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A man wearing a face mask walks past signs for Joe Biden's 2020 presidential campaign, in Alexandria, Va., on May 11, 2020.OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. election of 1860 was fought over the future of slavery in the United States. The 1932 election over how to respond to the Great Depression. The 1980 election over the role of government in the economy. The 2020 election is shaping up as a fight over whether Americans should wear a protective mask.

In competing images on one of America’s most sacred moments of civic reflection, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden joined a Memorial Day commemoration this week wearing a mask, while, 175 kilometres away, President Donald Trump attended a separate remembrance unencumbered by a face covering.

Mr. Trump has mocked Mr. Biden for wearing a mask. Mr. Biden called Mr. Trump “an absolute fool” for refusing to do so.

And so it is that today a simple but divisive public-health measure defines America and its politics.

“The people who are not wearing masks are by and large white, male, rural, suburban and right-leaning,’’ said online pollster John Dick, whose CivicScience public-opinion firm has examined Americans’ social, cultural and political attitudes during the pandemic. “They are the same people who voted for Trump. [Trump] is a big middle finger to everyone they resent. I’m convinced that the people who support Trump don’t even really like him that much. They just hate the people who hate Trump.”

In 1768, John Dickinson, the Philadelphia lawyer known as the penman of the American Revolution, took a Royal Navy anthem and grafted onto it his objections to British colonial taxes and eight words that in time became an American aphorism: "By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall.’’

Two and a half centuries later – after Kentucky transformed that phrase into its state motto, after the patriot orator Patrick Henry employed it in his final public speech, after Abraham Lincoln borrowed it for a famous speech and after the group Brotherhood of Man made it into a 1970s pop hit – the country Dickinson’s revolution created seems hopelessly divided.

Today Americans are split over whether to reopen the country to commerce. The states are divided over how swiftly to resume normal economic activity, with the Democratic governors of the swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin opting to go slowly. Mr. Dick believes that what he calls “political tribalism” is the “most powerful force in America right now – because it predicts almost everything.” And pollster John Zogby sees the fall election as a contest between “rage” and “empathy.”

In that contest, Mr. Trump personifies rage and Mr. Biden empathy – and in that regard masks are a powerful symbol.

“You don’t wear your mask out of fear, you wear it out of empathy,” said Christine Whalen, a clinical professor at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Human Ecology. “Those masks aren’t protecting you, they’re protecting others. But if we all wear them, we all are protected.”

Mr. Zogby points out that Democratic candidates who have won in the past half-century – Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – have been empathy candidates, projecting “an everyman image of understanding pain and suffering,” while those who have lost – Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton – were nominees who “projected images of elitism and/or technocratic management over bonding.”

The very qualities Mr. Biden personifies are the ones Democrats hope will prevail this autumn. The very qualities Mr. Trump personifies are the ones that triumphed four years ago.

Meanwhile, the pandemic and the two men’s responses – with Mr. Biden instinctively leaning toward the views of conventional experts and Mr. Trump instinctively taking an iconoclastic approach – provide a glimpse of the campaign to come.

Five times as many Republicans as Democrats are ready to return to normal daily activities, according to CivicScience surveys. Democrats are more than three times more likely to say they will remain in quarantine even if their state or local governments allow a return to normal.

Wearing a mask may be a telling symbol of the two candidates’ outlooks but it is not an infallible guide to political affiliation. Though a Kaiser Family Foundation poll released this month said 89 per cent of Democrats but only 58 per cent of Republicans reported wearing a mask most of the time when outside their homes, two top Republican leaders in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his likely successor, John Cronyn, were seen in masks this week.

“Wearing a face covering is not about politics – it’s about helping other people,” Republican Governor Mike DeWine of Ohio said via Twitter this week.

In the last mass domestic challenge, Franklin Delano Roosevelt combined rage (“The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization”) and empathy (“We now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we cannot merely take but we must give as well”) in the very same speech. It was his first Inaugural Address, in 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, and is considered one of his greatest speeches – and he is considered the chief executive against whom all successors are measured.

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