Since January, US President Donald Trump has persistently shown himself to be undecided on China’s culpability for the coronavirus pandemic. Whilst initially lavishing praise on China and its leader, Xi Jinping, for having the epidemic “totally under control”, Trump and his administration have recently begun to refer to Covid-19 as the ‘Chinese Virus’. This rhetoric is not only a way to distract the public from Trump’s own role in mishandling and underestimating the danger of the disease, but has incited a culture war intended to polarise the electorate along partisan lines, legitimising anti-Asian racism and inherently supporting the President’s own political interests.
“We have it under control. It’s going to be just fine”, Trump boasted on 22 January. On 31 January, Trump bragged “We pretty much shut it down coming in from China. We have a tremendous relationship with China, which is a very positive thing”.
In reality, Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has been nothing short of catastrophic. Whilst South Korea has been hailed for rapidly testing 10,000 people per day, between the 8 and 11 March the US managed a pitiful 77 tests. And now, one month after Trump confidently declared that the number of total cases would be “close to zero”, the US is on course to surpass 100,000 confirmed cases. It is no surprise, then, that recent days have seen a shift in the rhetoric used by Trump. He reverts back to his ever-trusty blame game to deflect attention from his own dire failings, a fact many of his supporters seem not to notice.
On March 16, Trump began to refer to the coronavirus as the ‘Chinese Virus’, a narrative not only morally reprehensible for the Leader of the Free World to promote, but also a dangerous one. Trump’s use of the term ‘Chinese Virus’ reinforced the association between coronavirus and people of a particular national origin, legitimising the new wave of anti-Asian racism and xenophobia which Asian-Americans have experienced since the beginning of the outbreak. Amidst a growing chorus of criticism from the liberal left that, rightfully so, condemned his language as racist and anti-Chinese, Trump attempted to defend himself: “It’s not racist at all. It comes from China, that’s why”.
Trump and his cronies are particularly talented at defending expressions of bigotry as mere common sense. In labelling the coronavirus the ‘Chinese Virus’, Trump not only communicated to his support base that China and the wider Chinese population are to blame (rather than his own disastrous mishandling), but also gave them the satisfaction of releasing outrage at liberals for wrongfully accusing conservatives of racism and xenophobia. Trump is not only deflecting blame, but is using the pandemic to incite a culture war which will divide the electorate along tribal party lines, strengthening his political prospects at a time vital in his bid for re-election. With their criticism, though well-placed, the Democrats are playing right into Trump’s hands.
It may seem as though Trump has realised the error of his bigoted ways, noting at Monday’s press conference: “It seems like there could be a little bit of nasty language toward Asian Americans in our country, and I don’t like that at all”. But to believe this would be misconceived. Rather, he continues to appeal to the us-versus-them nationalist attitude which is ever popular amongst his section of the US electorate, underlining in his address to the nation how this virus is, above all, a “foreign” one.
Trump and his administration could, if they had truly wanted to, hold the Chinese government responsible for its mishandling of the coronavirus in any number of ways – the majority of which would not have legitimised anti-Asian racism and xenophobia. Instead, they have capitalised on the pandemic as a political entity, promoting racist disinformation that will inevitably incite a culture war between liberals and conservatives, therefore polarising the electorate at a time critical in Trump’s political career.
Image: The White House via Flickr