YPSILANTI, MI—There may have been only a few hundred MAGA faithful gathered Thursday afternoon for Donald Trump’s latest visit to a factory churning out essential gear for the fight against COVID-19, but the right-wing carnival energy essential to his bygone arena rallies was in full effect.
So was the bizarro circus over the president of the United States’ distaste for protective masks.
Loud country music blared from a pickup truck. A supporter waved a flag portraying Trump as a muscle-bound GI Joe with a machine gun. Another held a sign portraying Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer—who has emerged as a bête noire of the right for her aggressive efforts to rein in the coronavirus outbreak—with a Hitler mustache.
It was a small-but-mighty welcome for a president making a legally fraught visit to the nearby Ford Rawsonville Plant, a facility that has been retooled to produce the same ventilators the president has suggested panicked governors may not even need.
Some Trump fans wore masks, and the president actually claimed to wear one at one point. But plenty of true believers followed their man’s lead in flouting the bare minimum for protective equipment amid a raging outbreak.
“Remember Pig Pen, who had a cloud of dust around him at all times?” Ann Arbor resident Joe Miriani asked The Daily Beast. “That’s what the virus is like. A mask isn’t going to stop that.”
A slew of controversies preceded this latest presidential foray to the Wolverine State. The Ford tour technically came in violation of Whitmer’s emergency order to avoid tours of manufacturing plants, and Ford noted its policies required mask use. Trump, of course, would not commit to doing so.
Trump’s visit also came a day after he threatened to cut off funds to Michigan because of alleged (and likely nonexistent) voter fraud; the president falsely claimed that Secretary Of State Jocelyn Benson was mailing absentee ballots to voters. And it was immediately preceded by the state Attorney General Dana Nessel warning that if the president failed to mask up, he might be obstructed from such visits in the future.
Surrounded by masked Ford executives and reporters, however, Trump insisted—as he’s done other times—that he placed the mask on in an area away from the press.
“I had one on before. I wore one in this back area,” he loudly asserted. “But I didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it. No, I had it on in the back area—I did put a mask on.”
After the president waved off the need to wear a mask—despite the facility’s policies—by pointing to a recent negative coronavirus test, he was asked if wearing one would at least set a good example to other Americans.
“I think it sets an example both ways,” the president declared before once again claiming he was masked earlier.
“I think I look better in the mask,” Trump told reporters, holding up a mask that was handed to him. Trump, however, did not place the mask on his face.
Ford later released a statement backing Trump's claim that he was briefly masked, noting that executive chairman Bill Ford encouraged the president to wear a mask throughout the tour, and Trump later removed it for the rest of the visit. Images also emerged of the president wearing a face mask while viewing classic cars.
But some of the Trump supporters on hand had more fringe concerns. Miriani, for one, said he had no interest in being vaccinated against the disease that has killed over 90,000 Americans.
“One primary reason why—Bill Gates wants us to get it,” he told The Daily Beast, referring to the conspiracy theory that the Microsoft founder is somehow behind the coronavirus. “That’s going to make him a ton of money.”
In reality, few regions in the nation have been hit harder by COVID-19 than southeast Michigan, and Whitmer in March enacted some of the nation’s strictest stay-at-home orders to slow the virus’ deadly spread. That’s led to protests on the right, and those in attendance on Thursday echoed ongoing rage at the government’s insistence on limiting movement.
“I’m totally against that,” Kathryn Prater, 42, a Bernie Sanders-to-Trump voter in 2016 who said she’ll vote for Trump again because she can’t stomach Joe Biden, told The Daily Beast. “After about 30 days of this, I started losing my mind a bit, so I was like, You know what: If I’m going to get sick, then I’m going to get sick. It’s mostly affecting old people. We’ve got to live our lives.”
Unlike Trump, his supporters in Michigan didn’t seem to think the president should withhold emergency aid from the state, especially in light of recent flooding that displaced tens of thousands of residents near Midland. When asked about the threat during his tour of the Ypsilanti plant, the president said, “I’m not gonna discuss that, there are so many forms of funding, we’re not going to discuss that—what we want is good, straight, honest voting.”
But, like Trump, his assembled fans were suspicious of mail-in ballots despite a lack of evidence that they have been used to carry out fraud—and the obvious appeal during a pandemic. Prater claimed her mother who recently died got an application in the mail, while Todd Elwart, of Sanford in Midland County, said the method simply wasn’t trustworthy.
More than anything else, though, strange takes on the science behind the outbreak were inescapable. Miriani questioned governors in coastal states who closed beaches, arguing—without any basis in science or epidemiology, of course—that they should be encouraging people to go in the ocean.
“That’s saltwater. Salt kills things. It’s a cleans-ifier. Here we got the governor of California saying, ‘You can’t go to the beaches, instead you can stay home and fester with your viruses.’ That don’t make sense.”
With reporting from Justin Baragona