Tucker Carlson, Unmasked

The self-styled champion of individual liberty wants you to call government agents to punish Americans for their parenting.

Social media has so conditioned people to expect hyperbole that there’s a perverse satisfaction when a clip is truly as bad as advertised. Last night, a viral tweet claimed that Fox News’s Tucker Carlson had told his audience to harass people on the street wearing masks—and to “call the police immediately; contact child protective services” if they saw a child wearing one.

Surely, this couldn’t be a fair description; naturally, it was. Having spent the early part of the month espousing the white-supremacist “great replacement theory,” Carlson is now seeking to use the power of the state to harass and immiserate his political opponents:

Carlson delivered his rant with the combination of astonished indignation, obvious bad faith, and smug sarcasm with which he delivers everything these days, a volatile mix that makes it impossible to know when and to what extent he’s trolling. Like his fellow traveler Donald Trump, Carlson delights in making appalling statements with a straight face and then insisting he was just joking; unlike Trump, Carlson has in the past shown enough of a sense of humor that you can’t discount that possibility.

Trying to figure out Carlson’s “real” feelings is not only impossible but beside the point. Whether he’s disingenuous or delusional, many people will hear what he says and take it seriously and literally. We have several recent examples of the Fox audience being misled into believing falsehoods, including denying the reality of COVID-19 and subscribing to bogus claims about fraud in the 2020 election.

Carlson’s diatribe is a useful data point for how American conservatism has transformed, especially in the Trump era, from a movement that (at least putatively) believes in limited government to one that primarily prizes marshaling the power of the state to punish those who disagree with itWith Trump in eclipse, Carlson is the most visible face of the new conservative movement.

Although Carlson makes a lot of ridiculous claims in a short period in this clip, it is his comments about children that are most disturbing. After complaining that mask mandates imposed by the state are equivalent to living in North Korea, Carlson executes two athletic rhetorical maneuvers. First, he goes from describing mask wearing as excessive to describing it as abusive, and second, he elides the difference between a government mandate and a personal choice.

“As for forcing children to wear masks outside, that should be illegal,” Carlson sputters. “Your response when you see children wearing masks as they play should be no different from seeing someone beating a kid at Walmart: Call the police immediately; contact child protective services. Keep calling until someone arrives. What you’re looking at is abuse. It’s child abuse, and you’re morally obligated to attempt to prevent it.”

One doesn’t need a lot of imagination to game out where this is going. Some viewers will take Carlson’s possibly arch exhortations to heart. They’ll call the police and child protective services. In most cases, authorities will ignore those calls. In some cases, especially if the callers repeatedly summon police as Carlson demands, they could be charged with filing false claims; it’s a good bet that neither he nor Fox News will be there to help them if they are. In other cases, encounters will end poorly for the innocent parents involved. The news is full of examples of how police called to respond to petty or wholly imagined offenses end up gravely injuring or even killing people. (Carlson believes Derek Chauvin was wrongly convicted.)

But when government authorities fail to intervene—because, of course, no laws are being broken—Carlson’s fans may feel the moral obligation to take matters into their own hands, just like Edgar Maddison Welch, who stormed into a Washington, D.C., pizzeria heavily armed in 2016, because he wanted to prevent child abuse that he wrongly believed was occurring there. No one was hurt in that incident, though someone easily could have been. Welch spent about three years in prison.

Carlson’s argument isn’t really about masks. As he grudgingly admitted, the Biden administration had already signaled that new guidance would soon make clear that mask wearing outside is not necessary for fully vaccinated people; the CDC released that guidance this afternoon. Perhaps the change could have come faster, but conservatives have traditionally applauded the deliberate process of government, because it prevents tyranny and abuse of citizens.

Even after new guidance, some people will decide to continue wearing masks outside. Perhaps they feel more comfortable that way. People exercising sometimes extreme caution about their health is neither new or a nuisance. Perhaps they are immunocompromised, or have immunocompromised family members or friends. Ultimately, it’s none of my business or Tucker Carlson’s business why they are doing so, as long as they aren’t hurting anyone, which neither he nor anyone else has established they are.

That’s the sort of personal choice that conservatives have also traditionally defended. Though Carlson masquerades as a defender of free speech (one of several poses he’s tried on over the years), he must know that the government has no business telling citizens what they cannot wear. It is, to borrow Carlson’s analogy, like being forced to wear a Kim Il Sung pin in Pyongyang. Unlike mandates to wear masks, which stem from a public-health interest, a government rule punishing people for wearing masks during a pandemic serves no compelling interest. As for children, conservatives have long argued that families should enjoy autonomy about their parenting decisions, without undue interference from the state.

