Trying to quantify what Donald Trump actually succeeded at during the blight of his presidential tenure is sadly instructive at this juncture. Let’s see: ability to hire fascists, racists, and other unpolished authoritarian doorknobs to positions of extreme power? The resumes of the damned found new life in his hands. Lie with no shame? Peerless. Grift? To be determined by various courts. Be orange for no coherent reason? Aced it.
All this being rightly said, Trump excelled at nothing better than the lethal task of disdaining the simple wearing of masks in the middle of a deadly pandemic. Way back in 2020, when ubiquitous mask-wearing could have made a game-changing difference in thwarting the spread of COVID-19, Trump went above and beyond to diminish their effectiveness during his broader campaign to downplay the entire crisis for the sake of his reelection hopes.
Nothing too over-the-top, mind you; just a drop of poison into every mention of masks. “Maybe they’re great, and maybe they’re just good,” he said on August 13, 2020. “Maybe they’re not so good.” On May 21, 2020, it was, “I wore one in the back area, I didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it,” as if the mask was a symbol of shameful weakness. “They suggested for a period of time, but this is voluntary,” he said of wearing masks on April 3, 2020. “I don’t think I’m going to be doing it.”
The most galling element of Trump’s constant anti-mask rhetoric walked hand in hand with the generalized nature of his brazen hypocrisy. Masks are not meant to protect you, they are meant to protect others from you if you are infected and don’t know it. Wearing a mask, therefore, is by definition a selfless act… and Trump doesn’t do selfless. He does not even understand it.
The hypocrisy? Maskless asymptomatic people wandering the crowded places of the country are a prime reason why COVID spread so quickly and efficiently. Trump considers himself the champion of the country’s evangelical Christians — and they certainly agree — yet compelling people to do something in service to their neighbor — “Do unto others etc.” — was beyond his ken. His is the gospel of mask-shaming, and his preaching to this effect likely put hundreds of thousands of people into early graves. As has been said time and again, it did not have to be this way.
Another area of shabby excellence for Trump was loading the courts with wildly unqualified far right ideologues who will occupy the bench for the next four decades. Mitch McConnell was instrumental in ramming hundreds of these people onto various federal courts, including three (!!!) Supreme Court appointees, but Trump gets the credit because it happened on his watch.
This fact dovetailed seamlessly with Trump’s manufactured mask fiasco on Monday, when U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle of the Middle District of Florida struck down federal mask mandates in the area of travel, and specifically on airlines and public transit. “The ruling gives airports, mass transit systems, airlines and ride-hailing services the option to keep mask rules or ditch them entirely,” reports the Associated Press, “resulting in rules that vary by city and mode of transportation. Passengers on an United Airlines flight from Houston to Kennedy Airport, for instance, could ditch their masks at their departing airport and on the plane, but have to put them back on once they land in New York or take a subway.”
And how can this be, even as another COVID variant spreads across the land? Who is Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle? Above all else, she is one of the judges Trump rammed into the court system. Esquire blogger Charles P. Pierce explains succinctly:
You see, Judge Mizelle is one of those folks that the Federalist Society sent up the pneumatic tube that led from its labs to the White House. She clerked for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and was rated as “not qualified” by the American Bar Association.
She was 33 when she was nominated and confirmed as the 2020 lame-duck session was winding down. She was eight years out of law school and had never tried a case of any kind. Her husband was chosen to be acting general counsel at the Department of Homeland Security through his connection to that noted devotee of the Constitution, Stephen Miller. She had no experience, but she had the golden resume.
Reaction to Mizelle’s mandate ruling was swift. “Americans greeted the lifting of mask mandates on planes, trains, buses, and public transit with a mixture of joy, relief and alarm on Tuesday, marking an abrupt end to a directive that had been widely in place in various forms for nearly two years,” reports The New York Times. “Some airline passengers received the news in airports or in flight, sharing celebratory photos and videos on social media. That elation was accompanied by nervousness and dread from other people who are fearful that the end of the mandate would increasingly expose them and their loved ones to the coronavirus as a new variant is driving up case counts around the United States.”
Trump’s vast garden of hand-selected far right activist judges may not have helped him claw his way back into office after the election (yet), but they are paying bully dividends in the day-by-day push to reorder the laws of the nation in service to some dystopian far right un-future. Today, it’s the mangling of the mask mandate, leaving millions once again confused as to how to properly protect themselves. It hands the Republicans another incendiary “culture war” weapon to wield in an election year.
What Texas is doing with Roe v. Wade — tailoring lawsuits against choice laws to please the conservative majority on the high court — other right-wing activists have done with masks. This case, according to the Guardian, “was filed in July 2021 by two plaintiffs and the Health Freedom Defense Fund, a group that has initiated lawsuits against vaccine and mask mandates in several school districts and municipalities. The group’s leader, Leslie Manookian, has appeared at anti-vaccine and anti-mask protests and produced a film that purported to examine the link between vaccines and autism.”
That autism link, and everyone involved with it including the author, have been comprehensibly debunked and dismissed, yet here we are.
The BA.2 subvariant is rising, Congress is still wrestling over much-needed funding for vaccines and treatment, and here comes a Trump judge to blow up one of the most basic protections people have against the spread of the virus, especially areas where they tend to be more vulnerable. The plan is coming together nicely, isn’t it.