Trump’s Muddled Mask Message May Be His Best Attempt To Reconcile Irreconcilable Extremes
By now, President Donald Trump’s position on face masks is clear. He wears one, except when he doesn’t. And he thinks masks are useful in reducing transmission of the COVID-19 virus, except maybe they aren’t.
Trump’s persistently muddled message about masks, which he delivered once again during last night’s presidential debate, may reflect his own dislike of wearing them or his attempt to seem responsible without alienating supporters who are leery of face coverings. But as was apparent during the debate, those tendencies are reinforced by the fact that, over the course of the pandemic, public health officials have switched from dismissing the value of general mask wearing to endorsing it as an essential precaution, sometimes in terms that are not justified by the scientific evidence.
“Are you questioning the efficacy of masks?” moderator Chris Wallace asked.
“No, I think masks are OK,” Trump replied. “I have a mask right here. I put a mask on when I think I need it. Tonight, as an example, everybody’s had a test and you’ve had social distancing and all of the things that you have to. But I wear masks when needed.”
That seems like a reasonable position. Masks may be appropriate indoors when you are in close proximity to strangers but more trouble than they are worth in other contexts—say, when you are outdoors at a distance from other people. Yet when Joe Biden, Trump’s Democratic opponent, asserted that “masks make a big difference,” Trump could not resist contradicting him.
“His own head of the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] said…if everybody wore a mask and social distanced between now and January, we’d probably save up to 100,000 lives,” Biden said. “It matters.”
Alluding to the CDC’s initial dismissal of face masks worn by the general public as a helpful strategy, Trump replied, “They’ve also said the opposite…Dr. Fauci said the opposite…He said very strongly, ‘Masks are not good.’ Then he changed his mind. He said, ‘Masks are good.'”
Back in March, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House coronavirus task force, was indeed questioning the value of general mask wearing. “There’s no reason to be walking around with a mask,” he said during a March 8 interview with 60 Minutes. “When you’re in the middle of an outbreak, wearing a mask might make people feel a little bit better, and it might even block a droplet. But it’s not providing the perfect protection that people think that it is.
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