But Carlson doesn’t object to the state harassing people or exercising undue power. He delights in it, as long as the state is harassing the people he hates. The crueltyas my colleague Adam Serwer has said, is the point. This is the lodestar of the Trump and post-Trump GOP, which values owning the libs above allnot merely rhetorically, but with the fist of government. Thus Trump asserted that he had the authority to override state and local coronavirus shutdowns (before hastily backtracking when it became clear that he had no such power). He sought to involve the federal government in decisions of colleges and universities in order to muzzle speech. And he celebrated police violence, even as he moaned that he was the victim of overzealous law enforcement.

It is tempting to read incoherence in Trump’s arguments, or in Carlson’s: How can they both be against government mandating masks, on the basis of personal liberty, and also demand that the government prevent people from wearing them? In fact, the principle is straightforward enough. Small government for me, but not for thee.

 

What Trump’s refusal to wear a mask says about masculinity in America

From the president to stay-at-home protesters, a mask-less face has become a stand-in for manliness.

When reporter BrieAnna Frank showed up to a Honeywell plant last week in Arizona to cover President Donald Trump’s visit, she was sure to wear a mask.

Masks were the reason the president was there: The former aerospace plant in Phoenix has pivoted to producing them in recent months amid a nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE).

But the dozen or so people who had gathered outside the facility to cheer on the president were not there to support masks. They had their faces uncovered, Frank told Vox.

As she approached members of the crowd to interview them, the conversation quickly got heated. “They started to yell that me and the other journalists there were trying to incite fear and panic and paranoia” by wearing masks, said Frank, who works for the Arizona Republic.

One man in particular seemed to take issue with the male journalists wearing masks, she recalled. “It’s submission, it’s muzzling yourself, it looks weak,” he said, “especially for men.”

“I felt that it was a statement that people should know about,” said Frank, whose tweets about the encounter went viral. To the crowd in front of the factory, she said, “Masks clearly symbolized something beyond, ‘I am trying to protect my health.’”

They’re not alone. Trump himself declined to wear a mask while being photographed at the plant, though he claims he wore one “backstage.” Vice President Mike Pence was criticized for failing to wear a mask during a tour of the Mayo Clinic in April. And when armed protesters showed up at the Michigan statehouse on April 30 to protest stay-at-home orders amid the coronavirus pandemic, many were mask-free. One shouting, bare-faced man who was photographed at the rally later said he was “not at all” worried about the virus and would never wear a mask — “ever.”

Since the pandemic began, the issue of wearing masks has further exposed America’s racial and gender prejudices. Earlier on, wearing masks was associated with Asian countries and often dismissed because of racist assumptions about those countries. Then, as many cities began to require residents to wear masks, police began targeting black men for covering their faces, profiling them as criminals rather than as people trying to abide by health guidelines. And for a certain subset of mostly white, conservative men, not wearing a mask seems to have become a hallmark of manliness.

For unmasked protesters like the ones in Michigan, “There’s an assumption of a kind of invincibility that is tied to this idea of white masculinity,” Jonathan Metzl, a professor of sociology and psychiatry at Vanderbilt University and the author of Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland, told Vox.

It’s not just men — Frank noticed many women among the unmasked Trump supporters gathered at the Honeywell plant. And, of course, many men are happy to follow the recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to cover their faces in public. Still, a narrative has emerged on the right that wearing a mask is weak and refusing to wear one is somehow strong. And that narrative could put everyone at risk.

One thing about [being] macho is being fearless,” Melanye Price, a political science professor at Prairie View A&M University, told Vox. “But that fearlessness comes at a cost for every single person around you.”

The CDC recommends masks. Not everyone is listening.

Long before the pandemic hit, masks were common in East Asian countries, where they’re seen as a simple way to protect yourself (and others) from disease, as Refinery29’s Connie Wang wrote in March. Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus outbreak began, started requiring them in January. The US was much slower to recommend masks for the general public, but in early April — with confirmed coronavirus cases jumping by the day — the CDC recommended that everyone wear a cloth mask in certain public settings. Some cities, like New York and Los Angeles, began mandating the wearing of masks in certain settings as well.

Like much about the coronavirus, the impact of wearing masks on transmission isn’t entirely clear. But many experts believe that even cloth masks can offer some degree of protection for wearers — and perhaps greater protection for the people around them. The virus seems to spread “when germ-containing droplets make it into a person’s mouth, nose, or eyes,” as Vox’s German Lopez previously reported, and it’s true that “masks stop people from spreading their own droplets.” If everyone wears a mask — including those who are asymptomatic but may still be carrying the virus — it could help halt the spread of Covid-19.

