Here’s a way to understand what’s going on: Suppose a spectacularly evil narcissist were in charge of pandemic policy. Ask yourself, what would he do?
The “screw the blue states” explanation fits the facts. All along I assumed it was intentional, even if they weren’t admitting it in public. I’ve been writing about this since June. Recent outstanding reporting by Katherine Eban confirms my suspicions: by mid-April this policy was fully explicit and intentional.1
There is a flaw in this plan: Biological weapons are notoriously hard to aim. If you aim to kill people in blue states, you’re likely to kill a lot of people in red states also.
You might worry that this would be too much of a policy shift, but no, these guys change their principles more often than they change their underwear. Remember when he was going to provide great, great healthcare to everyone, at a fraction of the cost? Any number of staffers have gone from “the best people” to “liars and losers” overnight. Kim Jong-un went from Little Rocket Man to BFF overnight. Similarly he pivoted from praising China to blaming China for their handling of the virus outbreak. We have always been at war with Eastasia.
This includes blaming China. It even includes blaming Mexico, even though until recently the outbreak was worse in the US than in Mexico. As the saying goes, if the only tool you have is a wall, every problem looks like an invasion.
Similarly, he put out a bunch of vague guidelines, neither explicit nor mandatory. That way when things go badly, he will blame local authorities for following the guidelines too strictly or not strictly enough. And of course if things went well, he would claim the credit.
He amplifies his aversion to reality by surrounding himself with people who share his contempt for facts and expertise. Speaking truth to power is not survival trait in this white house. This leaves him in a position where he couldn’t solve a real problem even if he wanted to. In other words, he has neither the inclination nor the resources to deal with reality.
By way of contrast, let’s be clear: There never should have been a choice between avoiding mass slaughter and avoiding economic ruin. In reality, the best way to protect both lives and wealth would have been (and still is!) to suppress the outbreak hard and fast.2
We now turn to the anti-mask issue. This requires careful analysis. Note the contrast:
For years I’ve been saying he’s always malignantly narcissistic, but not always stupid. It is not satisfactory to say that he does inexplicable things because he is stupid. The problem is, anything can be explained that way, and nothing can be predicted. We should hold our explanations to a higher standard. The fact is, the things he does are usually quite predictable.
Asking people to wear masks doesn’t hurt the economy to any appreciable extent, even in the short run, and in the long run it helps. And the allegedly-good economy was supposed to be the linchpin of the re-election campaign. (Actually the economy started contracting in February, before the pandemic hit, but that’s a story for another day.) So discouraging his followers from wearing masks is grossly illogical.
This stands in contrast to stay-at-home orders and other distancing measures, where we have to weigh very real costs against the advantages.
It is not logical to claim that the outbreak isn’t real, or that it will magically disappear. The anti-mask demagoguery is both evil and illogical, yet also quite predictable.
This brings us back to the fundamental character flaw mentioned above: He is preternaturally disinterested in solving problems; instead he specializes in deflecting blame for the problems. In other words, he’s not just Voldemort but also Gilderoy Lockhart. However, you cannot gaslight a virus, so deflection isn’t working, and he has no idea what to instead. Again: he has neither the inclination nor the resources to deal with the fundamental issues.
Here’s a closely related idea: he cares about appearances, not reality. Telling people to not wear masks is a way of making things appear normal even if they aren’t, for instance when he gazes upon a MAGA rally and sees all the unmasked faces.
Not all conspiracy theories are created equal:
You’re not a kook unless you believe in conspiracies and/or theories that don’t fit the facts. Therefore it’s important to be upfront about ideas that don’t really explain what’s going on.
In particular, we can see that masks have become a political symbol. Wearing a mask (or not!) has become a way of showing your gang colors.
However, this observation has little explanatory power and even less predictive power. As previously remarked, these guys change their principles more often than they change their underwear. It would be straightforward for them to sell a line of MAGA-branded masks. This would solve the practical issue, mostly without forfeiting the symbolic issue.
Let’s be clear: Masks are the easy part. If they can’t get this right, they have no chance of doing the other things that are needed, things that require actual effort and competence, including tracing and testing and distancing and isolation and treatment, etc.2