(CNN) The simple act of wearing a mask to protect others during a pandemic is now a political and cultural flashpoint, underscoring the polarization afflicting every corner of American life.
President Donald Trump's use of the bully pulpit to defy his own government's advice on face coverings has turned into the era's latest ideologically motivated assault on science and civility. His noncompliance is a symbol of his refusal to adopt the customary codes of the presidency during a crisis and his habit of turning even a dire national moment to political advantage.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert and a member of the White House coronavirus task force, stood firm in his recommendation that people wear masks, telling CNN's Jim Scuitto Wednesday morning he wears a mask "for people to see that's the kind of thing you should be doing."
The episode is unfolding at a particularly intense moment of the President's cycle of distortion and distraction; in a first on Tuesday, Twitter appended a fact-check warning to one of his tweets.
Trump and his White House are mocking presumptive Democratic 2020 rival Joe Biden for wearing a mask in public as conservative commentators brand the practice as elite liberal fear-mongering. Biden, in his first in-person interview since the stay-at-home orders, lashed back at Trump in reply, telling CNN's Dana Bash that the President's "macho" and "falsely masculine" behavior was "stoking deaths" in comments that will only deepen national estrangement on the issue.
"He's a fool, an absolute fool to talk that way. I mean every leading doc in the world is saying you should wear a mask when you're in a crowd," Biden said.
"And especially when you know you're going to be in a position where you're going to inadvertently get closer than 12 feet to somebody."
The former vice president drove home his point by posting a profile picture to Twitter in which he stares, gunslinger-style, at the camera in a black mask and aviator shades.
A political storm over a piece of cloth appears even more trivial since it comes at a moment when the United States, after one of the world's most mismanaged coronavirus responses, is on the cusp of passing the threshold of 100,000 deaths with the pandemic worsening in 17 states.
The showdown reflects how basic preventative warnings during the crisis have become politicized, a worst-case scenario that hampers the effectiveness of any public health effort. It is unfolding as many states that do not meet the White House's already lax guidelines for a safe reopening push ahead, raising fears among health experts of a resurgence of the virus. In such circumstances a mask may be a partial, and last, line of defense against infections in the workplace.
The President's mask etiquette will be watched closely Wednesday, when he's due to fly to Florida, where he is expected to meet his family to watch astronauts blast off from US soil for the first time in nine years. NASA has asked regular Americans not to show up, fearing that crowds that normally throng to rocket launches could seed coronavirus hot spots.
Masks did not need to be a partisan issue. Many Republican governors who strongly support Trump in most areas are beseeching their fellow citizens to wear masks as they try to balance reopening with a desire to avoid a spike in Covid-19 cases.
The mask controversy started percolating last month, when Vice President Mike Pence visited a hospital in Minnesota and declined to wear a mask. His conduct was interpreted by critics as an attempt to avoid getting crossways with the President.
The use of masks has become a rare point of contention between some Republicans and their President, though officeholders have been careful to stress the government should not order people to wear them.
North Dakota Republican Gov. Doug Burgum issued an emotional plea for citizens to consider the health of others and to spurn a "senseless dividing line."
"If someone is wearing a mask, they're not doing it to represent what political party they're in or what candidates they support. They might be doing it because they've got a five-year-old child who's been going through cancer treatments. They might have vulnerable adults in their life, who currently have Covid and they're fighting," Burgum said Friday
New Hampshire Republican Gov. Christopher Sununu said Tuesday that the fuss over masks was "silly."
"It's not about who is doing it and why, but it is about does it make folks healthier? We encourage folks to wear them, absolutely."
Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, another strong Trump supporter, has advised people in his state to wear masks, though he does not do so himself at news conferences.
The battle over masks may inject another heated note into Virginia politics. Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam said Tuesday that anyone within a public indoor space or who is on public transport in the state would be required to wear a mask.
But he also had to apologize after he had been photographed in public barefaced over the weekend. "I was not prepared because my mask was in the car. I take full responsibility for that," he said.
The conservative media machine has now adopted the cause following the failure of one of its previous promotions, hydroxychloroquine, to emerge as a safe Covid-19 therapy.
US experts were initially skeptical of the use of masks to combat the virus but later concluded they could be useful in stopping asymptomatic infected people from passing it on.
Talk show titan Rush Limbaugh on Tuesday warned that masks have become a "required symbol on the left to promote fear, to promote indecision, to promote the notion that we're nowhere near out of this."
For propagandists, masks have become the latest weapon deployed by elitists who previously pushed shutdowns and even the science of epidemiology itself as a way to undermine basic freedoms.
Pictures of Trump standing proudly barefaced among mask-wearing establishment scientists in Washington have become an emblem of the President's insurgent and disruptive bravado.
Millions of Americans -- of all political stripes -- have adopted the uncomfortable practice as an act of compassion for their fellow citizens. But there have been some violent incidents among dissenters, and one beachgoer told CNN this weekend he would not wear a mask if Trump didn't see fit to don one.
In a Quinnipiac University poll last week, 64% of Americans said everyone should be required to wear masks in public. But while 90% of Democrats said Trump should mask up, only 38% of Republicans agreed.
Trump apparently believes that wearing a mask in public will undercut his message that it's now safe to reopen the economy that is vital to his reelection. His retweet on Monday of a picture originally tweeted by Fox News veteran Brit Hume of Biden in a mask suggests that there may be a measure of personal vanity involved for the President.
Trump said he had worn a mask while touring a car plant in Michigan last week but didn't want to give the press "the pleasure" of doing so before the cameras.
On Tuesday he denied that he was mocking Biden.
"I thought that was fine. I wasn't criticizing him at all. Why would I ever do a thing like that?" Trump said, contradicting his own retweet.
Earlier, in remarks that stretched logic and credulity, Trump's spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany suggested Biden was the hypocrite for wearing a mask in public during an outdoor Memorial Day observance because he didn't when he was isolated at home.
"The President is excited to see that Joe emerged from the basement. It is a bit peculiar though that, in his basement, right next to his wife, he's not wearing a mask, but he's wearing one outdoors when he's socially distanced," she said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends "wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission." It has not recommended Americans wear masks in their homes.
Former acting CDC director Dr. Richard Besser said Tuesday night on CNN's "AC360" that taking action to protect public health shouldn't be political and that he's been encouraged to see governors from both parties give the public good direction on handling the pandemic, including wearing masks.
"Do it to protect others. That's a good thing to do. That's an American thing to do," Besser added. "That's what we do to protect the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions. It should make you feel good that you're doing this for the others in your community."
Trump has a more plausible reason than most for not wearing a mask, since everyone who comes in contact with him is tested for coronavirus regularly. Still, he could be considered at elevated risk for passing on the disease since the virus reached the West Wing in recent weeks.
But making that point would underscore the reality that many Americans lack the comprehensive testing and tracing facilities that experts say are vital to containing the pandemic.