Most Americans appear to be on board with the CDC’s recommendation. In a Morning Consult poll (conducted from April 7 to 9), 72 percent of respondents said they planned to start wearing a face mask in public places over the next two weeks.

Others, however, have chafed at the CDC’s advice. As people around the country protest their state’s shelter-in-place orders, many have appeared in public without masks. One example is the protesters in Michigan, which has become a hotbed of resistance to social distancing restrictions — a defiance Trump has encouraged via his tweets about “liberating” Michigan and other states. And on April 30, hundreds of protesters gathered at the state capitol in Lansing, some of them armed and many of them eschewing masks and standing close together in violation of social distancing guidelines, according to Reuters.

One of the mask-less protesters was Brian Cash, who was photographed shouting during the event. He later told the Detroit Free Press he believes the coronavirus was “intentionally released” by the Chinese government and that the state’s stay-at-home order is useless because people still go to grocery stores and pharmacies. “So what is the point of staying at home?” he asked.

The resistance to masks has also found support within the Trump administration. Pence, the head of the federal government’s coronavirus response, said he did not wear a mask while touring the Mayo Clinic in April because he is tested for Covid-19 regularly. (He later backpedaled and said he “should have” worn one.) But a mask-less Pence attended two events in Iowa on May 8, the same day his press secretary tested positive for the virusaccording to the Intercept. At one of those events, CEOs were reportedly asked to remove their masks before joining Pence onstage.

Trump, meanwhile, has consistently appeared in public without a mask. After he was photographed without one at the Honeywell plant in Arizona, he said he had worn one “backstage,” outside the view of cameras.

“But they said you didn’t need it, so, I didn’t need it,” he went on. “And by the way, if you noticed, nobody else had it on that was in the group.”

Aides tested positive for the virus days later, and staffers have since been asked to wear masks on White House grounds, according to the Washington Post. Trump, however, is still unlikely to wear a mask himself, aides say.

For Trump, not wearing a mask may be a way to project masculinity

The Trump administration’s behavior around masks has gendered overtones. For Trump and Pence, not wearing a mask may be a way to project a macho image, Metzl said, playing into “tropes of indestructibility.”

Appearing to play it safe contradicts a core principle of masculinity: show no weakness,” wrote social sciences professor Peter Glick at Scientific American. “Defying experts’ warnings about personal danger signals ‘I’m a tough guy, bring it on.’”

Trump’s messaging has also helped promote the idea that ignoring the risks of coronavirus is the tough or strong thing to do. Despite warnings from public health experts about the dangers of reopening the country too early, he said at the Honeywell plant that “the people of our country should think of themselves as warriorsbecause “our country has to open.”

Trump’s militaristic, tough-guy messaging around wearing face masks may be encouraging people to minimize the risk of contracting and spreading coronavirus.
 Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Such militaristic, tough-guy messaging, along with Trump’s refusal to wear a mask, may encourage ordinary people — especially men — to minimize the risk of coronavirus for the sake of appearing manly.

While the refusal to wear masks isn’t an exclusively male phenomenon — a Michigan woman was arrested last month after police said she attacked a grocery store employee who told her to leave because she wasn’t wearing a mask — there is some evidence that men may view mask recommendations with more skepticism than women. In the April Morning Consult poll, 76 percent of women said they planned to wear a face mask in public over the next two weeks, compared with 67 percent of men.

Though Trump’s narrative around the virus may be reinforcing gender stereotypes, the issue of masks is revealing Americans’ racial biases as well. While white men have been able to appear in public without masks — and with guns — as part of a protest, black men have been targeted by police, both for wearing and for not wearing masks. In Philadelphia, officers were caught on video forcibly removing a black man from a bus for not covering his face, just one day after the city began requiring it, Fabiola Cineas reported for Vox in April. And a police officer in Miami handcuffed and arrested Armen Henderson, a black doctor who tests homeless people for Covid-19, as he loaded equipment into a van in front of his home — while wearing a mask.

Black Americans often have to engage in “social signaling” to make white people feel comfortable in public spaces, said Price, the political science professor. “You say good morning first, you smile first,” she said. “None of that can be done with masks.”

White people often already perceive black people as dangerous or not belonging in public places, Price said. “But a black body with a mask is something that somehow expresses even more danger.”

