Americans, as a public, generally agree about the civic virtue of wearing masks: When surveyed, pluralities have called the practice respectful to others and important for public health. The viral videos, however, suggest otherwise. They imply division. They suggest that America’s culture war will be fought even in the presence of consensus—that the war’s soldiers, indignant and defiant, will take even the most straightforward of medical advice and make a great show of refusing to comply with it. Masks serve to protect not their wearers but the people their wearers come in contact with; to put them on is to engage in a basic but highly visible act of altruism. That fact alone has led to accusations that mask wearing is a form of virtue signaling: a smug display of moral values. The refusal to wear masks, though, recorded and turned into shareable media, is evidence of the opposite: vice signaling.
Yesterday, during a press conference conducted on the White House lawn, Donald Trump filmed his own version of a mask-rejection video. As the cameras rolled, the president spoke, as he always does, without a mask, modeling defiance against the advice of his own public-health experts. (Deborah Birx, the coordinator for the White House coronavirus task force, had this to say, earlier this month, about the sight of people gathered together without masks: “It’s devastatingly worrisome to me personally, because if they go home and infect their grandmother or their grandfather … they will feel guilty for the rest of our lives.”) During the Q&A session, a reporter—wearing a boldly patterned face mask—tried to ask the president a question. Trump replied by asking him to remove his mask. (“I cannot hear you,” the president explained, though he had answered a previous question from the same journalist with no evident problem.) The reporter declined; he said instead that he would speak more loudly. “Oh, okay, you want to be politically correct,” Trump replied.
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This is typical of the president—and yet, in its context, strikingly callous. Masks are not empty symbols. Masks are tools of public health. The nation is nearing a grim and gutting milestone: Almost 100,000 Americans have now been killed by a virus that is transmitted, in part, through human breath. But not only does the president still refuse to model the very simple behavior that could help curb transmission of the illness; he also mocks those who do as arbiters of political correctness. He implies that mask-wearing is best understood as an act of personal brand management—a show like any other. One more virtue signal. One more act of smug condescension. The logic of political correctness, as he sees it, leaves no room for good faith, no space for altruism. It’s PR, all the way down. Asked why he refused to wear a mask during a visit to a Ford plant earlier this month, the president explained: “I didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it.”