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What’s in it for a politician not to wear a mask?

Forgoing a mask owes more to political theater than to ideology, experts say

Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, speaks during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday, June 24, 2020, on oversight of the Justice Department and a probe into the politicization of the department under Attorney General William Barr.
Susan Walsh, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — The halls of American power are not immune to the coronavirus pandemic, nor to the debates that attend it.

Last Friday, Rep. Raul Grijalva, a 17-year Democratic congressman from Arizona, tested positive for COVID-19, becoming at least the fifth member of the House, including Democratic Utah congressman Ben McAdams, to be infected with the virus. Earlier in the week, Grijalva had been in a hearing with Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Republican from Texas who routinely went without a mask. When Gohmert tested positive, Grijalva self-isolated and awaited his own test results.

Upon learning of his diagnosis, Grijalva had pointed words for some of his colleagues. “Numerous Republican members routinely strut around the Capitol without a mask to selfishly make a political statement at the expense of their colleagues, staff, and their families,” he said, according to CNN.

The cultural battle over mask-wearing has affected nearly every public arena in recent months, political spaces not excepted. After businessman and former presidential candidate Herman Cain died of COVID-19 July 30, his attending a Trump rally with scores of maskless spectators drew scrutiny; Trump has denied a connection.

The spate of diagnoses in the Capitol, though, raises questions, namely: What exactly is the point unmasked politicians are trying to make? What is gained by sidestepping a simple public health practice?

Dr. Shana Gadarian, chairwoman of political science at Syracuse University and an author of a forthcoming book on responses to the coronavirus pandemic, describes a vast difference in how people of different political affiliations take protective health measures. “We see there’s this 20 percentage point difference, with Democrats saying they’re more likely to wear masks,” she said. The trend holds on Capitol Hill. Though plenty of Republicans have worn face coverings, those legislators reprimanded by their colleagues for forgoing masks have been unanimously Republican.

GOP leaders have cited certain pieces of political ideology — primarily a high regard for personal liberty and a wariness of government overreach — as informing their thinking. “I take the necessary precautions based on the situation, whether it’s social distancing or wearing a mask,” Texas Rep. Jodey Arrington told the Texas Tribune. “I just don’t see the need right now for universal masking, especially not mandated by the government,” Ronny L. Jackson, a soon-to-be Texas congressman, said. “I don’t particularly want my government telling me that I have to wear a mask. So, I think that’s a choice that I can make.”

Masks make for ready political symbols, Tom Pepinsky, a professor of government at Cornell University and Gadarian’s co-author, argued. “The thing about mask-wearing is that it’s visible,” Pepinsky said. “And it’s low cost, which makes it sort of the perfect signal for something that you can do if you care to do it. ... It’s like it’s custom-designed to embody a choice about yourself.”

The ideological stances are wrapped up in broader social dynamics. In late June, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called upon President Donald Trump — who to that point had never worn a mask in public — to wear one as an act of leadership, she invoked masculinity. “The president should be an example,” Pelosi said. “Real men wear masks.”

“The idea that you would need something to protect you, when your identity says that you can protect yourself, is wrapped up in this idea that mask-wearing is Republican, is (not considered) masculine,” Gadarian said. Before Gohmert was diagnosed with the coronavirus, he told reporters who raised the concerns of health experts, “I’m not afraid of you, but if I get it I’ll wear a mask.” (He has since speculated that the mask itself made him sick, a theory debunked by medical professionals.)

But there are also reasons beyond ideology that prominent Republican politicians might be averse to wearing masks. The Trump administration has, until recently, consistently minimized their importance, both in statements and in actions. Trump himself mentioned the helpfulness of mask-wearing only in late July. Vice President Mike Pence was documented visiting the Mayo Clinic without a mask in the pandemic’s early stages.

Such messaging has not been lost on those in the president’s party. Even those Republicans personally disposed toward best public health practices might weigh the political cost. “That is a potential tightrope that Republican leaders are on right now,” Gadarian said. “The biggest risk is that the president will pick you out for ridicule, or if you had someone running against you, the president would endorse that person.”

The White House’s own anti-mask messaging may have had reasons more involved than simple ideology as well. Critics suggest that, in forgoing masks, officials attempted to project an image of normalcy that, especially in the minds of supporters, counteracted evidence of the United States’ mishandling of the pandemic. “I can think of an argument that says you shouldn’t compel people to wear masks — actually, I think there’s a good philosophical debate to have there,” Pepinsky said. “But I do not believe that the White House is engaged in that debate. I think what they’re engaged in is an attempt to suppress, by whatever means necessary, anything that looks like abnormality.”

“The president, from early on, said COVID is a hoax, is not serious,” Gadarian added. “You shouldn’t be worried about it. So if you don’t need to be worried about it, then you don’t have to change your behavior.”

Following Gohmert’s positive test, Pelosi announced a mask mandate for House members. Anyone violating the rule will be required to leave the building, escorted, if necessary, by the sergeant-at-arms. In addition, Trump has changed his tune. In a campaign email to supporters, Trump said of masks, “We have nothing to lose, and possibly everything to gain.” He added, “Why not give it a shot!”

While these measures will likely shift health practices within the world of Washington politics, Gadarian worries that they will have little effect on now-ingrained partisan habits in the country at large. “I’m not very optimistic that members of congress getting COVID would make people change their minds,” she said. “I’m a big believer that policies change people’s behaviors.”

But a federal mask mandate, of the sort other countries have adopted, remains off the table. In an interview given to Fox News even after he appeared in public in a mask, Trump returned to familiar talking points. He said of a mask mandate, “I want people to have a certain freedom and I don’t believe in that, no.”