Nancy Allen, 73, wears a face mask in the chicken coop at her farm but not when she goes to church. “There’s been so much change in what we should do and what we should not do,” explains the Donald Trump supporter from Shelby, North Carolina. “I don’t think that I should be told that I have to wear a mask and I don’t think the president should, unless he feels like he needs it.”
Neera Tanden, 49, became infected with the coronavirus in May, suffering fatigue and muscle pain and sleeping long hours. Her Twitter handle is now “Neera -Wear a Mask -Tanden”. The president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal thinktank in Washington, says of Trump: “His position of politicising mask use is barbaric and it is ensuring that more people will get sick and more people will die.
“The idea that we have a president whose policies and attitude and statements could end up killing people instead of saving their lives is frankly insane. It’s beyond comprehension how reprehensible it is.”
Only in America, or perhaps only in an America where Trump is president, could the wearing of face masks – an effective measure to stop the spread of the virus – become a political statement, the latest battlefield in the country’s seemingly never-ending culture wars.
The commander-in-chief has been caught on camera wearing a mask once – in May behind the scenes on a factory tour – but refuses to don one in public and has criticised his election opponent, Joe Biden, and “politically correct” reporters for doing so.
When the president held “Make America Great Again” (Maga) campaign events in Oklahoma and Arizona last month, face coverings were few and far between. At Black Lives Matter protests across the country, by contrast, they were ubiquitous.
To wear or not to wear has been fought in bars, cafes and supermarkets. Online videos show mask-free customers throwing items from their trolleys after being told to leave.
A Starbucks barista in San Diego who was publicly shamed by a customer after asking her to wear a mask has received more than $100,000 in virtual tips after a Facebook post that attacked him went viral.
But never was the struggle more evident than at a meeting of the Palm Beach county commissioners in Florida. Speaker after speaker railed against mandatory masks, drawing comparisons with Nazi Germany and pushing conspiracy theories linking the virus to Hillary Clinton, Bill Gates, 5G mobile networks and paedophiles. One declared: “This is not Cuba, we are not in a communist nation.” Another said: “I don’t wear a mask for the same reason I don’t wear underwear: things gotta breathe.”
Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist, told the Washington Post: “Mask-wearing has become a totem, a secular religious symbol. Christians wear crosses, Muslims wear a hijab, and members of the Church of Secular Science bow to the Gods of Data by wearing a mask as their symbol, demonstrating that they are the elite; smarter, more rational, and morally superior to everyone else.”
But the divide no longer breaks along the usual partisan lines. An ABC News-Ipsos poll last week found that 89% of adults who left home in the previous week said they wore a mask, a jump from 55% in early April. And as the virus now ravages Republican-leaning, so-called red, states, even Trump’s allies in the Republican party have bowed to reality.
The Texas governor, Greg Abbott, who a month ago banned local governments from fining people not wearing masks in public, performed an about-face on Thursday by requiring all Texans to wear a face covering in public in counties with 20 or more positive coronavirus cases.
Vice-President Mike Pence, who two months ago earned scorn by eschewing a mask while touring the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, is now on board and sporting one. Mitch McConnell, Trump’s chief enforcer in the Senate, brandished a Washington Nationals baseball-branded mask (just like the federal public health expert Anthony Fauci, who has long been urging mask-wearing) and declared: “We must have no stigma, none, about wearing masks when we leave our homes and come near other people.”
The Republican congresswoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming tweeted a photo of her father, the former vice-president, wearing a disposable mask and a cowboy hat along with the message: “Dick Cheney says WEAR A MASK #realmenwearmasks.”
And Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate health, education, labour and pensions committee, delivered a heartfelt plea: “Unfortunately this simple lifesaving practice has become part of a political debate that says: if you’re for Trump, you don’t wear a mask; if you’re against Trump, you do.
“That is why I have suggested the president should occasionally wear a mask even though there are not many occasions when it is necessary for him to do so. The president has millions of admirers. They would follow his lead. It would help end this political debate. The stakes are too high for it to continue.”
On Wednesday there were signs that even Trump had got the message. “I’m all for masks. I think masks are good,” he told the Fox Business channel. “People have seen me wearing one. If I were in a tight situation with people, I would absolutely.”
Recalling a rare occasion when he did wear a mask, Trump reached for a characteristically antiquated cultural reference: “It looked like the Lone Ranger. I have no problem with that, and if people feel good about it, they should do it.”
Related: How Trump and his public health officials diverge on Covid-19
In two public appearances at the White House on Thursday, however, the president remained mask-less. Allies note that he is regularly tested for the coronavirus, as are his aides. His press secretary called him “the most tested man in America”. But his aversion to face coverings remains a riddle.
Tanden, a prominent supporter of Clinton in 2016 against Trump, speculated: “I think maybe they thought this was a virus that only hit blue [Democrat leaning] states so they didn’t really care, or it’s machismo, or maybe his makeup will wear off if he wears a mask.
“I don’t know what the actual answer is as to why he doesn’t wear a mask but the effect of it is that he is consigning his voters to sickness. The spikes are now in Arizona and Texas and Florida and California, and a lot of California is because of Arizona.”
France’s Emmanuel Macron and Canada’s Justin Trudeau are among world leaders who have set an example by wearing masks in public. Tanden added: “All the leaders of Europe are wearing masks. In Asia, they’re wearing masks. It’s just him and [Brazilian president Jair] Bolsonaro. It’s anti-science and anti-knowledge. The problem with a pandemic is refuting the science and refuting the evidence and refuting facts means people die.”
A recent survey of 2,459 people in the US found that men are less likely to wear face masks because they believe it is “shameful”, “a sign of weakness” and “not cool”. Critics accuse Trump of a toxic masculinity that holds masks are for wimps. He has switched his coronation as Republican presidential nominee next month to Jacksonville, Florida, so that a big and boisterous gathering can take place, after the original location, North Carolina, refused to promise to relax social-distancing guidelines. But Jacksonville this week announced a mask requirement for indoor public spaces.
At least 14 states have mask mandates, the National Governors Association says. And a Goldman Sachs report found that a national mask mandate could increase the number of wearers by 15 percentage points, shielding the economy from a 5% reduction in GDP. Biden has said he would pursue a federal mask mandate if elected he wins the White House in November. “Wear a mask,” the Democratic candidate tweeted on Thursday, with a video of him doing just that.
But underlying the resistance are enduring American notions of civil liberties and freedom from government interference, typified by Trump’s hardline backing of the constitutional second amendment that protects the right to bear arms. There are also echoes of the anti-vaccination movement.
Some observers have likened the required cultural shift to car seat belts, which eventually required legal enforcement. Patton Oswalt, an actor and comedian, tweeted: “When seat belts were first introduced in 1968, there were idiots who insisted they ‘infringed on their freedoms’ and would physically cut them out of their cars. We make fun of those people now. Can you guess who we’ll be making fun of in 2072?”
Fireworks displays on 4 July, celebrating America’s independence from the British empire, will be the next major test.
Related: Fourth of July celebrations increase risk of ‘superspreader’ events, experts warn
Bill Whalen, a fellow at the Hoover Institution think tank at Stanford University, mused: “I’m not sure if we’re going to be at the point where people are going to dump masks into the habour like cases of tea, but we will see.
“The right really has problems with the mask but, on the other hand, you would think an entrepreneurial person like Donald Trump would come up with a Maga mask.”