File this under irony, anarchy, insanity or all of the above: Retired Army Lt. Col. Allen West, an energetic tea-party Republican defeated after one term in Congress who left Florida for Texas to resurrect his political fortunes, this time as a defiant cultural warrior, on Memorial Day weekend motorcycled down Interstate 35 to the statehouse steps in Austin, there to fire up his campaign for Republican Party of Texas chairman at a Texas Freedom Rally alongside iconic hair salon owner Shelley Luther. His heaven-storming speech included everything from crowd-pleasing references to the revolutionaries at Bunker Hill and San Jacinto to attacks on public safety orders issued in our ongoing pandemic. He branded such measures tyrannical.
“All of this sacrifice, all of this service, all of this commitment to victory — let me tell you: Victory ain’t nobody telling you you got to wear a mask!” West charged. “And anyone telling you, a healthy person, that you have to stay in your house, that’s house arrest! That’s despotism! That’s tyranny! Victory is not anyone telling a business owner in the great state of Texas, which is built upon a rugged, indomitable entrepreneural spirit, that they can’t open up their own business! Victory is not using taxpayer money, $295 million, for a 27-month contract to have people come out here and trace us!”
Part of West’s speech echoes a column he posted on his campaign website days earlier blasting Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s tapping a North Texas technology firm to track down people possibly exposed to the virus: “Governor Abbott, this is completely wrong, and a violation of everything Texas, and America, stands for. Going into Memorial Day, this is not what many made the ultimate sacrifice to protect and defend: the Constitution of the United States of America…individual rights, freedom and liberty. I recommend that you rescind this insidious, dangerous and absurd concept of using $295 million of Texas taxpayer dollars to hire a 4,000-member Texas Stasi.”
At another point in this column, West noted: “My health is my responsibility, and if I get sick, I will take the necessary precautions. I will not succumb to health kommissars lurking about, tracing me or any other f[r]ee individual in order to put us on a list. To this date, I have not worn a mask, but I have awakened every day to complete my exercise routine, take my vitamins and medications, and eat well — OK, I do have a burger every other week.”
On the way back up I-35 to Dallas, West became involved in an accident, taking a nasty spill and winding up at Baylor Scott & White’s Waco hospital. Happily, medical staffers there, some wearing masks, had been spared crushing waves of COVID-19 patients, something medical leadership credits to community leaders pressing residents to engage in physical distancing, sheltering in place and, yes, wearing masks. All this included temporarily shuttering businesses to battle viral spread, a responsibility eventually assumed by Gov. Abbott. Local and state efforts have included increased testing and contact tracing.
West was likely unaware that in the last three weeks no more than two COVID-19 patients have wound up in a local hospital at any one time, that only one has required intensive care during this period and that many days no COVID-19 patients were in the hospital. In an interview with “The Brian Kilmeade Show,” West choked up over the well wishes tweeted his way by President Trump; expressed gratitude to the Baylor Scott & White hospital staff for tending to his fractured bones and bruises; and joked about begging emergency medical technicians scraping him off I-35 not to classify him as a COVID-19 victim.
Irony? Sure, in the context of what’s been going on in McLennan County and across Texas. Anarchy? Definitely if you look at ruptures not only within the Republican Party but at the White House where the president is often at odds with his administration’s advisories to mitigate spread of SARs-CoV-2. Nowhere has the schism been more evident than between recommendations from local leaders, Gov. Abbott and the White House that people wear masks or face coverings in most settings — not necessarily to protect the wearer but to safeguard others from SARS-CoV-2 droplets one might expel in conversation, coughing or sneezing — and provocative rhetoric from the Republican Party’s rabble-rousing right-wing loons crying constitutional foul.
One need look no further than the White House. During a press conference Tuesday when the president apparently failed to hear a question from a mask-wearing reporter, he asked the reporter to remove his mask. When the reporter politely said he’d just repeat the question, the president cavalierly remarked: “OK, because you want to be politically correct.”
The remark raises relevant questions, including why this self-envisioned “wartime president” would insult or humiliate a reporter obeying Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations the president himself has endorsed. Or has the president even read the CDC recommendations? Perhaps the reporter was trying to abide by CDC guidelines to protect not only the health of fellow reporters but also the president of the United States. Perhaps the reporter understood better than the president the CDC’s reasoning, including mounting evidence that anywhere from 25 percent to 80 percent of people with COVID-19 are unaware they even have the virus, itself far more contagious than the flu.
If this ain’t anarchy with national consequences for the reopening of American commerce, it’ll do till the anarchy gets here.
