Partisanship over social distancing guidelines could set back economic recovery as states continue to open and the COVID-19 death toll eclipses 100,000. President Trump’s administration says that wearing face masks in public will help slow the spread of the virus but it’s the president’s own words and actions that are driving the political divide.
President Trump began openly undermining CDC guidelines when he tweeted back in March that, “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF.” That opened the gate for conservative pundits and the president’s closest allies to begin questioning the wisdom of Dr. Athony Fauci, the director National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
By mid-May, the escalating rhetoric had taken its toll on Fauci’s credibility with the GOP’s base. A CBS News poll found that while 83 percent of Democrats trusted Fauci, that number had dropped to just 51 percent of Republicans. Many GOP senators were still publicly backing Fauci and insisting any reopening of the economy follow CDC guidelines — but others like Sen. Rand Paul were beginning to speak out insisting that Fauci was not the “end-all.” Influential conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh found a way to bridge the divide. On May 13, he told his millions of listeners:
“Let me tell you how you deal with Fauci. You praise him to the hilt, exactly like Trump is doing. You praise him to the hilt. You talk about how brilliant he is, and you say that we’re so lucky to have Fauci.
‘Oh, my God. Tony, you should run for office,’ and then privately you ignore every damn thing he says and implement your own policy. That’s the only way you can do it.”
A dive into the social media comment threads of prominent conservative voices confirms that the underlying message is resonating with the grassroots. It’s also translating to real-world consequences.
On Friday, Bexar County Republican Party Chair Cynthia Brehm told a crowd in San Antonio that, “All of this has been promulgated by the Democrats to undo all the good that President Trump has done for our country, and they are worried … So take off your masks, exercise your constitutional rights, stand up, speak up and vote Republican.”
Such politicization is making it harder for GOP elected officials to hold onto their promise of making data-driven decisions in accordance with public health experts. Earlier this month, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott was pressured into accelerating his reopening timeline and removing penalties for violating his executive order. Likewise, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine reversed his own order that made wearing a mask in public mandatory. “People were not going to accept the government telling them what to do,” DeWine said of his backtracking.
Still, the governor made an economic plea for residents of his state to wear a mask when they go out. “Face masks are very important and our business group came back and said every employee, for example, should wear a face mask,” he said. “So we’re continuing that, whether it’s retail or wholesale, whatever it is, manufacturing, every employee’s going to have the face mask.”
Ben Shapiro, who rarely misses an opportunity to “own the libs” stated that Trump is being politically “foolish” for not wearing a mask. And Sean Hannity, one of the President’s staunchest defenders, urged his Fox News audience, “if you can’t social distance, please wear the mask. Do it for your Mom, your Dad, your Grandma, your Grandpa.”
Texas’ Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen said those defying mask recommendations, ”are just looking to make political statements. But the reality of it is, wearing a face covering (is meant) to protect your friend or your neighbor.” It should be noted that the Speaker is not running for reelection, a scenario that gives him the freedom to elaborate further:
“I don’t know what message they are sending other than the message of stupidity that they’re not going to wear a face covering in public. Well, pick it. Either you want the economy open or you want to be selfish and not wear a face covering when you are out in the public.”
Politics is rarely driven from the middle out, so as long as President Trump uses his bully pulpit to signal disdain for wearing a mask his base will likely follow suit. Earlier this week he called a reporter “politically correct” when she declined to remove her mask to ask a question. And over Memorial Day weekend, Trump retweeted a Fox News commentator poking fun at Vice President Joe Biden for how he looked in a mask saying, “this might help explain why Trump doesn’t like to wear a mask in public.” Biden responded by saying that wearing a mask “projects leadership” and calling Trump a “fool” for not wearing one in public.
The angst to leave our homes and socialize again is nonpartisan but polls show 83 percent of Americans are still concerned about a deadly second wave. So if the President and his supporters want to instill confidence in the reopening of our economy they should cease undermining the recommendations of public health officials like Surgeon General Jerome Adams who tweeted Wednesday, “Please help slow the spread with w/ good hand hygiene, physical distancing, and choosing to wear a face covering in public.”
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