During Wednesday evening’s vice-presidential debate, as he refused to acknowledge that climate change is an existential threat and to agree that he would accept the results of the upcoming presidential election and to elaborate on the Trump administration’s alleged plan to ensure that Americans will continue to have health care during a raging pandemic, Vice President Mike Pence uttered the following line to Kamala Harris: “Stop playing politics with people’s lives.”
The wrongness of the comment was made even more acute by the events that followed the debate: After the event concluded, Pence was joined on the stage—outfitted with plexiglass, in weak acknowledgment of the fact that politics is people’s lives—by his wife, Karen. She was pointedly not wearing a mask. Pence then posed for pictures with fellow Republicans. None of them wore a mask.
“Shocking but not surprising” has been a constant refrain of the Trump years, as applicable to the fact that leaders who reject science have failed to control the pandemic as it is to the fact that the president himself, last week, was taken to the hospital with a case of COVID-19. But maskless Trumpists are, at this point, neither shocking nor surprising. Their particular brand of medical vigilantism is, on the contrary, entirely logical. Donald Trump and those in his orbit have spent months insisting that wearing a mask is not what it is in reality—a simple act of solidarity and public health—but is instead a symbol, laden with meaning.