Trump, the Covid Panic and the Symbolism of Masks

It is to his enduring credit that Mr. Trump recognized almost immediately that prolonged lockdowns did as much harm to this country as Covid-19. He saw that the virus though obviously a matter of deep concern and deadly threat to parts of the population, should not be permitted to become a source of irrational fear, indeed even terror. He knew that until such time as the promised (and speedily delivered) vaccines became widely effective, we would have to live and work with the virus in our midst.

Yet despite his unfairly mischaracterized efforts to prevent widespread panic, people were nevertheless clearly frightened. In retrospect, the president could have done a much better job of directly addressing those fears. As we moved through the spring and summer of 2020, when many Americans yearned for a leader who understood their trepidations about the future, the president was not fully attuned to those anxious feelings. Instead of focusing on allaying those fears and calming frayed nerves, Mr. Trump instead offered Patton-esque bravado and defiance in his public utterances.

His daily conferences during the lockdown, before large and almost captive television audiences, were filled with tendentious exchanges with the press over what was being said about him, good and bad. His ever-present hunger for approval, along with his natural pugnacity, was put on full display before a shut-in nation. Allowing himself to be provoked by openly hostile reporters, he succeeded in managing to convey the unfortunate impression that the virus was a personal attack upon him, and his economic accomplishments, rather than the country as a whole.

As was the case with almost all of Mr. Trump’s missteps at this critical time, his executive actions were almost uniformly correct. His respect for federalism, and the limits of his constitutional authority was impeccable. But the impressions left by his hasty, ill-considered, and indeed sometimes threatening words, did clear damage to his efforts to calm the many people looking to him for a steadying influence.

It was obvious from the very beginning of the crisis that Joe Biden and the Democrats were taking the ‘shut-it-down’ approach to the crisis; cynically trying to ratchet- up fears in the hope of undermining confidence in Mr. Trump’s leadership and policies. The crushing harm done to the livelihoods and general well-being of millions as a result of that strategy was considered acceptable collateral damage in their quest for political advantage.

 In contrast, President Trump concentrated his efforts on keeping commerce, education, and a semblance of normal life up and running while we fought the virus.

 In furtherance of those goals, masks could have been, and should have been, one of the most powerful allies he could enlist in reassuring an anxious nation that despite the attendant risks, we could not stay closed indefinitely.

Let’s leave aside, for the sake of this discussion, the effectiveness of mask wearing in the prevention of either the transmission or reception of Covid-19. Like the election fraud issue, this debate will take a long time to resolve. Granted, the same “experts” who, in the beginning told us that masks did next to nothing to protect us from the virus, now tell us that our very lives depend upon faithfully wearing these thin face coverings.

Skepticism is not un-warranted; but in the greater cause of preserving our way of life, is wearing a mask in public for a time such an intolerable request? Are they such an affront to libertarian notions of independence and self-guidance that it’s just too much to ask? Were they no assistance at all in easing the minds of our fellow citizens and affording them the confidence --- albeit perhaps illusory confidence --- to venture out of hiding and keep our country alive?

At times it appeared that Mr. Trump believed so. At so many turns before the election, he scarcely bothered to conceal his disdain for what might have been a very powerful symbol in support of his determination to re-open, and our resolve to face this threat as one united people. When he quite rightly repeated, “we have to open up!” he should have been holding a mask in his hand, if not actually wearing it. The potent political symbolism of this small object as a sign of respect for the health of our beleaguered fellow citizens seemed to escape him.

Joe Biden on the other hand, thoroughgoing opportunist that he is, saw his chance to co-opt this symbol, and grasped it immediately. Playing it to the hilt, he wore a mask ostentatiously, perhaps even ridiculously, when at times it was not warranted or appropriate. If he could have published a picture of himself wearing a mask in the shower, he would have probably done so.

To be sure, Mr. Trump’s refusal to employ masks as a prop was a function of his genuine contempt for artifice; you’d never catch him posing in a hunting outfit a la John Kerry in 2004. In that respect, the public Donald Trump is, for better or worse, the genuine article. That has always been a great part of his appeal.

Mr. Biden on the other hand, being nothing but artificial, had no such compunction. Turning masks into the insignia of the fearful, rather than the tool of the stalwart they might have been, Biden nevertheless correctly gauged the mood of many nervous voters and played upon those fears shamelessly. It was a short-sighted, ultimately harmful formula, displaying no real leadership at all. But alas, it worked, undoubtedly costing President Trump votes. Perhaps more than any total accrued to Biden by fraudulent means.

Considerable time will pass before we know whether this mistake or others actually made a bit of difference. Moreover, we mustn’t lose track of the reality that any shortcomings Mr. Trump displayed on the campaign trail were more than offset by his strengths as an executive.

History will note him as a remarkably astute decision-maker and a superb judge of talent in his appointments. Such a leader, despite any apparent personal failings, is far preferable to the dull-minded career maneuverer and multi-national shake-down artist we’ll now have to endure.

Graphic credit: Pixabay license