Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to the Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. Follow her on Twitter @fridaghitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. Read more opinion on CNN.
Just hours after America reached the grim milestone of 100,000 people killed in the pandemic, President Donald Trump took a moment to promote a wild theory whose acceptance can only lead to more deaths. The President retweeted a link to an article claiming that wearing face masks has nothing to do with public health, and is instead a path to “social control.”
The article is the kind of harebrained analysis making the rounds in the moldy corners of the far right, where every manner of bizarre, anti-scientific, anti-establishment notion seems to grow like a bacterial culture, challenging the immune system of America’s democracy.
Of course, Trump had to amplify it to his millions of followers.
It mattered little that Trump breezily commented, “so many different viewpoints!” as if the rantings of a far-right pro-Trump publication, claiming that the ongoing pandemic that swamped hospitals in the United States and around the world, amounts to a “fiction that we are in an emergency.”
Once again, Trump placed himself astride urgent public health measures recommended by members of his own administration, sending mixed signals for no reasonable purpose.
As the country has split between pro and anti-facemask wearing believers, the President, incredibly, has emerged as the leader of the anti-government side of the divide about taking a simple measure to slow the pandemic. Refusing to wear a mask is becoming akin to wearing a MAGA hat, a sign of pro-Trump defiance against the establishment, but one that will prolong the crisis, lead to more people dying, and make it more difficult for the economy to recover.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order authorizing businesses to bar entry to those who refuse to wear a mask. “You don’t want to wear a mask, fine,” Cuomo said, “but you don’t have a right to go into that store if that store owner doesn’t want you to.”
Opponents of mask-wearing are painting the issue as a solemn question of liberty. The claim is beyond absurd. The 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill, an apostle of individual freedom, wrote in his famous On Liberty essay, “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
Wearing face masks to keep a deadly pathogen from spreading to others is the mildest of requests. As infringements on liberty go, this one is an affront only to the most tender of snowflakes – or to the most susceptible to lies.
By using his megaphone not to call the country to unity and resolve, but to dilute the urgent calls of public health experts, Trump not only helps undermine trust in the government, but he also makes people more reluctant to follow the advice of those who, unlike him, and the authors of most conspiracy theories involving face masks, have devoted their lives to learning how to stop diseases.
Over the weekend, a beachgoer told CNN’s Gary Tuchman that if Trump won’t wear a mask, neither will he. If he had been watching Fox News instead of at the beach, he might have heard Dr. Debra Birx, of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, explain that “there is clear scientific evidence,” from multiple experiments, “that a mask does prevent droplets from reaching others.”
Claims that face masks offer no protection against organisms as small as the coronavirus are false.
On Wednesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases specialist, implored Americans to wear face masks when they go outside. The masks, he told CNN, are not 100% effective, but they help us protect the people around us. They show, he said, “respect for another person.”
Trump is adamant about not being seen wearing a mask. He disparaged a White House reporter for refusing to take his off during a press conference on Tuesday, saying he was choosing to be “politically correct.” He also retweeted mockery of former Vice President Joe Biden after he wore a mask in his first public appearance since March last Monday. Biden called Trump “an absolute fool” for not wearing one, saying, “Presidents are supposed to lead, not engage in folly and be falsely masculine.”
Why in the world is Trump pushing Americans not to take a simple precaution? His push to reopen businesses without reaching safety mileposts can at least be explained as an effort to revive the economy. But masks? His influence there will only cause more deaths, possibly affecting his supporters more than others, and countering his efforts to bring the country back to normalcy.
Trump is again placing himself as the rabble-rouser, the rebel against the system, even though he now is the system. He’s reprising his 2016 role as the defiant, anti-establishment, politically incorrect figure. This time, however, he’s working against his own interests. Trump supporters may feel energized to put on a MAGA hat and push against those who wear masks, but most Americans don’t want to get sick, let alone die.
With more than 101,000 people already dead due to Covid-19 in the country, most Americans think Trump should wear a mask. They would rather feel safe than follow the advice of a man whose handling of the crisis they believe has been a failure.