While a ton of work remains to repair the damage wrought, Trump’s defeat made me heave a sigh — correction, sob — of relief for a multitude of reasons, not least of which included the pandemic. Finally, we could start getting a handle on this mess. Finally, we’d start accepting masking as the public health measure it is, not a political statement — or would we? I remembered all the footage of anti-mask protests and grocery store meltdowns, questioning whether a sentiment so charged would subside so easily. Now that Trump is gone, will masks be such a partisan issue?
Except among a small contingent of diehards, probably not, predicts Jonathan Metzl, director of the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University and author of Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland.
The thing is, as bad as it’s already been, shit's even worse now. The emergence of new, more contagious, COVID-19 variants is hard for anyone of any political affiliation to ignore. Those who railed against masks months ago have likely changed their tune. “People are not blind to what’s happening with these variants,” Metzl says. “The risk right now is much higher than it was.”
As they did to convince people to reject their own healthcare and shun gun safety laws that could’ve protected their communities, Republicans in the Trump administration “played to the dog whistles of government control and racial resentment” with mask wearing, Metzl explains. They painted it as “a symbol of the government overreach narrative,” which preys on fears of the creation of a level playing field, where “undeserving” immigrants and BIPOC will “take away their privileges.”
Anti-maskers might see the shared responsibility of masking to keep each other safe as an impingement on their autonomy — a false construct, by the way, Metzl points out. He interprets a refusal to mask as “a fear, almost, that your well-being is dependent on the actions of somebody else who might see as being less worthy than you.”
Even with Trump in office, though, the framing of masking as a sign of authoritarian control started to fall apart as the number of COVID-19 cases rose, and it became clear that masks were one of the few ways we could protect ourselves, Metzl says. People engaged in performative non-masking, acting like they didn’t wear masks in public when they actually did. Toward the end of his administration, Trump even began to wear one, and now many GOP politicians are doing so.
“My sense is especially with these new variants… that we’re going to see more and more people realizing the ridiculousness of this anti-mask position. It just seems absolutely untenable and unviable right now,” Metzl tells Mic. At this point, refusing to mask is “really almost a death wish in some ways for your community.”
The pandemic has already taken a major toll on Trump-supporting communities. According to the Associated Press, an overwhelming majority of the 376 counties with the highest tallies of new cases per capita voted for him in the last election. Experiencing the pandemic on such a personal level could change even a vocal anti-masker’s mind, Metzl says. My sister, who lives in Arizona — a historically Republican state, where Trump lost by a narrow margin in 2020 — has at least anecdotally noticed this shift, with more people wearing masks recently, even in their cars.
That said, there’s probably a small arm of the GOP who’d oppose anything President Biden recommends. “If Biden told people to wear pants, they would probably refuse to wear pants,” Metzl says. “It doesn’t really matter what the topic is.”
Now is the time for leadership, he adds. While Trump supporters may despise being told what to do, people depend heavily on messages from their leaders. If the GOP cares about its base, they’d signal an acceptance of masks at a time when it’s more important than ever to wear one.
As with pretty much anything Trump does, politicizing masks served only to benefit him, not his base. In the end, it might not be so much his loss of the presidency as the sharp, unsettling turn the pandemic has taken that convinces his followers that upholding him isn’t worth the danger to them or their loved ones.