What most surprised me about 2020 was the eruption of partisan warfare over wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID. Metaphorically, it was like making a political issue of covering your mouth when you cough. WTF?
Was this inevitable? It’s not like this particular topic has been a hot button issue for decades like feminism or fluoride or gays. Surgical masks have been absent from the last half century of culture wars, unmentioned by Phyllis Schlafly, Ronald Reagan or Alex Jones.
So, having been off the table this whole time, the mask “issue” was up for grabs and I venture to suggest that it could have gone the other way. In an alternate universe, Republicans would now be die-hard mask-wearers and Democrats… well, I’m not so sure.
Recall that back in early March 2020, the COVID trenches had not yet been dug. In fact, on March 9th, Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson, of all people, pointedly suggested that US leadership needed to take the virus more seriously [video]. It was one of those times when a Fox News personality seemed to be speaking directly to Trump without naming him, knowing that he might take their lead. This would not have been presumptuous Carlson’s part; Trump had been demonstrably lifting rhetoric and policy from Fox for years. [See “Video Compilation Shows 30 Times Trump Repeated ‘Fox & Friends’ Talking Points in 2018.”]
Accompanied by a provocative graphic captioned, “Deadly outbreak,” Carlson told his audience: “People you probably voted for have spent weeks minimizing what is clearly a very serious problem.” He warned against being “complacent,” which was a charitable way of describing Trump’s response up to that point. He said there was “no denying” that COVID was an epidemic, stating simply: “This is real” and “definitely not just the flu.” He concluded with: “The Chinese Coronavirus [sic] will get worse. It’s effects will be far more disruptive than they are now saying. That’s not a guess; that’s inevitable no matter what they’re telling you. Let’s hope everyone stops lying about that, and soon.”
For his part, Trump did not rise to the occasion, as we know all two well. Two days later, during his March 11 national address on the pandemic, though he announced travel restrictions from Europe and certain forms of financial relief for businesses and people, he obstinately failed to implement meaningful policies. Not only that, but in the weeks and months that followed, he doubled-down on his denial and the battles over masks ensued.
Returning to Carlson’s commentary, let’s take note of the inflammatory label, “Chinese Coronavirus.” What if he had leaned more heavily into this xenophobia and the president had taken his lead? It’s not hard to imagine. In 2015, Trump groundlessly accused immigrants of bringing infectious disease with them into the country and in 2017 falsely claimed that all Haitians have AIDS. In this mold, his March 11th address could have been yet another bluster of baseless accusations and racist name-calling, with implications that the virus was a purposeful attack. Such conspiracy theories were certainly already in circulation at the time and the scare-mongering would have been an easy lift; the manufactured threat of a “yellow peril” goes back to the 19th Century in the US, preceding the various 20th Century “red scares” by decades. This vile trait is definitely still present in our collective DNA. To the European travel ban (or in its place), Trump could have added a prohibition against China, along with other assorted sanctions and intimidations. Then, for a finale, he could have donned a surgical mask and beseeched his followers to wear them for protection against our “diabolical” enemies.
In this alternate universe, the mask would have become an emblem of patriotism—and hate—overnight.
First, masks would have sold out nationwide within days. Trump would have then used the Defense Production Act to fast track the manufacturing of more. Entrepreneurs would have wasted no time producing masks with the stars and stripes, the Confederate flag, and “Trump/Pence 2020.” Cops would have preferred “Punisher” masks. And of course, the red MAGA mask would soon have become even more prolific than the familiar cap.
Second, hate crimes against Asians—or anyone mistakenly perceived to be Asian—would have proliferated. Red-maskers would have assaulted individuals, vandalized stores and torched religious structures. Some white leftists would have tried to stand up to all this, but not enough to stem the tide.
Third, right-wing politicians (from both sides of the aisle) would have called for a new Chinese Exclusion Act, the deportation of all Chinese nationals, and internment camps like the ones for Japanese people in WWII.
Altogether, the social climate would have felt much like the period immediately following 9/11: marked by fear, jingoism and violence.
So, that’s how the Trumpsters could have gone with masks: all in; just another white supremacist tantrum, albeit one that happened to be beneficial for public health in terms of preventing COVID spread. How would the liberals have reacted in this case? It’s hard to say.
For example, on the subject of China, mainstream Democrats are also Sinophobic AF. Biden himself slurred China repeatedly during the campaign. Four years of Russia-bashing by the Dems bulked up xenophobic muscles for bashing other countries, especially Communist ones. Among US American liberals, especially those who remember the cold war, instigating anti-“Red” hysteria is a simple task. Of course, some faction of the left would have protested all of this, and progressive pro-mask hashtags in the summer of 2020 would have included things like #hygienenothate.
Conversely, many liberals might not have masked up simply because the orange menace and his deplorables were. Recall how Trump’s occasional calls to withdraw US troops from various overseas conflicts met with knee-jerk resistance from so many people who would have applauded the same under Obama; who, indeed, voted for Obama in part because he gave the impression he would do things like that. Time and again since 2016, I was taken aback (and often disgusted) by the stances that liberals took, or the allies they made, in the name of opposing Trump. Mainstream Democrats lionized war criminals like George W. and John McCain and made heroes out of the CIA and FBI. If Trump had said “Don’t jump off that cliff!” it felt to me like many of them would have taken a dive.
But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that nearly all the libs/Dems who have favored mask-wearing in our universe also did so in this alternate one; what else would have been different had Trump donned a mask in March?
Would the the George Floyd protests have happened? My guess is yes; that was a long time coming.
Would Biden have still been the Democratic nominee? I’m sure. The Democratic leadership didn’t want anyone else.
Would the economy have suffered as much? Probably not. Fewer transmissions would have been less stress on the system.
Would Trump have still lost the election? This one’s a toss up. A lot of folks have pinned his loss on the social and economic ravages of COVID, so if the pandemic had been less severe, maybe the vote would have been closer, maybe much closer, or even flipped. And what kind of trade is that last scenario: more lives saved but Trump gets a second term?
Such speculation is ultimately entirely academic of course, and not worth too much time. In my mind, the broader issue is not which way the mask issue went, but that virtually all issues now break down into two vociferously opposed sides regardless of reason, ethics, or even previously held belief. Partisans of both corporate parties are gamed and herded by their leadership. In the real world, things—and people—are complicated, but power benefits when nuance is erased and hard lines drawn. In the polarized environment that emerges, there is no space to think or act intelligently, and no possibility of compromise or any kind of middle ground. Everything becomes a zero sum game. Psyschologist Melanie Joy has referred to this as, “toxic moral perfectionism.”
This state of affairs obviously doesn’t bode well for a future that depends on collective action based on well-informed, level-headed choices. One could say that “both sides” are to blame, but the deeper problem is that there are “sides” at all, when public health and the well-being of the planet are at stake.