If you were holding out hope for 2020 to be any less horrible, consider that the donning of protective face masks in the midst of a pandemic has emerged as the symbolic dividing line in the culture war.
This is both stupid and sadly predictable.
Controversy erupted on the right this week when Rusty Reno, editor of First Things, a once highly respected conservative religious journal, tweeted that “mask culture [is] fear driven” and that “fear of infection” and “fear of causing infection” are both “species of cowardice.”
“WWII vets did not wear masks. They’re men, not cowards,” he continued.
The tweets, which were ratioed up the wazoo, have since been removed or taken down, but you can see them here. It’s tempting to fact-check Reno’s assertions, but what matters more is understanding the twisted, deep-seated worldview behind his comments.
It nearly goes without saying that Reno isn’t alone. If he were, we might chalk this up to the fever-swamp rantings of one screwball. But the anti-mask narrative has been building for weeks now.
Back in April, Prager University, which is run by conservative talk radio host Dennis Prager, warned, “Don’t let the mask become a muzzle,” whatever that means. Accompanying the slogan was the image of the Gadsden Flag with the snake wearing a mask. This was confusing imagery that might more appropriately be used for a pro-mask message. As one wag quipped, “Don’t breathe on me!”
Next, Donald Trump and Mike Pence both famously refused to wear masks, even as close White House staffers fell victim to COVID-19.
Most recently, Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana—one of the most oleaginous members of Congress—declared, “I don't want to have to wear a face mask in the shower.”
It’s worth reiterating that First Things was once a highly respected outlet. Though he hosts a radio talk show, Prager is something of an intellectual. And Kennedy has a serious résumé. There’s now even a virologist arguing that the virus can be “activated” by masks. The anti-mask thing has gone mainstream on the right.
But Reno’s comments were the ones that lit a spark—and for good reason: They are utterly inconsistent with the Trumpy, populist, nationalist philosophy advocated by Reno and his ilk.
First, as The Bulwark’s Jonathan V. Last has pointed out, if your goal is to reopen the economy, which among other things could save Trump’s failing presidency, then you should be all about masks. “If you want to end the lockdown immediately,” Last writes, “then you will want to take any nominal precautions that will allow reopening as quickly as possible.”
For this to make sense, a quick reminder is in order: Common Good Conservatism eschews classical liberalism, a.k.a. “David Frenchism” (which tolerates drag queen story hour), in favor of (a) winning a culture war and (b) imposing the “Highest Good” on Americans.
And even assuming you were OK with that, here’s where Reno runs into problems. Wouldn’t the highest good involve protecting our fellow Americans from a deadly pandemic? “One might even say that such a regulation is for the common good,” joked Noah Rothman of Commentary.
As conservative Rod Dreher argues, “How can we reconcile being in favor of ‘communal solidarity’ and against the ‘fetishizing of autonomy’ with the mad claim that people who wear face masks with the intention of slowing the spread of this pandemic are nothing but a bunch of pus*ies?”
So what is all this talk about fear and cowardice about… really?
In my mind, the battle over masks is really about the way Donald Trump has redefined masculinity.
Once upon a time, being a man involved being a “protector.” It involved making sacrifices. Rather than making you a chump, this conduct was the source of respect and admiration. Wearing a hot, itchy mask is exactly the kind of sacrifice a protector might make (remember, Reno bizarrely claims that even a “fear of causing infection” constitutes cowardice).
In recent years, the left and modernity conspired to erode these old fashioned chivalric codes, and then Trump put a stake through their heart.
Instead of electing a traditional conservative who would restore these old-fashioned values, advocates of Common Good Conservatism backed a vulgarian who flouts the Christian ideal of servant leadership in favor of a Nietzschean will to power.
Trumpian manliness isn’t about inner strength or sacrifice, it’s about looking strong—about creating an aura of machismo—and selfishly reaping the spoils of the culture war.
But as some of Trump’s defenders in Congress (who are up for re-election) are about to find out, there’s a steep price to be paid for retrofitting your politics to suit Trump’s short-term interests. Actually, though, the stakes are a lot higher in real life. What if people get sick as a result? What if Reno gets a vulnerable loved one sick? This is abominable!
To a small but important segment of conservatism, “freedom” now includes the freedom to kill off society’s weak. This is Trumpism. Unmasked.