MENOMONIE, Wis. — As he loaded two of the largest Trump signs he could find into the bed of his pickup truck this weekend, George Post, 69, was sure of three things.
The president, who is hospitalized with COVID-19, will be fine, he said. The explosion of virus cases in Wisconsin, which claimed its first victim here in Dunn County just last week, is nothing to worry about. And wearing a mask is certainly not a solution to either of those nonproblems.
“It’s proven that masks don’t do nothing,” Post, a Republican, said, looking pointedly at a reporter. “Your mask isn’t doing nothing.”
President Trump’s diagnosis may have upended his reelection campaign and thrown a massive wrench into the workings of the executive branch, but it is less clear whether it will do anything to dislodge the distrust and dismissiveness he has fueled, particularly among Republicans, about the seriousness of the pandemic and the public health interventions seen as necessary to contain it.
As Democrats pointed to Trump’s condition as evidence that his government needs to get more serious about managing the pandemic, his supporters have gathered in tight crowds to wish him well, mostly eschewing the face coverings he has mocked for months. His campaign has held at least one event indoors as part of a bus tour in Iowa. And on Sunday, one of Trump’s top advisors was back on television accusing Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden of using a mask as a prop.
“Americans, George, they want to get life back to normal,” Jason Miller told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, describing something that is unlikely to happen while the president is in the hospital. “That is the driving thing.”
Trump’s nine-month campaign to downplay the virus and dismiss interventions like masks has powerfully shaped his party’s orthodoxy and the opinions — and behavior — of elected officials and regular voters alike. The fact of his diagnosis may not change anybody’s mind as much as a shift in his tone would.
“What Trump says and does is going to matter a lot,” said John Lapinski, director of the Penn Program on Opinion Research and Election Studies.
Trump almost always appeared in public and in small groups of aides without wearing a mask and in recent weeks has taken to holding outdoor rallies that convene thousands of supporters and events at the White House, like the Sept. 26 ceremony announcing the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett where the virus is suspected to have spread.
“It was seen as an act of defiance, of ‘You’re not going to tell us what to do,’ ” said Doug Heye, a consultant who previously worked for former GOP representative Eric Cantor and the Republican National Committee.
In Menomonie, population 16,000, a college town in a county that backed Trump by 11 percentage points 2016, that spirit of defiance was alive and well in some circles this weekend, unbowed by Trump’s diagnosis and untrammeled by the fact that the county has recently turned bright red on maps tracking the state’s coronavirus counts.
At a bar called The Den, where people played pool and put Queen on the jukebox, there was nary a mask to be seen on the patrons or staff — even though a bartender there tested positive just last month.
Vicky Green, a retired para educator who turns 63 on Monday and is planning to vote for Trump, said his defiance of public health guidelines had no bearing on his contracting the virus.
“If he believes he doesn’t need a mask, good for him,” she declared, and said there was almost something to admire about him now. “I’m more impressed that the president stood up for personal choice.”
Kristina Larson, 33, a bartender at The Den, did not cite politics in explaining her reservation about masks — but she did reference a baseless and dangerous conspiracy theory she saw on Facebook. “Masks are making it easier to not recognize children, or to not recognize people who are taking children,” she said.
Austin Anderson, 22, who works at a factory loading trucks, said there was little Trump could have done to avoid the virus.
“I think everyone gets it,” Anderson said, adding that he is opposed to the statewide mask mandate put in place by Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, in July.
The state’s top Republicans agree with him. Even though case counts in Wisconsin have spiked in the past month, on Friday they filed a brief in support of a lawsuit that would block the state’s mask mandate.
It was the latest example of how, even though the virus has spread to the highest echelons of their party, affecting the president, his campaign manager, and the national chairwoman, Republicans in multiple states including battleground Wisconsin are still moving forward with efforts to resist or roll back public health efforts like mask mandates and other emergency restrictions. It’s a trend that has frustrated public health experts who are alarmed by rising caseloads in certain parts of the country.
“We are where we are with COVID in the US partly because we can’t get past the partisan politics,” said Jonathan Oberlander, professor and chair of social medicine at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
In Mississippi, Governor Tate Reeves, a Republican, on Wednesday made his state the first to lift its mask mandate as its caseload dropped, even though widespread use of masks is likely part of what brought it down. In Michigan, the US Department of Justice on Friday cheered a state Supreme Court ruling curbing Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency powers.
And in Iowa, Republican Governor Kim Reynolds has long ignored the pressure to institute a statewide mask mandate, even though cases there have been climbing since September.
Some Republicans tried a different message Sunday. Speaking on CNN, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, who has won bipartisan praise for moving swiftly to slow the spread of the virus in his state, posited hopefully that the president’s diagnosis could be a turning point for the country’s handling of the virus.
“People who may have not have worn masks in the past, I hope they’ll look at this and see — the president can get it, I can get it,” he said.
The idea of a rollback of Wisconsin’s mask mandate was deeply alarming to Carol Gassert, 67, a retired social worker, who was volunteering in the Dunn County Democrats office. She and the other volunteer, Ria Haas, 53, were both wearing masks — a stark contrast with the Republican office around the corner, which at one point contained seven people without them.
“It took forever for stores around here to make people wear masks, forever,” said Gassert. “The foolishness!”