President Donald Trump said a lot of misleading and irresponsible things during the 90-minute first presidential debate on Tuesday night. From refusing to condemn the Proud Boys to repeating his false claims that the election results will be rigged, Trump showed, yet again, that he is willing to say and do anything to help his political standing — no matter the impact on the country.
But the most dangerous thing Trump may have said on Tuesday night — in terms of actually endangering the lives of people who were watching — was his continued skepticism of mask-wearing and mockery of former Vice President Joe Biden’s regular use of masks.
Here’s the exchange between Trump and moderator Chris Wallace:
Wallace: President Trump, you have begun to increasingly question the effectiveness of masks as a disease preventer. And in fact, recently you have cited the issue of — of waiters touching their masks and touching plates. Are you questioning the efficacy of masks?
Trump: No, I think that masks are OK. You have to understand, if you look — I mean, I have a mask right here. I put a mask on, you know, 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 —
Biden: Just like your rallies.
Trump: — I wear masks when needed. When needed, I wear masks.
Wallace: OK, let me ask —
Trump: I don’t have — I don’t wear masks like him. Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away from them and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.
A quick fact check before I go any further: Trump’s contention that masks weren’t needed at the debate because “everybody’s had a test and you’ve had social distancing and all of the things that you have to” is not right. Audience members were required to wear masks throughout the debate. But several guests — including, reportedly, members of the President’s family — did not abide by those rules.
Now to the broader point: The President of the United States, offered the opportunity to end his mask skepticism with 70 million-plus people watching, could muster only that masks were “OK.” What a ringing endorsement! That’s sure to change a lot of minds!
But it wasn’t just that lukewarm comment on mask-wearing.
Trump went on to note that he actually had a mask (in his jacket pocket) and that “I put a mask on, you know, when I think I need it.” When, exactly, is that? And how is Trump, who is not a medical doctor or an infectious disease expert, the arbiter of when he should and shouldn’t wear a mask? After all, actual experts in the field have made clear the mask-wearing is effective in slowing the spread of the virus.
“We are not defenseless against COVID-19,” said CDC Director Dr. Robert R. Redfield in July. “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. All Americans have a responsibility to protect themselves, their families, and their communities.”
And then, as a sort of cherry on top of the sundae, Trump decided to attack Biden for wearing a mask too often. (Reminder: Trump is neither a doctor nor an infectious disease expert.) “Every time you see him, he’s got a mask,” Trump said of the former vice president. “He could be speaking 200 feet away from them and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.”
This is in keeping with Trump trying to portray Biden’s adherence to CDC guidelines on mask-wearing as weak and un-leaderly. (Remember that Trump, the day he announced the CDC’s mask recommendations back in April said he wouldn’t be wearing one himself because “wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens — I just don’t see it.”) On the campaign trail, Trump has incorporated Biden’s mask-wearing into his stump speech; at an event in Pennsylvania last month, Trump told the crowd that wearing a mask gives Biden “a feeling of security,” and added: “If I was a psychiatrist, I’d say this guy has some big issues.”
The point of all of this is that when the leader of the country speaks, a big chunk of people listen. So when Trump refuses to advocate for mask-wearing and, in fact, works to make masks a sign of weakness, it has a profound effect on his supporters’ willingness (or, more accurately, lack thereof) to wear them. Which, as we know from study after study, puts those who refuse to wear masks — and those people they are around — at greater risk of contracting Covid-19. And of dying from the disease.
Trump’s continued mask skepticism, then, isn’t just political spin. It’s misinformation with potentially catastrophic consequences.