The United States has had the worst national response to the coronavirus pandemic among rich nations largely because President Trump is an incompetent leader whose narcissism means he can focus on little beyond his own approval ratings. From the start of the crisis to today, he has completely failed to take the virus seriously, and refused to do anything meaningful to stop it. It was his job to protect America, and he can’t do the job.
But Trump’s appalling failure is only the most visible part of a vast ocean of right-wing dysfunction. For conservative zealots and media figures, the pandemic is quickly becoming just another culture war battleground — an axis of postmodern symbolic conflict, another vent for bottomless grievance, and fuel for a screeching victimhood complex. The practical effect will be to fuel infection and hamstring economic recovery. It’s a stark obstacle before fixing this or any other crisis.
Let’s take mask-wearing. As research about the coronavirus has developed, the effectiveness of masks in slowing the spread of the disease has become clear, above all in confined indoor spaces. Studies have found that being outdoors is relatively low-risk, and most infections happen when people are in proximity to each other indoors for a long time — but also that masks can drastically reduce the possibility of infecting others if you happen to be contagious. Offices, public transportation, stores, restaurants, church services, and especially homes are where most transmission happens. Wearing a mask whenever one is indoors around strangers is a cheap and no-consequence way of protecting one’s community — even if it only helps a little, it’s a minuscule inconvenience.
Yet a developing narrative on the right holds that masks are a sign of weakness and cowardice. Trump refuses to wear one even to set an example, reportedly because he thinks it will make him look bad. Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) refuses to wear one even though it is not clear he is permanently immune after recovering from the disease. Vice President Pence refused to wear one even while visiting COVID-19 patients. On Fox News, Laura Ingraham defended Pence from critics, saying “They’ll say this whole mask thing is settled science just like they do with climate change. Of course, it’s not and they know it,” despite having previously endorsed wearing them. (Naturally, after two cases of coronavirus cropped up in the White House last week, all staffers are now required to wear masks when in the building.)