Coronavirus: how face masks became a political symbol in the US

Poll finds that 65% of Democrats wear face coverings compared with 35% of Republicans

Face mask protest
Poll finds that 65% of Democrats wear face coverings compared with 35% of Republicans
(Image credit: Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

Donald Trump has insisted that he would have “no problem” wearing a face mask in public - a dramatic U-turn from his previous refusal to be photographed in the PPE essential despite the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m all for masks. I think masks are good,” the US president told the Fox Business Network during an interview on Wednesday. “Actually, I had a mask on and I sort of liked the way I looked,” he said.

The statement marks a departure from his previous pronouncements on face coverings. At a news conference in late May, Trump criticised a Reuters journalist for wearing a mask and accused the reporter of wanting to be “politically correct”.

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How did masks become a political symbol in the US?

Mask-wearing laws in the US vary by state and city, but critics of the practice are to be found all over the country.

Protesters have marched on the Texas State Capitol in Austin chanting slogans about “medical tyranny”, while lawsuits filed in Florida courts have argued that mask laws violate people’s constitutional rights.

Resistance to mask-wearing in the US is largely a conservative position, however.

An Axios-Ipsos poll published last week found that 65% of Democrats wore masks, compared with 35% of Republicans.

The president and other high-profile politicians have “become examples of the divide”, says Business Insider. Trump and his vice president, Mike Pence, have refused to wear masks in public on several occasions.

Trump has also mocked Joe Biden for wearing a mask, with the Democratic presidential nominee in turn labelling the president a “fool” for his “falsely masculine” behaviour.

State authorities are generally split along partisan lines over the issue as well.

Many governors in southern, conservative states have shied away from issuing statewide mandates on wearing masks in public.

“We want to make sure that individual liberty is not infringed upon by government, and hence government cannot require individuals to wear a mask,” Greg Abbott, the Republican governor of Texas, said last month.

Democratic governors, meanwhile, are tending to mandate, or at least issue advice supporting, the wearing of masks in public.

California’s Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom made mask-wearing in public mandatory across the state on 18 June, saying that “science shows that face coverings and masks work. They are critical to keeping those who are around you safe, keeping businesses open and restarting our economy.”

The situation in the US now is similar to what happened during the outbreak of the Spanish flu in 1918, when many Americans tried to mount legal challenges over state services being closed, according to global health and law professor Polly Price of Emory University in Georgia.

“We do have a long tradition of individual rights, so even during the Spanish flu people would sue about the schools [being] closed. Or restaurants and bars were closed and people would sue about that and they routinely lost,” Price told the BBC.

Similarly, protesters today have argued that lockdowns infringe their civil rights. “The anti-mask rhetoric seems to come from the same well - American resistance to government mandates,” says the broadcaster.

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What has led to Trump’s change of heart?

Republican leaders have recently begun to switch over to align themselves with Democrats’ position on masks.

Among those who have had a change of heart are Pence, who heads the US Covid-19 task force, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, senator Mitt Romney and congresswoman Liz Cheney.

On Tuesday, Tennessee’s Republican Senator Lamar Alexander “bluntly called on Trump to start wearing a mask, at least some of the time, to set a good example”, the Houston Chronicle reports.

“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’,” Alexander said.

Conservative media has also changed in tone on the debate, in line with the growing scientific consensus on the benefits of wearing masks.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised that individuals should wear cloth face coverings in public in order to help prevent people infected with the Covid-19 coronavirus from passing it on to others.

A review of the findings of 172 studies that was published in The Lancet medical journal this week found that “face mask use could result in a large reduction in risk of infection”.

Masks or no masks, however, Trump insists the issue may soon be purely academic when it comes to Covid. The virus “will at some point just sort of disappear”, the president insisted during this week’s Fox interview.

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