Trump’s Supporters Are Getting the Lab-Leak Story Backwards

If their thesis is right, it points to a course opposite what they propose.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology
Hector Retamal / AFP / Getty

About the author: David Frum is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy (2020). In 2001 and 2002, he was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush.

Suppose it’s true. Suppose the coronavirus spread throughout the world from a Chinese lab. What then?

A ferocious early promoter of the idea that the coronavirus was a Chinese attack was the Trump White House’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon. Bannon hoped to transfer responsibility for Donald Trump’s failures onto China’s rulers. As he told a Polish interviewer in May 2020: “They are totally, 100 percent culpable for every death, for all the agony, for all the economic carnage.”

After months of belittling the virus, then-President Trump himself briefly endorsed the Bannon line. “We went through the worst attack we’ve ever had on our country; this is the worst attack we’ve ever had,” he said in May 2020. “This is worse than Pearl Harbor; this is worse than the World Trade Center. There’s never been an attack like this.”

Trump’s early attempt at blame-shifting collapsed, however, because it contradicted a deeper and bigger message from the president and those around him: that the virus was no big deal, nothing to worry about, no reason to close the economy.

You can see the two imperatives hilariously struggling against each other in a February 2020 Rush Limbaugh monologue:

It looks like the coronavirus is being weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump. Now, I want to tell you the truth about the coronavirus. (interruption) You think I’m wrong about this? You think I’m missing it by saying that’s … (interruption) Yeah, I’m dead right on this. The coronavirus is the common cold, folks.

The drive-by-media hype of this thing as a pandemic, as the Andromeda strain, as, “Oh my God, if you get it, you’re dead.” Do you know what the—I think the survival rate is 98 percent. Ninety-eight percent of people [who] get the coronavirus survive.

Then, immediately following:

It’s a respiratory-system virus. It probably is a Chicom laboratory experiment that is in the process of being weaponized. All superpower nations weaponize bioweapons.

Then, pivot again:

It’s really being hyped as a deadly Andromeda strain or Ebola pandemic that, “oh my God, is going to wipe out the nation. It’s going to wipe out the population of the world.”

The stock market’s down like 900 points right now. The survival rate of this is 98 percent! You have to read very deeply to find that number, that 2 percent of the people [who] get the coronavirus die. That’s less than the flu, folks.

So the coronavirus is a sinister “Chicom” bioweapon—that is also almost completely harmless, and nothing for the stock market to worry about? Even by the roller-coaster standards of Trumpworld, that was a head-snappingly confusing propaganda line.

It’s no big deal.

It’ll go away on its own.

Reopen the economy by Easter.

Sunlight and cheap antimalarial drugs will cure everything.

Don’t blame Trump.

Hate China instead.

The only way to sort the confusion is to remember that different people in Trumpworld cared more or less about different parts of the message.

Trump himself was only intermittently interested in stoking anti-Chinese feeling. In January and February 2020, he repeatedly praised the Chinese leadership. He downplayed the spread of the virus, resisted doing anything that might spread alarm, hurt the stock market, and endanger his reelection message as he imagined it to be. “I like the [coronavirus case] numbers being where they are,” Trump said in early March to explain why he had refused to allow passengers from a stricken cruise ship to disembark. “I don’t need to have the numbers to double because of one ship.”

Only in March 2020 did Trump adopt anti-Chinese language. That language did not deliver political results, however, and so at the end of March, Trump announced that he would stop. He occasionally resumed, as in his May remarks about an “attack,” but he mostly left the “blame China” message to political surrogates and Fox News talking heads. Trump’s own core message was virus minimization, a message inconsistent with anti-China finger-pointing.

But other Trump allies were interested in stoking anti-China feeling, and not only as an excuse for Trump’s failures, but as a goal in itself.

Senators Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: They were not concerned with protecting Trump. They had agendas and interests of their own to advance last year, above all an intensification of conflict with China.

Whether Trump won or lost in November—and maybe especially if he lost—the coronavirus could become the supreme justification for a radically more confrontational policy toward China. Better still, it could provide a basis for a culture war here at home, against scientists, against the legacy media, against the Biden administration.

But the facts were not friendly to those who wanted to use the lab-escape idea to inflame relations with China. The bioweapon story almost instantly disintegrated. By March 2020, it was clear that if China had done something wrong, it was a failure of care and safety—not an act of aggression or malice. Perhaps the Chinese had collected virus specimens, neglected to take proper care of them, and then lied about it. That would be a grave and deadly failure, if it indeed happened. But such a failure by China, if real, would point to a U.S. policy exactly the opposite of the one urged by the China hawks.

China may not be a superpower equal to the United States, but it is definitely too big to bully. If some Chinese failure led to the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States is not about to send gunboats up the Yangtze to extort reparations. If Chinese labs are unsafe, the United States and the world must find a way to induce China to improve their safety. And that imperative implies more cooperation with China, not less. It implies more binding of China to the international order, more cross-border health-and-safety standards, more American scientists in Chinese labs, and concomitantly, more Chinese scientists in American labs. There is no “America First” response to a pandemic. If the pandemic did spread because of Chinese secrecy and paranoia, then “America First” would be an even more useless and dangerous policy than it already seemed.

It’s not all kumbaya. China may have to be harshly pressured into meeting new international obligations. But if the lab-escape hypothesis is true, or even partly true, it serves notice: We are all more connected to one another than we ever imagined, and the truculent nationalism advocated by Trump and his supporters is pointless and self-harming.

Under its present regime, China and the United States may not be friends. But they are doomed to be partners dealing with a range of risks, from viruses today to climate change tomorrow. Scientific communities will have to share more information, not less. Political leaders will have to find ways to work more closely, not less. We need to get to the truth of the coronavirus. High among those truths: Like it or not, we dwell in one global ecosystem, in which national chauvinism long ago ceased to be an adaptive behavior.