How do I know that Donald Trump is going to lose by a big margin in the Philadelphia suburbs where I live? Because everyone in our area wears a mask in public.
Refusing to wear a mask has become a vivid expression of resistance to government authority in many countries around the world. But in the U.S., the decision about whether or not to wear one has been transformed into a statement of partisan solidarity on both sides of our yawning political divide.
I have no objection to Democrats “virtue signaling” over masks because demonstrating a commitment to public health during the worst pandemic in a century contributes in an important way to the common good. Republican recalcitrance, which led directly to the president and several other prominent members of his party becoming infected, is another matter entirely. What explains it, especially when the GOP controls so much of the government, including the executive branch agencies and departments tasked with fighting the pandemic?
That question hovers over a recent disturbing article in The New York Times about the way people working in the White House have been received by the president and his senior aides over the past few months when they have showed up to work wearing masks. They’ve been treated like unpopular kids being picked on by a pack of bullies in a high school cafeteria.
There are many possible explanations for the ridicule and derision, none of which make much sense. The first and most significant is denial of reality and the delusion that pretending the virus isn’t a threat will make it true. It’s distressing to think that the people in charge of keeping us safe from a deadly contagion view the world that way, but it does appear to be the case. Then there’s the peculiarly pig-headed conviction among those in the White House that the administration shouldn’t defer to anyone, not even epidemiologists, doctors, and other medical experts, especially if doing so threatens to make the president, his staff, and his party look weak in the eyes of a certain class of Republican voters. (This they apparently fear more than anything else, very much including COVID-19).
But this being the Trump White House, we haven’t even had the benefit of a coordinated attack on mask-wearing from the administration. That would be terribly irresponsible, but at least it would be consistent. Instead, we’ve gotten that most Trumpian of alternatives: an incoherent, inconstant jumble of assertions and acts that mirrors the president’s mishmash of claims about the virus itself: It’s no big deal. It’s terrible. It’s a plague. It’ll just disappear. It’s still a threat. It is what it is. It’s behind us. All while the deaths keep piling up, now to nearly 215,000.
With masks, Trump has been just as variable, often defending them while refusing to wear one himself and then wearing one days before or after mocking others for doing the same. Only in the last six weeks or so, since the maskless Republican National Convention and resumption of the campaign’s maskless rallies, has the message become consistent in public and behind the scenes: Don’t wear them. And if you do, you can expect to be ridiculed.
This isn’t good leadership or bad leadership. It’s anti-leadership.
Those who study the techniques employed by authoritarians like Vladimir Putin call this kind of wildly inconsistent messaging polluting the information space. We saw it just this past Saturday, when the Trump administration put out diametrically opposed messages about the president’s condition, with his team of doctors at Walter Reed providing an upbeat assessment that was quickly followed by a much bleaker statement by White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. This isn’t disseminating truth or lies so much as spreading a miasma of disinformation that inspires cynicism, conspiracies, and despair about ever learning the truth at all apart from efforts to manipulate it on the part of the powerful. Whether it’s a deliberate effort at national gaslighting or a result of rank incompetence, the consequences for our public life are terrible.
Consider a series of tweets last Friday morning from a producer for the NPR program Radio Times on Philadelphia’s WHYY, hours after the president’s diagnosis was announced. According to Jon Ehrens, “Ninety percent of listener emails/comments are very insistent that the diagnosis is a lie.” What did those reaching out to express their incredulity propose as alternatives to believing the president’s claim about his medical condition? “Theories include: getting out of the [next] debate (though the campaign currently says he is still going to debate), to garner sympathy, finding an excuse for why he will lose the election, to prove that the coronavirus is no big deal, and to get him to stay put.”
NPR listeners tend to be highly educated and liberal, and to get their news and information from mainstream outlets, not the darker, more conspiratorial corners of the internet. Yet those writing in to Radio Times last Friday morning so thoroughly lacked trust in the president of the United States that they were prepared to put forth a series of unverified conspiracy theories as more plausible than the official account.
That’s what can happen when living in a country where streams of information have been thoroughly polluted by the powers that be. Unlike in a totalitarian state, where the government puts forth a unified, consistent message of lies that conceals a unified, consistent truth, life in Trump’s America has become far murkier. Instead of being forced to affirm a stable falsehood, we have been flooded by a deluge of chaotic mental garbage for the past four years that has left us drowning in an epistemological quagmire. At first it was absurdities about the size of the crowd at the president’s inauguration. But now it quite literally concerns matters of life and death.
Wear your mask because it’s a good way to protect yourself and your neighbors from a deadly disease. But also wear it as an act of defiance against those who would contaminate your mind with deranging nonsense and leave you flailing about, unmoored from the stable ground of the real.