PART THREE: POLITICIZATION OF A PUBLIC HEALTH CRISIS
A public health crisis was politicized in order to enhance the chances of a sitting President’s re-election.
The administration repeatedly pressured state governments to re-open businesses and schools even when experts warned that it was too soon, and even when re-opening was contrary to guidelines issued by the government itself. The President even went so far as to issue tweets exhorting his followers to “liberate” Democratic states such as Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia. In his Virginia tweet, the President warned that Second Amendment Rights to bear arms were in danger, practically guaranteeing that his followers would show up at demonstrations bearing weapons. Governor Whitmer of Michigan, who was called out by Trump as one of the governors standing in the way of reopening the economy, received death threats. Responding to comments that various states had reopened too soon, Trump suggested that Democrats were hyping concerns about the virus to politically damage him, saying that “I think that the Democrats would like to see the country closed as long as possible because they figure that’s probably good for the election, because it would be bad a little bit for jobs, and maybe a lot for jobs.”
Intent on re-election, and anxious to return to the campaign trail, the President held a political rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma and a very political Fourth of July celebration at Mount Rushmore, South Dakota. Masks and social distancing were not required at either event, both of which drew thousands of attendees. In fact, campaign staff at the event in Oklahoma removed stickers intended to encourage and facilitate social distancing from seats before the event started. Public health officials believe that the Tulsa event is linked to subsequent infections, and it is possible that it may have resulted in the death of a prominent Trump supporter.
Herman Cain, former businessman and Presidential contender, attended the Tulsa event without wearing a mask, and later died from Covid-19. Although it is difficult to say whether Mr. Cain, who traveled extensively prior to his illness, contracted the virus at the Trump event, the timing of his illness is consistent with such a possibility. According to his representatives, he attended the trump event on June 20, 2020, tested positive on June 29, 2020, began showing symptoms on July 1, 2020, and died on July 30, 2020. The day before his hospitalization, Mr. Cain commented on the President’s planned Fourth of July celebration at Mt. Rushmore, tweeting that “Masks will not be mandatory for the event, which will be attended by President Trump. PEOPLE ARE FED UP!”
On July 3, 2020, when President Trump held his Fourth of July celebration, the United States posted its largest single-day total of infections since the beginning of the pandemic, 57,497 new cases. At a time when many governors and mayors were canceling or scaling back celebrations because of fears about spreading the disease, the President addressed an estimated crowd of 7,500 people, most of whom were not wearing masks, sitting in folding chairs that were zip-tied together for “fire safety’ reasons, making social distancing impossible. Donald Trump, Jr., and his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, were unable to attend the celebration because Guilfoyle had tested positive for the virus while she was in South Dakota.
The President’s position when it came to wearing masks was one of the most blatant examples of politicizing a public health issue. On April 3, 2020, the CDC issued guidelines recommending that people wear masks or cloth face coverings to slow the spread of disease. The current administration, however, spent the next four months or so undermining this message through word and deed, then abruptly came out in favor of masks in July when cases were surging in southern and western states, and even Republican governors were exhorting citizens to wear masks.
When the government first recommended that people wear masks, the President made a point of saying that wearing a mask was voluntary and that he was not going to wear one. When a reporter at one of his press events wore a mask, the President asked him to remove it so he could hear him better, and when the reporter said that he would speak up, the President accused him of wanting to be “politically correct.” The President and Vice President also refused to be seen in public wearing masks, and criticized his political opponent, Joe Biden, for wearing masks when it allegedly wasn’t necessary. At one point, the President said that some people were wearing masks as a way of showing their opposition to him. Of course, this comment suggested that a way of showing support FOR him was NOT to wear a mask. Perhaps if the President had told his supporters to wear red masks saying “Make America Great Again,” his followers might have embraced wearing them. Instead, he made mask wearing part of the divisive cultural war he has stoked for years.
