Back in March, with Americans just a week into quarantine, Fox News host Laura Ingraham envisioned a way that the economy could reopen. Her plan relied on lots of masks.
“Going back to most jobs after 15 days will require new protocols until this virus burns out—everyone within 6 feet of others MUST wear masks,” Ingraham tweeted.
As part of her pro-mask campaign, Ingraham tweeted instructions for Do It Yourself (DIY) masks, even urging her followers to make homemade masks out of their sheets.
“Literally you can make these with cotton sheets,” Ingraham wrote. “Again, we can be resourceful when necessary!”
A month later, Ingraham has done a 180, becoming one of the right-wing media’s most outspoken mask-haters. She’s tweeted that widespread mask wearing would make everyone “like Antifa,” the left-wing antifascist activists reviled on Fox. On Wednesday, she suggested on her show that widespread mask usage is some sort of plot to scare people.
“The masks, they’re kind of a constant reminder,” Ingraham said. “You see the mask and you think you’re not safe, you are not back to normal — not even close.”
Such a conversion may seem peculiar on the surface. Who, after all, has an actual problem with face masks, especially in the midst of a pandemic. But Ingraham’s conversion reflects something deeper about the nature of our current politics, in which social safety measures themselves can become emblems of partisan leanings. Once the potential tools of liberation from stay-at-home orders, Trump supporters now see masks as a hated carryover from those same orders.
Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, the recent recipient of a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Donald Trump, was an early mask paranoiac. On April 20, he promoted the idea, later picked up by Ingraham, that masks are totems of control.
“It is clear that the mask is a symbol of fear, and when you see various people suggesting that we may now have masks as part of our public lives for the rest of our lives?” Limbaugh said. “Uh, why?”
For some conservatives, refusing to wear a mask has become just the latest way to thumb their noses at social distancing mandates. Talk radio host Dennis Prager said in a video that he refused to don one—and compared himself to Rosa Parks or dissident Germans in the Nazi era for his defiance.
Anti-mask feelings in the GOP comes from the top, with Vice President Mike Pence flouting a Mayo Clinic rule this week mandating mask usage in a visit there. In early April, Trump said he was “choosing not to” wear a mask even as his health officials advised people to do so. (Trump’s personal preferences, however, haven’t stopped his campaign from a reported plan to sell Trump-branded masks).
But the mask backlash has also spread to the party's rank-and-file at the anti-stay-at-home protests popping up across the country. After a Houston judge issued an order requiring mask usage in public, protesters rallied with signs bearing messages like “Don’t Mask the Truth” and “Just Say No,” illustrated with the crossed-out image of a mask.
After a protest in Lansing, Michigan, on Thursday where armed protesters tried to force their way into the legislative chambers, organizer Jason Howland defended protesters who refused to wear masks, identifying mask usage as one of the issues they were rallying against.
“If I’m gonna protest somebody, and I do it by the rules that they’re laying down on me, I’m going to look pretty stupid by the end of the day,” Howland told The Daily Beast.
The coronavirus has sparked an explosion in conspiracy theories, from claims that Bill Gates is cooking up a dangerous vaccine to allegations that 5G towers are causing the virus. With masks, however, there doesn’t appear to be a larger conspiracy theory driving the opposition. Instead, much of it appears to be based on the same desire to buck public health mandates that has driven people to rally with each other while standing much closer than the medically-advised distance of six feet.
Masks have become a hot topic in state-specific “Reopen” Facebook groups, some of which have hundreds of thousands of members. Trump supporters fume about being kicked out of grocery stores for not wearing masks and vow to boycott businesses that require masks in the future. In the “Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine” Facebook group, one poster compared the anti-mask campaign to feminists burning their bras.
“Time to burn the masks and gloves!!!!” the Facebook user wrote.
Some of the broader anti-mask backlash has been caused by confusion over the CDC’s evolution on the matter. After initially saying only Covid-19 patients and healthcare workers needed masks, the agency reversed itself in April, advising universal mask usage. The guidance had some skeptics in the medical community, with some health officials worrying that it would give people a false sense of security and potentially lead others to touch their faces with more frequency—both of which could lead to more coronavirus spread. But Trump’s health team defended the mask policy on grounds that asymptomatic people infected with coronavirus were unknowingly spreading the disease and would be less likely to do so with a face covering.
Vivienne Reign, the organizer of a set of reopen protests in California on Friday, said her group “We Have Rights” advised attendees only to “follow the CDC guidelines” — rather than spelling out a mask requirement. Reign cited the CDC reversal as a driving force behind confusion over the masks.
“It’s really hard to keep up with what they want you to do,” Reign said.