply as a matter of pushing back on Trump's bullying. so he could have made the divisiveness self-fulfilling.

This is why I wrote earlier in this column that Trump's opposition to mask-wearing seems to be little more than having tossed a coin to decide whether he was going to be for or against.  Even knowing everything that we know about Trump, including all of his terrible motivations and narcissism, we could not have predicted ex ante that he would take the stance on masks that he took.  Unlike almost any other issue, where it is possible to piece together the perversely immoral logic led Trump to do what he has done, there was no predicting this.

We could, however, have predicted two things.  First, once Trump decided that he was against masks, he would dig in and never change his mind.  Second, his followers would immediately do exactly what he told them to do.

On the latter point, Trump's anti-mask position is the most tragic example of the effect that he has on his fans.  Sometimes, the Trump-as-cult-leader effect is merely amusing, if misguided.  For example, I wrote this in September 2017:
"During the post-election transition period, Trump won Time magazine's 'Person of the Year' award.  Trump, of course, wanted to brag about that dubious accomplishment (joining Adolph Hitler and the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, among others), so he brought it up at his next victory rally.  In so doing, however, he inadvertently showed that there was no content to the idea that people were 'tired of political correctness.'

"As is his wont, Trump veered into a stream of consciousness and mentioned that Time had changed the name of its annual award from 'Man of the Year' some years before.  Without telling his adoring crowd which he preferred, he asked people to applaud if they preferred 'Person of the Year' versus 'Man of the Year.'

Without knowing what answer was expected of them, Trump's crowd was split, with roughly equal amounts of tepid applause for both choices.  Only when Trump told them that he liked 'Man of the Year' did they realize what answer he wanted from them."
At that point, one could almost hear the groupthink kick in: "Oh, we hate 'Person of the Year'!"  Within a few seconds, everyone was motivated by what Trump wanted them to like and dislike, even though they had apparently had the opposite opinion -- or, more likely, no real opinion at all -- until he told them what to think.

As I noted a moment ago, that moment was mostly amusing.  It was misguided and predictable in the sense that Trump chose the sexist option, but the stakes on that particular question are quite low.  On the other hand, his anti-mask choice was misguided and unpredictable, but his followers' cult-like adoption of Trump's bad decision was all but inevitable.

Much of Trump's damage to the world flowed ineluctably from the things that make Trump Trump.  Once he became President, and especially when it became clear that Republicans were not going to rein him in, bad things were going to happen.  He was never going to be able to handle anything remotely as serious as the coronavirus pandemic.  He did not, however, have to screw up the messaging on mask-wearing.  But he did, and tens of thousands of needless deaths followed.