Instead of modeling good behavior by wearing masks, like many world leaders did, President Trump and Vice President Pence repeatedly refused to wear masks at public appearances over the next few months. For example, the President refused to be seen wearing a mask when he visited a Ford plant in Michigan. When questioned by the press, he said that he had worn a mask “in the back,” but he took it off before meeting with the press because he did not want to give reporters “the pleasure” of seeing him in a mask. The President also refused to wear a mask when he toured a Pennsylvania distribution center for masks, gloves and surgical gowns, and a factory in Maine that manufactured swabs for Covid-19 testing. Puritan Medical Products, the owner of the swab factory, later stated that it would have to trash all of the swabs that were being manufactured when the President toured the plant without a mask. Ironically, the President even refused to wear a mask at a factory in Arizona that manufactured face masks, despite the fact that the workers in the plant were wearing masks, and there was a sign saying that masks were required (“Attention: Face mask required in this area. Thank you!”).
Vice President Pence, who was in charge of the administration’s coronavirus task force, failed to wear a mask when he visited the Mayo Clinic in late April, even though Mayo required all patients, visitors and staff to wear masks or face coverings to slow the spread of the virus, and this policy had allegedly been shared with Pence’s office. Pictures and videos taken during the Vice President’s visit show him surrounded by 9 or 10 people wearing masks. On the day when the Vice President visited the Mayo clinic, more than a million Americans had been diagnosed with the virus and more than 57,000 had died.
Later, on a trip to Texas, a state heavily hit by the virus, on the very day that he encouraged people to wear masks, the Vice President attended an event at a mega-church in Dallas where a large congregation of 2000 people listened to a choir of 100 people, none of whom were wearing masks, despite the CDC’s warning that church functions could be “super spreader” events, in part because of singing. Instead of encouraging citizens to wear masks as a matter of personal responsibility and civic duty, the President amplified the message that if people did not want to wear masks, they did not have to, because it was a matter of personal freedom and choice. On one occasion, the President shared a tweet by a right wing columnist arguing that face masks represented “silence, slavery, and social death” with his 80+ million followers on Twitter. As the President observed in his re-tweet, “So many different viewpoints!” In July, the Director of the CDC declared that “Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus—particularly when used universally within a community setting.” A few days later, the President told Fox News that he would not agree with a national mask mandate because people should have a “certain freedom,” continuing to frame mask wearing as a matter of personal choice and liberty, rather than a socially responsible measure to promote public health.
In July, the President wore a mask in public and tweeted that it was a “Patriotic” thing to do, and that it made him look like the Lone Ranger. Shortly after that, however, he retweeted a video where a doctor from Texas advised people that they did not have to worry about wearing a mask because there was a cure for the virus. The doctor in question, who was also a preacher, operated a clinic in a strip mall in Texas next to the church she owned and preached in, Fire Power Ministries. She also hosted a radio and television show called Fire Power. Among other things, she had previously opined that alien DNA was being used to make medicine, that vaccines were being developed to stop people from being religious, that the world was controlled by reptilian overlords, that nocturnal sex with demons and witches caused diseases, and that the Illuminati were using witches to destroy the world through such means as abortion, gay marriage, Harry Potter, Pokemon, and Hannah Montana. When asked why he had retweeted the doctor’s video statement, given her previous support of fringe issues, the President replied that he did not know anything about her, but he thought she had an important voice that needed to be heard. The President’s son, Donald Trump, Jr., also shared this video on social media.
Wearing masks also became a political issue at the state level with Republican governors dragging their feet when it came to requiring masks, and sometimes even preventing local governments from issuing mask requirements. The Governor of Texas initially prohibited local governments from requiring masks, then reversed course after new cases soared. The Governor of Georgia also issued an executive order forbidding local governments from requiring people to wear masks, and sued the mayor of Atlanta, who had tested positive for the virus, when she refused to rescind her city’s mask ordinance. Consistent with the politicization of this issue, an AP-NORC public opinion poll taken between July 16 and 20, 2020, showed marked differences between Democrats and Republicans when it came to requiring or using face masks. According to this poll, 89% of Democrats favored wearing face masks, compared to 58% of Republicans. Furthermore, 95% of Democrats said that they wore masks when they left the house, compared to 75% of Republicans.