Trump: “I’m all for masks, I think masks are good”


The line at the end about the Lone Ranger made me laugh.

This is progress. In May he mocked a reporter for being “politically correct” by wearing a mask. The day before that he retweeted Brit Hume when Hume posted a photo of a mask swallowing half of Joe Biden’s face with the caption, “This might help explain why Trump doesn’t like to wear a mask in public.” Today he’s all in favor of wearing them, at least around other people, although it doesn’t sound like he’ll take that extra step of donning one himself.

Why’d he change his tune? The easy answer is that virtually every other Republican on Capitol Hill, starting with Mitch McConnell, has been nudging him to grant the MAGA seal of approval to mask-wearing in hopes that it’ll influence populists who have resisted until now. As Lamar Alexander put it, “Unfortunately, this simple, lifesaving practice has become part of a political debate that says: If you’re for Trump, you don’t wear a mask. If you’re against Trump, you do.” Now you can wear a mask and still be for Trump!

But I don’t think pressure from other Republicans had much to do with it. Trump doesn’t take orders from them, he gives them. If you want to change his behavior, you need to show him what’s in it for him. Two pieces of news over the last 24 hours helped do that. First was this analysis from Goldman Sachs, which reframed mask-wearing in terms POTUS can understand:

The dire situation [with new outbreaks in southern states] has raised the specter of another round of state-level stay-at-home orders to halt the pandemic’s spread and caused a number of governors to pause or reverse reopening plans. Against this backdrop, a team of economists at Goldman Sachs has published an analysis suggesting more painful shutdowns could be averted if the United States implements a nationwide mask mandate.

“A face mask mandate could potentially substitute for lockdowns that would otherwise subtract nearly 5% from GDP,” the team, led by the investment bank’s chief economist, Jan Hatzius, writes.

That reminds me of the model put together by a team of computer scientists a few months ago showing that universal masking (i.e. 80 percent of the public or more) absent a lockdown would lead to fewer American deaths than an indefinite lockdown without masks would. In the first scenario, the model predicted that 60,000 people would die; in the second, 180,000 would. The key, though, is universality. A certain high threshold percentage of the public needs to be masked up to severely curtail transmissions. (It’s not unlike herd immunity in that respect.) The Goldman analysis also assumed universality via a mask mandate, not just voluntary mask-wearing.

Trump sounded iffy about a mandate in today’s interview, as you can see from the excerpt. He’s right to be ambivalent about that as the head of the executive branch, as the feds lack that constitutional power. The states, on the other hand, do have it. Pennsylvania issued a statewide mask mandate this afternoon as I was writing this post.

The other news that may have grabbed the president’s attention was this scoop about a meeting of the Federal Reserve a few weeks ago, before cases in the south began rising:

Federal Reserve officials raised concerns about additional waves of coronavirus infections disrupting an economic recovery and triggering a new spike in unemployment and a worse economic downturn, according to minutes released Wednesday by the central bank about its June 9-10 meeting…

“In light of the significant uncertainty and downside risks associated with the pandemic, including how much the economy would weaken and how long it would take to recover, the staff judged that a more pessimistic projection was no less plausible than the baseline forecast,” the minutes read. “In this scenario, a second wave of the coronavirus outbreak, with another round of strict limitations on social interactions and business operations, was assumed to begin later this year, leading to a decrease in real GDP, a jump in the unemployment rate, and renewed downward pressure on inflation next year.”

That was always a core argument against reopening early. Trump treated the reopening debate as an either/or: We can either focus on reducing transmissions or we can focus on an economic recovery but we can’t do both. In reality, if you give up too soon on reducing transmissions, you risk a new outbreak that’ll get out of hand and wreck your recovery by forcing newly reopened businesses to close again. Whether they close because a new stay-at-home order is issued or because consumers get too spooked by the epidemic to keep visiting them is inconsequential. There’s no revenue either way. Maybe Trump has begun to see that. His only hope of reelection is a big economic comeback, and his only hope of a big economic comeback is restoring confidence in consumers that it’s safe to shop and dine out. Universal mask-wearing gets him closer to both, so now he’s unambiguously (mostly) pro-mask.

There’s a lot of damage to undo here on the right side of the aisle, though. These numbers from HuffPost are bad:

Nothing there specifically touches on *voluntary* mask-wearing, but I’m going to guess that wearing masks has been less prevalent in the redder southern states that are now experiencing an outbreak than it’s been in bluer ones in other regions. That’s especially dangerous for POTUS in Arizona, Texas, and Florida, three must-win battlegrounds for him in November. If swing voters there blame him for their rising case counts, he’s cooked. His new pro-mask rhetoric should make it a little harder for them to do that, however belated it may be.

Politico reports today that the White House is currently debating whether to bring back the daily coronavirus briefing in some form. That seems like a smart idea to me (so long as Trump’s remarks are short and scripted) for the simple reason that they need to do a waaaaaay better job communicating to people that they’re still focused on the pandemic and, more basically, that they care. That’s one of Trump’s main liabilities against Biden. A little “we feel your pain” empathy from the White House amid all the “get back to work” encouragement might go a long way.

Here he is on Fox Business earlier. He also said today for the umpteenth time that he thinks the virus will go away on its own eventually, which is true in the sense that herd immunity is a real thing but not encouraging in that it’ll take several hundred thousand more deaths, in all likelihood, to get there.





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