It’s hard to fathom that such a small scrap of fabric could carry such freight. And yet on Friday morning, after the White House announced that President Trump and the first lady had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, the face mask became a symbol of the country’s anger, fear and disgust.

The mask, with its ever-shifting and broadening meaning, speaks to just how exhausting it has become to be a citizen in 2020 when every single day — indeed, every hour — is a test of emotional stamina and the power of prayer.

The mask reminds us of how relentless the coronavirus remains as the U.S. death toll surpasses 208,000. The virus finds its way through concentric circles of testing, hand sanitizer and denial. The mask represents safety and community. We wish Trump and others affected by covid-19 a speedy recovery, but the president’s nearly constant refusal to wear a mask in public despite medical guidance to do so conjures up a vision of karmic revenge. It signifies discomforting comeuppance for the would-be bully who mocked former vice president Joe Biden’s adherence to medical protocol. It makes the ugliness of our partisan schadenfreude plain and marks the slow chipping away of our humanity as we go to war over face coverings.

The mask is a repository for blame that has overflowed the banks of the federal government and now has nowhere else to go. It’s emblematic of a national terror that we’re free falling into helplessness.

When states first began lifting coronavirus lockdown measures in the summer, tensions around face masks had been mounting since the CDC first recommended them. (The Washington Post)

Wearing a mask was never a guarantee of protection against the coronavirus. It was not an assurance of invincibility. But when faced with such a stealthy invader, scientific experts said it was one of the best weapons in a sparse arsenal. The mask provided the wearer with some degree of defense, but mostly it served as protection to others — a kindness extended to one’s neighbor and a civic duty among strangers. The president, since this pandemic began, has been loath to wear a mask in deference to those around him. He said it was not necessary because he and those in his inner circle were regularly tested. He said it was not a good look for the leader of the free world. He said he just didn’t want to wear a mask. At worst, that was defined as evidence of his selfish disregard.

Now the commander in chief is infected with a virus that can be deadly and for which there is no cure. He is fatigued. He has a fever. And Friday evening he was taken by helicopter to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Hopefully, he will recover without incident. But his ambivalence about face masks has become a matter of our national security. Trump’s avoidance of masks has rattled the economy — that beautiful economy about which the president so lovingly boasts.

In the hours after the first couple’s diagnoses were made public, it was impossible not to recall the many instances in which the president has taken an unnecessary risk during the pandemic, when he has stubbornly, childishly refused to wear a mask. During Tuesday’s debate, he was asked about his mask avoidance. “I will put a mask on when I think I need it,” the president said as he pulled a crumpled mask from his suit pocket and looked at it as though it were a bit of old Kleenex. The problem, of course, is that he so rarely believed he needed one.

He derided Biden for doing what he can to protect himself and others by wearing a mask, suggesting that donning a mask is an acknowledgment of fear and a declaration of weakness.

“I don’t wear masks like him,” the president said of Biden. “Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.”

One can’t help but recall the final scene of the debate when the two candidates were joined onstage by their spouses. When Jill Biden took her place alongside her husband, she was wearing a mask. When Melania Trump stepped on stage, she was not. The couples maintained their distance. (The Bidens announced Friday that they’d tested negative for the coronavirus.) In that image, it was as if they were living in two separate worlds: one in which the throngs gathered without fear and another in which life moved forward with caution and care.

Trump tried to make masks a test of machismo. He turned them into a political wedge issue and a referendum on freedom. He reveled in his boisterous, maskless rallies. Masks became something to fight about that left other countries baffled by the pettiness of it all. And even though the risks were real and substantial — life and death in many cases — somehow, for so many, the peril seemed minor.

But now the mask — or the masklessness — has come to mean so much more. It’s not whether the failure to wear one has laid Trump low. He very well may have become infected despite scrupulous mask use. But the man who inhabits the Oval Office did not put up every possible defense at his disposal to protect the presidency — this country, its people, its ideals — from a clear and omnipresent danger.

President Trump mocked Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden for wearing a face mask at the first presidential debate on Sept. 29. (The Washington Post)

Trump jettisoned decorum. He dispensed with steadying norms and the guardrails of tradition. He opened the door to malfeasance and allowed a virulence to spread uncontrolled. The presidency is a complex burden that practically ensures moments of failure, even as a man or woman tries mightily to rise to its ennobling challenges day after day. The body politic needs every advantage it can get, every little protection.

Trump couldn’t even be bothered to put on a mask.