About Face

As the pandemic sweeps red states, Republicans belatedly get behind mask-wearing.

Donald Trump not wearing a mask in the East Room of the White House on June 26, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Donald Trump not wearing a mask in the East Room of the White House on June 26. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

On Monday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opened the week’s session by imploring “each family, each small business, each employer, and all levels of government to apply common sense” to combat the spread of the coronavirus, which has reasserted itself at record levels of cases over the past week. Then he got more specific.

“To name just one example,” he said, “We must have no stigma, none, about wearing masks when we leave our homes and come near other people. Wearing simple face coverings is not about protecting ourselves, it is about protecting everyone we encounter.”

This was not the message the American right had been sharing and rallying around for the past month, as resistance to mask-wearing became one more heated skirmish in the Trump-era political strife. But Republicans are shook as the virus spreads across the South and the Sun Belt. The soaring rate of cases in Florida, Texas, and Arizona, especially, over the past week has prompted these Republican officials to emphasize in their messaging that covering one’s face is not a sign of weakness, succumbing to an alarmist left, or expressing disapproval of Donald Trump. Everyone must do it.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said last week that everyone should “wear a damn mask.”  And Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, the sane (and, relatedly, retiring) chairman of the Senate HELP Committee, called for the depoliticization of mask usage during a Wednesday hearing with Anthony Fauci. “Unfortunately,” Alexander said, “this simple lifesaving practice has become part of a political debate that says: If you’re for Trump, you don’t wear a mask. If you’re against Trump, you do.”

The Trumpier House Republican conference has come on board, too. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said Monday that “every Republican has a responsibility” to wear a mask. The partisan battles about whether members need to wear masks in hearings appear to be coming to an end, too. After House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, chairman of the select committee overseeing the coronavirus response, said that he would no longer recognize members who weren’t wearing masks, his counterpart, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, said that his caucus would comply with the requirement: “It’s not a big deal.” The No. 3 House Republican, Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, did her part, too, tweeting a photo of her father, the former vice president, wearing a mask alongside the hashtag “#realmenwearmasks.”

In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp, another Trumpster who was one of the earliest governors to begin reopening his state, embarked on a statewide “wear a mask” tour ahead of the holiday weekend. Even Fox News hosts have begun admitting that wearing a mask does not necessarily make you a coward, and may even have scientific merit in safeguarding against the spread of a respiratory death virus.

“I was in the epicenter of this. I went to my grocery store every week. Guess what? They wore masks. Nobody at my grocery store, thank God, got coronavirus,” Sean Hannity said Monday. “I think they work. And I said—especially if I wear a mask and it opens up baseball, concerts, NFL football—I’d rather wear the mask and go to the game to protect Grandma, Grandpa, Mom and Dad and watch the ballgame.” Fox and Friends host Steve Doocy—the most powerful media voice in America, given that his show airs during Trump’s peak morning tweeting hours—offered characteristically corny, but uncharacteristically well-meaning, advice: “ ‘MAGA’ should now stand for ‘Masks Are Great Again.’ Let me give you some marketing advice right there.”

Republicans are even beginning to concede that the party’s partial national convention in Jacksonville, Florida, may not happen as Trump has conceived of it (with no restrictions whatsoever, to own the timid remote-conventioneering Democrats). This contingency may seem obvious to anyone who looks at a coronavirus outbreak map and sees Jacksonville as the de facto capital of the present hellscape. But the thought of not allowing Trump his renomination festival was once unspeakable.

“Sen. Scott has been vocal that if the convention happens in Florida, attendees should wear masks and social distance whenever possible,” a spokesman for Florida Sen. Rick Scott said Wednesday. “He has confidence that [RNC] Chairwoman [Ronna] McDaniel will make the right decision for the party.”

The Republican apparatus is trying to untie a knot largely of its own making. Many played footsie with anti-lockdown protesters, and indulged the general right-wing paranoia about liberals overhyping the pandemic to tank the economy and Trump’s presidency. The pace at which leaders “reopened America” became a front on the culture war, and then mask-wearing did too. And then the outbreak moved to red states.

But to successfully untie that knot, or to eliminate the “stigma” of which McConnell spoke, Republican leaders recognize that they have to convince the one prominent Republican leader whose position on the subject we have not mentioned. And the target of their public relations push to wear a mask is as much Trump as it is their constituents or viewers. “I think that if the president wore one,” Doocy said, “it would just set a good example. He’d be a good role model. I don’t see any downside to the president wearing a mask in public.” Alexander made a similar suggestion at the Senate hearing.

“I have suggested the president should occasionally wear a mask even though there are not many occasions when it is necessary for him to do so,” Alexander said. “The president has millions of admirers. They would follow his lead. It would help end this political debate. The stakes are too high for it to continue.”

Kayleigh McEnany, the president’s press secretary, was asked about Alexander’s comments at Tuesday’s press briefing. “The president has said he has no problems with masks”—well, he has suggested that people might get coronavirus by fidgeting with their masks—“that he encourages people to make whatever decision is best for their safety and to follow what their local jurisdictions say,” McEnany said. “And the president is the most tested man in America. It’s his decision whether to wear a mask.” The Republican leadership in America has moved its position to Wear a damn mask. The Republican leader in America, though, is stuck on, It’s up to you.

Trump has worn a mask once, during a visit to a Ford factory, and he tried to prevent any photos from being taken of him wearing it. (He was not successful.) He is afraid that people will make fun of how he looks in a mask, since he so gleefully made fun of how Joe Biden looked in a mask. He is afraid he will look “weak.” And since he sees everything as either a political statement for or against him, he, too, might see mask-wearing as a political statement against him. It’s not that he’s being unhelpful, or idle, in fellow Republicans’ push to eliminate the mask stigma. He, personally, believes that masks are stigmatic. It will take more than a few Senate speeches or cable news clips to sway him.

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