A popular online meme urges you to “Wear a mask, save the day,” and quotes a masked Superman telling a mask-over-masked Batman: “It’s all about good example, Bruce.” Contemplating the recent US elections amid the COVID-19 pandemic, I posit that if Donald Trump had modeled the use of a mask, he would probably have saved his presidency.
Less than a year ago, Trump was a heavy favorite to win re-election. The economy was strong and the stock market stellar. As the incumbent Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful armed forces in the world, he controlled the vast American bureaucracy with its near-unlimited resources. He had amassed a substantial campaign war chest. At that point, Trump could have leapt, maybe flown, to a second term.
And then the COVID-19 pandemic reached American shores. Instead of rallying the American people to take the virus seriously, an insouciant Trump assured the country: “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.”
Well, it did not.
In May 2020, Trump told allies that wearing a mask would “send the wrong message” and make him look “ridiculous.” On September 3, 2020, Trump mocked Joe Biden, saying I don’t know “a man that likes a mask as much” as Biden. Trump added that “it gives him [Biden] a feeling of security. If I was a psychiatrist, I’d say this guy has some big issues.”
The number of US cases and deaths speaks volumes. The premiere nation in the planet has the most confirmed cases of any country in the world and with the most reported fatalities – approximately 20% of the world’s cases and deaths, even if it only has 4% of the global population.
Especially as the unabated spread of COVID-19 resulted in multifarious health and economic consequences, many viewed Trump’s COVID-19 response as the inept swipes of an unmasked non-hero.
Down but not out
So it was not surprising that he lagged behind in the run-up to the November 3, 2020 elections. Major US polling groups predicted that the Democrats would win back the White House, wrest control of the Senate, and expand their majority in the House of Representatives.
Yet the “blue wave” tanked. At that juncture, the control of the Senate did not materialize (but eventually did after the two Senate run-off elections in Georgia on January 5, 2021). Their edge in the House of Representatives shrank from 35 to 11.
So notwithstanding Trump’s flippancy about COVID-19 and his “I don’t see it for myself” attitude about mask-wearing, query if he was really repudiated in the polls?
Trump received close to 74.2 million votes, the second highest received by a candidate in US presidential history – next of course to Biden’s 81 million. Note as well that Trump received roughly 10-plus million votes more than his 2016 tally. Beaten, definitely, but not repudiated.
If Trump had regularly worn a mask, would he have been seen as listening to the experts and following science and sympathetic to the plight of the COVID-19 victims? Could wearing a mask have cast him as a superhero setting a good example, saving the day and, ultimately, his presidency?
Notwithstanding his loss, Trump loomed large among “the brave and the bold.” His Save America PAC raised a whopping $300 million for post-election purposes. He doubled down on his unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud and repeatedly asserted that the elections were stolen from him. His legal team filed 60+ cases, contesting the election results in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona, Michigan, and Wisconsin and lost all of them.
Yet a December 2020 Gallup Poll showed him as the most admired man in America, displacing Barack Obama. 71% of the Republican Party are still planning to vote for him if he ran again in 2024.
Then the events of January 6 happened. The violent rioting and desecration of the Capitol shocked the whole world. Images of the mayhem will forever ghost Trump’s already haunted legacy. Had he gracefully conceded the results of the election as tradition dictated, would he have maintained his political stature and salvaged a respectable legacy?
On December 19, 2020, Trump tweeted a “mobilization call,” inviting his supporters to join a big and wild protest at the Capitol on January 6, 2021.
During his 70-minute address at the January 6 rally, Trump vowed to “never concede” the elections, calling the outcome an “egregious assault on our democracy.” He agitated the tens of thousands in attendance to march to the US Capitol, promising to join them (he did not). Trump urged the multitudes to pressure Republican lawmakers to act “with the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.” He urged them to eschew weakness and take back the country with strength.
Stoking the fiery coals, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani called to the crowd to reverse the election results through “trial by combat.”
Insurrection is defined as a violent domestic uprising against any government authority. This is an archaic crime perpetrated by subjects against early 19th century colonizers or, in the case of the United States, by resistance groups against the young Federal Government.
Unthinkable that an insurrection is committed in these times, especially in the United States of America. These criminal actions not only tarnished the luster of the shining house of the American people on the hill, but the gold standard of American democracy as well.
Trump’s continuing campaign to subvert the election results unmasked the true state of American democracy. For sure, it exposed the undeniable existence of “two Americas.” The split runs deeper than partisan politics and relates to race, gender, social issues, and the economy. The racial divide has been showcased in the prominent rise of alt-right organizations which advocate white nationalism and proud western chauvinism. It has revealed itself in COVID-19 statistics numbering the African Americans and Latinos among the hardest hit, underscoring the fact that people of color with inadequate health care are the frontline workers in essential and service jobs. It was apparent in the disparity of treatment by law enforcement authorities between a Black Lives Matter protest and a white supremacist rally.
January 6 has also unmasked the frailties of American democracy. In this day and age of ubiquitous social media, has the First Amendment right to free speech without unwarranted government restriction become an instrument of political struggle? Has the right to a free press likewise been weaponized to divide the nation?
No doubt President-elect Biden faces gargantuan challenges. He will need to do more than just a cosmetic repair of the Capitol windows and glass doors. He has to return civility to American political discourse. He has to keep together the various factions of his coalition. He should be magnanimous to Republicans but not appear to be politically weak. He has to carefully balance his call for unity with the imperative need for accountability and upholding the rule of law. He needs to quickly stabilize the COVID-19 situation and nurse the US economy back to recovery. He will need to find a cure to the larger pandemic of racism and hate that currently permeates American society.
He will need to rethink and redefine how a democracy works in our technological age and restore America’s once-robust superhero image as the champion of freedom. After all, “It’s all about good example, Bruce.”
Andres D. Bautista was former chair of the Commission on Elections. He served as the dean of the FEU Institute of Law (1999-2013) and a professor of Constitutional Law at the Ateneo School of Law.