Furor sparked by everyone from West to Trump has some Republican governors in knots. Abbott, Texas’ most popular Republican, had to eat one of his own executive orders a few weeks ago to appease party members rallying to the cause of Dallas hair salon owner Shelley Luther, briefly jailed for not only ignoring public safety orders to temporarily shutter her business but verbally defying them. The governor’s office — quite possibly to regain control of the situation — enlisted country crooner George Strait for a public service announcement: “So write this down, take a little note to remind you of these friendly things you can do to help defeat COVID-19. Wash your hands regularly, wear a face mask and stay six feet apart from others in public. Let’s show the world what it means to be Texan by staying safe and staying healthy.”
Mask marks the man
Waco City Councilman Hector Sabido, who has spent much time trying to ensure local communities of color don’t suffer the disproportionate infection rates seen elsewhere, discovered the political realities after innocently posting this quote on Facebook: “When you wear a mask, you are saying I respect my neighbors. When you wear a mask, you are saying I respect doctors and nurses. When you wear a mask, you are saying I respect other people.”
It probably didn’t help that this quote came from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat and in some ways Trump’s alter ego. Someone posted on Sabido’s Facebook page: “I completely disagree. I care about people and value everyone. But I cannot and will not assume responsibility for others. The notion is kind (I get it) ... But entirely unrealistic. If I am a healthy person, I am not living with a mask on... Not unless it becomes law. Why don’t we just all stop having Faith and live life all paranoid... NO. Have some Faith that God is in control.” Another claimed that the famously inoffensive Sabido was “shaming/targeting well-educated and informed individuals who are making the decision to not wear a mask in the same turn.”
In a letter to the Trib, Jay McMillen noted how people wearing and not wearing masks at the local grocery store seem to increasingly fall into ideological camps about the sanctity of life: “To those who may believe that wearing a mask is a matter of personal choice: I really don’t care what you think about yourself and whether you wear a mask for self-protection. I really do care, however, what you think about me and others. I was surprised to feel a distinct resentment at the obvious selfishness on public display. There seems to be no other description. Those of you who choose not to wear a mask announce, quite loudly, to the rest of us: ATTENTION! AISLE 7! SELFISH! LEAVING AN UNAVOIDABLE TRAIL OF AEROSOLS! BREATHE AT YOUR OWN RISK!”
Science is apolitical...
The uproar may make good politics for some but not good medicine.
“I think we have a choice to make as a community,” Dr. Jackson Griggs, Waco Family Health Center CEO and spokesman for Waco’s medical community, said when asked about the furor over masks last week. “Do we let our individual political alliances divide us or does our community value a sort of unified, loving kindness more than it values donkeys and elephants? As a physician, I don’t care which side is saying what about masks: Science and epidemiology is by nature apolitical. It doesn’t take sides. And of course the virus doesn’t care how you vote. It just wants to infect more cells, more people. Along the same lines, our health behaviors are emblematic of how informed we are on public health and how much we care about our neighbors, not emblematic of how we vote. And in this moment when community stakes are high, we cannot be duped by propaganda from either political side. Wearing a mask and physical distancing is about keeping your mother and my mother out of the hospital and off a ventilator, and that’s what matters.”
... but the season is political
Of course, there are other ways of looking at this. Dr. Griggs wonders aloud if the turmoil is parallel to Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ famous five stages of grief: “If that’s right, I think we’re in the anger/resentment/indignation stage right now. I think we all feel this sense of wanting to kind of shake our fist at this thing. I think it’s important to remember that we didn’t choose to walk this tightrope between economic thriving and protecting the elderly and those who have health vulnerabilities and those who are compromised.” And when during a press briefing on pandemic developments last week Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver and McLennan County Judge Scott Felton were asked what they had done to ensure their public safety orders were constitutional, given that even a local political candidate has raised the question of lost freedoms, the judge — a Trump Republican who nonetheless has strongly stressed public safety measures (including masks) — didn’t mince words: “Unfortunately, during political season, people who aren’t well-known want to be well-known by saying something that is stupid.”
Deaver and Felton stressed their consultations with attorneys and others. Felton added: “My approach on this is more to try to go out and educate folks rather than take a heavy hand, but we will see how that goes.”
And the insane part? President Trump’s re-election chances improve dramatically if he can revive a devastated U.S. economy, get people back to work, get consumers buying again and get investors reinvesting. Much of this is possible only if workers feel safe in their jobs and don’t sicken and consumers feel safe and confident entering restaurants, stores, barbershops and shopping malls rather than skittish and skeptical. If the president and his enablers undermine public safety by taunting as “politically correct” even those simply wearing masks and a second surge of COVID-19 develops that dwarfs the first, now credited with more than 100,000 U.S. dead, Trump will have conspired with himself in not only his undoing but the nation’s.