By Larry J. Schweiger
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
In 1928, as a “self-made” millionaire candidate for President, Herbert Hoover claimed that America’s greatness was based on “rugged individualism” and “self-reliance.” Later, Hoover’s failed policies may or may not have caused the Great Depression, but Hoover certainly did not address the suffering of so many who desperately needed help from their government. FDR’s New Deal repudiated Hoover’s “rugged individualism” by using several governmental programs to help restart the economy and rebuild the Nation.
Yet today, an influential segment in American society still embraces the rugged individualism philosophy reminiscent of the failed Hoover days. Waving “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, MAGA supporters oppose governmental mandates and rebel against health warnings and the clear guidance from the CDC.
Trump hates being seen as weak and again played the role of a “rugged individualist” in a hospital video. From the very beginning, Trump fostered individualism as he has been dismissive, even hostile to mask-wearing. He continuously down-played the coronavirus while urging businesses, churches, and schools to reopen. Trump attacked democratic Governors who were following CDC guidance to protect their citizens and cheered on Republican Governors who ignored the CDC guidelines. He dismissed sound medical science and rebelled against those in the media who wore masks, even mocking Joe Biden for wearing a mask.
Early in the pandemic, he told Bob Woodward he wanted to downplay the risks of COVID-19, and he has done that from day one. The President refused to fully utilize the War Powers Act to rapidly expand N95 mask production and mandate the manufacturing of other critical medical and testing supplies in the US. He urged the slowing down of testing, and has failed to call for a national mask mandate. A Federal effort to contact trace is non-existent even during the current White House crisis.
Trump took masks from the realm of a prudent and necessary healthcare measure to a political statement. He has also succeeded in turning a pandemic into a referendum about his lack of leadership in what has been called “an astonishing act of hubris, asking his base to choose between paying homage to him or protecting their own lives.” People who refuse to wear a mask show a perverse loyalty to him and a reckless disregard of others.
Trust is eroded when mask-wearing becomes a partisan wedge issue. Trump encouraged indifference and neglect that damaged our sense of community as we are at risk by those who flaunt the rules and refuse to wear a mask. America can only stem the surging tide of COVID deaths and the suffering of millions of “long-hauler” victims if we all work together and listen to the CDC to stop the spread.
Caring for others is a very personal matter, but mask-wearing reveals those who care and those who do not. Simply put, people who care for others wear masks in public. Trump’s family revealed their values and far-too-often skewed thinking when they willfully rejected explicit requests from a Cleveland Clinic doctor and policies established by debate organizers. Ignoring the “Must wear a Mask” sign on the store’s door is another example of the toxic “rugged individualist” mentality. Walking through a Lowes, Home Depot, or many grocery stores, you will soon discover that Trump has fostered a widespread unwillingness to wear masks. Ohio’s Republican Lieutenant Governor Jon Husted was booed at a Trump rally when he urged the crowd to wear masks to protect America. Ironically, the expressed individual freedom is oddly intertwined with blind obedience to a profoundly flawed cult leader.
When people care enough about each other, they always find a way to make wearing a mask work, isolate when exposed, socially distance, and wash their hands regularly. Mask wearing goes beyond politeness and caring for each other. We now know it has severe consequences for those who violate guidance and refuse to mask up. CDC guidance is straightforward. “Everyone should wear a mask in public settings and when around people who don’t live in your household, especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.” According to a New York Times detailed American behavior survey, fifty-nine percent say they wear masks in public. In comparison, fourteen percent say they never wear a mask. In Pittsburgh, about seventy percent claim they wear masks in public settings.
There is a striking comparison between Japan with only 1,597 deaths and the United States, where we have experienced more than 210,000 deaths. While there may be several factors involved, the wearing of masks in Japan has long been an accepted practice. In Japan, people did not debate their freedom from masks. Instead, they dutifully resorted to wearing masks to avoid catching or spreading this dread disease. Culturally, Japanese are more formal in greeting each other by bowing, rather than shaking hands or kissing. The lack of physical contact may have also reduced transmission. While American culture is different from that of Japan’s, we can learn mask-wearing from others if we are willing to listen. COVID19 is a cruel virus, but we must not be. Rugged individualism is incongruent with stemming a pandemic, and has run its course again in American history.
Trump and many of the sycophants around him acted invincible, flouted the rules, and questioned medical scientists. They refused to take precautions and now they must face the deadly realities of the pandemic. The depth of Trump’s narcissistic recklessness was revealed when Trump tested positive, yet continued to hold a New Jersey fundraiser even greeting donors without masks. From Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Trump produced a video where he showed no remorse for his flawed actions, no apologies for people he knowingly exposed. Instead, he defended his behavior, saying he could not stay upstairs at the White House. His donors feel misled by his failure to protect them and they are frustrated by the campaign’s failure to be transparent, and to take appropriate precautions.
Every Trump appointee should have worn masks for their health and safety while modeling good behavior for others. Social distancing and other safeguards should have been rigorously enforced at the White House and when Trump was on the road. Instead of that, Trump has repeatedly tempted the virus, and now the virus threatens his health.
Trump claims to have gone to school and learned a lot about the virus. Some voters hope the illness will help Trump discover the serious nature of this disease, and start respecting health scientists, develop empathy for others, and perhaps even begin to respect the rule of law. He is a 74-year-old uncurable narcissist who is devoid of veracity and in constant need of political theatre and the adulation of followers. Trump’s Sunday afternoon publicity stunt around the block waving at supporters is further evidence that he does not care about the health and safety of his driver and Secret Service detail who shared a sealed SUV with him.
It is hard to know the truth about his condition when he has lied more than 20,000 times. Confusing statements from the President’s doctor and the Chief of Staff also increased uncertainty. He is incapable of acting any differently.
I hope President Trump, the First Lady, influential Republicans and Senators sickened while mingling without masks can fully recover. At the same time, we must understand that nothing will change unless we change it by voting. It is evident that Trump’s narcissistic personality disorder is harming our National security and democracy. His unhinged, unpresidential, and disgusting behavior was on full display during the debate. Meanwhile, the Trump campaign needs a hard reset. They must end super-spreader rallies that threaten many. It is worth noting, Joe Biden took down his negative ads when Trump took ill. Trump has not. This will be an election about values. America will be on the ballot as never before. This is not a time for maskless rugged individualism, it is about caring for others. In a sense, our health and safety are on the ballot in 2020 and we must vote safely as our Nation is at great risk from a rolling pandemic with a reckless President.