Meanwhile, for white protesters like those in Michigan, not wearing a mask may signal a kind of immunity from danger — or at least a perceived immunity. As white Americans, they’re unlikely to encounter the same kind of police brutality that black people face when they engage in protest. “Imagine 10 black men and rifles walking up to any state capitol in the United States,” Price said. “They would be shot before they ever made it up the steps.”

But congregating in crowds without masks is also a statement of perceived immunity from the virus, Metzl said. The unmasked protesters seemed to be sending the message that “nothing’s going to happen to me because of my whiteness,” he explained. “If you thought you were really going to get the coronavirus, you wouldn’t act like that.”

The fact that black and Latinx Americans in many communities are disproportionately likely to become infected and die of Covid-19 may be influencing such attitudes. “I think for a lot of the country, people feel like this is something that’s happening to someone else,” Metzl said.

But people who refuse to wear masks may be putting others, not just themselves, at risk

Obviously, the feeling of invincibility that leads protesters to avoid masks could backfire if they get sick. Pence and Trump may also find themselves rethinking their stance in the coming days since White House officials tested positive — Pence himself is reportedly keeping his distance from Trump and other staffers to avoid potentially exposing them.

But the especially disturbing thing about refusing to wear a mask is that, while it may seem like an expression of toughness, it actually increases the risk to others more than yourself, Metzl said. While some may feel that not wearing a mask expresses their own invincibility, “You could also think about this in terms of all the other people you’re putting at risk by not wearing a mask,” he added — your family, friends, colleagues, the rest of society. The failure to wear one is “symbolic of a kind of loss of a bigger common sense of responsibility to each other.”

People protest Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order outside the capitol building in Olympia, Washington, on May 9, 2020.
 Jason Redmond/AFP via Getty Images

Remedying that loss is not going to be as simple as sending the message that “tough guys wear masks,” Metzl said. (Washington Post humor columnist Alexandra Petri has suggested a tagline for a potential “Masks For Him” line of accessories: “We put the ‘mask’ in ‘toxic maskulinity.’”) Rather, the country has to look at what the current mask debate says about racism and other prejudices. “What we need is a much more concerted effort to address the bigger issues that are represented by masks,” Metzl said.

For the Arizona Republic’s Frank, the confrontation over masks outside the Honeywell plant is part of a wider narrative around the virus. She recalled another incident in which a female reporter was accosted, this time by a woman, for wearing a mask. “I do think that what happened to all of us out there in the field on Tuesday is indicative of a larger issue” with how masks are viewed in the US, Frank said.

But for her, wearing a mask is about one thing: public health. Frank lives with her mother, a nurse who treats Covid-19 patients. “I try to be really careful,” she told the people gathered outside the plant. “I try to protect myself and those around me.”

The Texas attorney general moves to limit mail-in voting.

The Texas attorney general on Wednesday told the state’s Supreme Court that voters who fear getting infected with the coronavirus do not qualify as disabled and therefore cannot vote by mail-in ballot.

In the state’s latest voting-rights dispute, the attorney general, Ken Paxton, a Republican, asked the court to order election officials in five Democratic-led counties to follow state law on mail-in ballots. Mr. Paxton argued that Texas law requires in-person voting.

The state’s election code “does not permit an otherwise healthy person to vote by mail merely because going to the polls carries some risk to public health,” read Mr. Paxton’s filing, which was directed at elections officials in the counties containing Dallas, Houston, Austin, El Paso and the border city of Brownsville.

California’s governor announced last week that mail-in ballots would be sent to all voters in November.

Mr. Paxton’s move outraged Democrats and civil rights groups in Texas, who said it was part of a long line of actions by Republicans to make it harder for minority and low-income voters, who tend to vote Democratic, to cast ballots.

“Expanding vote-by-mail is a no-brainer and many states across the country, both red and blue, have taken this necessary step to protect their voters,” Ed Espinoza, executive director of Progress Texas, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, it appears the priorities of conservative state leaders are clear: Suppress the vote at all costs, even if it puts lives at risk.”

Mr. Paxton’s filing came as the state faces several lawsuits over its mail-in ballot rules, and as he has heightened tensions with three of the state’s largest Democratic-led cities. Earlier, Mr. Paxton warned officials in Austin, Dallas and San Antonio that their local mask-wearing requirements and other restrictions — all more strict than Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive orders — were unlawful.

When Mr. Abbott ended his stay-at-home order this month and set the stage for the state’s partial reopening, he angered many local officials by contending that his reopening policies superseded any conflicting orders issued by cities or counties.

Mr. Paxton issued letters to leaders in Austin, Dallas and San Antonio and threatened legal action over several local restrictions, including extensions of stay-at-home orders, protocols for houses of worship and requirements for face masks.