One week ago, President Trump tweeted a picture of himself wearing a mask during a visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. The president’s critics quickly labeled the maneuver too little, too late.
People more interested in the horse race that is the presidential campaign frequently described it as being motivated by falling poll numbers and his declining strength relative to his Democratic competitor, Joe Biden. That description is similar to what people who are generally cynical gave to the maneuver: a pander.
Two of those things are undeniable to anyone who pays any attention to politics, the pandemic, or has even a passing familiarity with the president’s personality. There is little doubt the president’s competitive nature, combined with the indications of impending defeat this November, caused him to reconsider his objections to wearing a mask. His vanity, which had caused him to try to avoid being seen in a mask even when he was previously prevailed upon to wear one, was also finally subordinated to his pride and fear of loss.
Saying the pivot to calling the wearing of a mask "too little, too late," is at least half wrong, however. Even a full week later, it does not appear the president is inclined to put significant effort into setting an example when it comes to wearing a mask. It also does not appear the bully pulpit will be fully used to help eliminate the stigma attached to wearing a mask that the president himself has done so much to create. Still, it remains to be seen if the “too little” component of the criticism is valid.
But to say that what the president has done is “too late” misses the mark. It is never too late to do the right thing. That is especially true in a pandemic that, according to the overwhelming majority of expert opinion, is still in its early stages. It would be folly to attempt to absolve the president of the deaths and suffering his stubbornness on the issue of mask wearing has caused. It would also be a mistake to say his flip-flop on the same will not be helpful in helping arrest the spread of the coronavirus, thus saving lives.
Despite whatever opinion a person holds of an elected official, it is important to maintain the ability to give credit where it is due. The erosion of our individual and collective capacity to do that is one of the many reasons our politics are so polarized and our government so ineffective. We are also in an unfortunate situation wherein our nation’s leader has a constant need for adoration and reinforcement of his self-image of always being right. So, giving him “credit where it is due” is probably one of the more effective ways of leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for him to follow into doing the right thing.
Wearing a mask is an important component to protecting those around you from being inadvertently infected, preventing deaths, and lowering the number of people who will suffer from the lingering effects of the coronavirus. It is also the best tool we currently have in the toolbox when trying to restore our previous normal.
Maybe the president’s newfound acceptance of mask wearing will convince those people who get angry when people don't cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze because of a cold, yet insist that having a mask constantly covering your face during a pandemic is pointless, to finally accept the reality that we will all have to incur some inconveniences to put an end to this pandemic.
Jason Nichols is District 2 Democratic Party chair, an instructor of political science at Northeastern State University, and former mayor of Tahlequah.