The Mask Wars Reveal the Feeble State of the Right-Wing Culture War Machine

The coronavirus pandemic may be a time of uncertainty, but the Right’s reaction to it has been all-too-predictable. Despite a considerable body of scientific research showing that masks dramatically reduce the possibility of transmission, a less than negligible niche of conservative figures has agitated against them — in some cases resorting to theatrics that defy belief.

In June, a Republican councilman in Scottsdale, Arizona grabbed headlines by organizing a rally in protest against mask mandates throughout Maricopa County and shouting, “I can’t breathe” before tearing off his mask in front of the assembled crowd. Speaking at the rally, a Republican candidate for the US senate described local mask mandates as a “communist insurrection.” It’s just one example among many, but similar actions have regularly made the news thanks to the apparently widespread right-wing impulse to make mask-wearing yet another front in America’s perpetually exhausting culture war. A good deal of it has probably flowed in top-down fashion from Donald Trump himself, who only recently shifted his rhetoric on masks after months of trying to downplay their effectiveness.

As prominent as the mask debate has been, however, new polling suggests that a solid majority of Americans not only support mask mandates but want aggressive action from political authorities to legislate and enforce them. According to the poll, conducted by NPR and Ipsos between July 30–31 and sampling more than a thousand American adults, some 76 percent favor state laws requiring the use of masks in public at all times. Strong majorities also support the expansion of free government-funded COVID-19 testing, increased federal funding for the manufacture of protective equipment, and a free-of-charge vaccine for all should one become available. Strikingly, the poll found that each of these proposals enjoys majority support among both Republicans and Democrats.

Few, on the other hand, believe that the United States is dealing with the pandemic particularly well. Two-thirds of respondents, in fact, ranked America’s response behind other countries’ — a less than negligible 41 percent deeming it “much worse.” Though there are undoubtedly many reasons for Donald Trump’s currently perilous poll numbers, the new data from NPR and Ipsos suggests his administration’s haphazard and negligent handling of the pandemic is seriously undermining his reelection chances — and putting him firmly on the wrong side of public opinion.

Beyond November’s presidential election, it also suggests lawmakers have plenty of room to maneuver when it comes to putting together a much more aggressive federal response. New legislation introduced by Bernie Sanders, for example, would leverage the Defense Production Act to manufacture and distribute three reusable masks to every American at no cost. It’s the kind of commonsensical measure the Trump administration and its culture war proxies have hitherto resisted, but one that would undoubtedly save lives — and enjoy widespread, bipartisan public support in the electorate.

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