Donald Trump had a message for the Chinese government at the beginning of the year: Great job!
“China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency,” Trump tweeted on January 24. “It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”
Over the next month, the president repeatedly praised the Chinese government for its handling of the coronavirus, which appears to have first emerged from a wildlife market in the transportation hub of Wuhan, China, late last year. Trump lauded Chinese President Xi Jinping as “strong, sharp and powerfully focused on leading the counterattack on the Coronavirus,” and emphasized that the U.S. government was “working closely” with China to contain the disease.
For months, Trump himself referred to the illness as “the coronavirus.” In early March, though, several conservative media figures began using Wuhan virus or Chinese virus instead. On March 16, Trump himself began to refer to it as the “Chinese Virus,” prompting commentators to charge that he was racializing the epidemic. In contrast, some early media reports had referred to the illness as “the Wuhan virus,” but most outlets switched to referring to “the coronavirus” not long after it emerged, following the advice of public-health experts concerned about the very possibility of stigma from associating deadly diseases with a particular ethnic group or location. Some conservative outlets subsequently began attacking critics of the president’s change in language as propagandists for the Chinese Communist Party.
Even before Trump’s adoption of Chinese virus, Asian Americans had been facing a wave of discrimination, harassment, and violence in response to the epidemic. The president’s rhetoric did not start this backlash, but the decision to embrace the term Chinese virus reinforced the association between a worldwide pandemic and people of a particular national origin. Legitimizing that link with all the authority of the office of the president of the United States is not just morally abhorrent, but dangerous.
The president’s now-constant use of Chinese virus is the latest example of a conservative phenomenon you might call the racism rope-a-dope (with apologies to the late boxer Muhammad Ali, who coined the latter half of the term to describe his strategy of luring an opponent into wearing himself out). Trump and his acolytes are never more comfortable than when they are defending expressions of bigotry as plain common sense, and accusing their liberal critics of being oversensitive snowflakes who care more about protecting “those people” than they do about you. They seek to reduce any political dispute to this simple equation whenever possible. “I want them to talk about racism every day,” the former Trump adviser Steve Bannon told The American Prospect in 2017. “If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”
In this instance, though, the gambit served two additional purposes: distracting the public from Trump’s catastrophic mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, and disguising the fact that Trump’s failures stemmed from his selfishness and fondness for authoritarian leaders, which in turn made him an easy mark for the Chinese government’s disinformation.
Conservatives are fond of telling liberals who accuse the Republican Party of prejudice, “This is how you got Trump,” a retort that is less a rebuttal than an affirmation. Trump understands that overt expressions of prejudice draw condemnation from liberals, which in turn rallies his own base around him. Calling the coronavirus the “Chinese virus” not only informs Trump’s base that foreigners are the culprits, it also offers his supporters the emotional satisfaction of venting fury at liberals for unfairly accusing conservatives of racism. The point is to turn a pandemic that threatens both mass death and the collapse of the American economy into a culture-war argument in which the electorate can be polarized along partisan lines.
Conservatives insist that the Chinese government bears a great deal of responsibility for the outbreak, and that the president is merely holding the CCP accountable. Liberals, they argue, by criticizing the president’s rhetoric as racist, are falling into a trap set by Chinese propagandists, who are hoping to characterize any criticism of Beijing’s role in the outbreak as racism.
This criticism contains an element of truth. As The Wall Street Journal reported in early March, the Chinese government lied about the threat posed by COVID-19 and the coronavirus’s transmissibility to humans, and dragged its feet in informing the public, even silencing a whistleblower, Li Wenliang, who tried to warn the country about the threat of the disease before succumbing to it himself. “By not moving aggressively to warn the public and medical professionals, public-health experts say, the Chinese government lost one of its best chances to keep the disease from becoming an epidemic,” The New York Times reported in early February.
Since that report, Chinese officials have engaged in a propaganda offensive, expelling American journalists, minimizing their early missteps, and putting forth a conspiracy theory that the virus was engineered by the U.S. military. Compared with all this, the president’s defenders argue, Trump referring to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” seems trivial.
Lost in that comparison, however, is the fact that the most effective target of CCP disinformation has been Trump himself. The president’s public praise of the Chinese government’s response was not simply a public stance. According to The Washington Post, at the same time that Trump was stating that Beijing had the disease under control, U.S. intelligence agencies were already warning him that “Chinese officials appeared to be minimizing the severity of the outbreak.”
Administration officials directly warned Trump of the danger posed by the virus, but “Trump’s insistence on the contrary seemed to rest in his relationship with China’s President Xi Jingping, whom Trump believed was providing him with reliable information about how the virus was spreading in China,” The Washington Post reported, “despite reports from intelligence agencies that Chinese officials were not being candid about the true scale of the crisis.”
The right’s rhetorical shift then, is not just another racism rope-a-dope, an attempt to bait the left into a culture-war argument and divert attention from the president’s disastrous handling of the coronavirus pandemic. It is also an attempt to cover up the fact that the Chinese government’s propaganda campaign was effective in that it helped persuade the president of the United States not to take adequate precautionary measures to stem a tide of pestilence that U.S. government officials saw coming.
Now faced with the profound consequences of that decision, the right has settled on a strategy that does little to hold Beijing accountable for its mishandling of the coronavirus, but instead plays into Beijing’s attempt to cast any criticism of the Chinese government’s response as racism. Not only is the Chinese virus gambit morally objectionable but it is also inimical to the strategic interests the Trump administration was supposedly pursuing. The term makes no distinction between China’s authoritarian government and people who happen to be of Chinese origin, and undermines the unified front the Trump administration would want if it were actually concerned with countering Chinese-government propaganda.
Instead, the Trump administration has chosen a political tactic that strengthens the president’s political prospects by polarizing the electorate, and covers up his own role as Xi’s patsy, while making its own pushback against CCP propaganda less effective. The Trump administration might have chosen any number of methods to hold the Chinese government accountable for its mishandling of the outbreak that would not legitimize anti-Asian racism; it settled on a verbal taunt ineffective at countering disinformation but well suited to pursuing the president’s political interests.
This approach reflects the most glaring flaws of Trumpist governance, which have become only more acute during the coronavirus crisis: It exacerbates rather than solves the underlying problem, placing the president’s political objectives above all other concerns, even the ones both the president and his supporters claim to value.
A week after first deploying the term Chinese virus, even the president seemed to have regrets about the tactic. “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,” Trump told reporters at a press conference yesterday afternoon. "These are incredible people, they love our country, and I’m not gonna let it happen.”
The president did not say who might be using the “nasty language” or what that “nasty language” was, nor did he offer any theories as to why anyone might be using it.