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Bigotry has always served Donald Trump well. Racism played no small part in his ascension to the White House. It is not surprising that at stressful moments Trump returns to racism and xenophobia, the wellsprings of his political strength. In a national address on Wednesday night, Trump described the coronavirus as “a foreign virus.” The president reiterated his commitment to solving this problem primarily through border control. He announced new restrictions on travel from many European countries and suggested that Europe itself had been laggard in not restricting visitors from China.
“The European Union failed to take the same precautions and restrict travel from China and other hot spots,” Trump argued. “As a result, a large number of new clusters in the United States were seeded by travelers from Europe.” Simply as a matter of fact, it’s unclear that this is true. The coronavirus, which has been active on both coasts, most likely came to the United States from multiple locations in Europe and Asia.
As my colleague Elie Mystal observes, the clear intent was to give Trump supporters a scapegoat they could blame the crisis on. Mystal notes that “Trump doesn’t want his Republican acolytes to think we’re fighting a virus; he wants them to think we’re fighting the people—the foreign people—who have a virus.”
Trump’s “blame China” rhetoric was relatively muted compared to the some of the Yellow Peril scaremongering that is now commonplace on the right. On Thursday, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton said, “We will emerge stronger from this challenge, we will hold accountable those who inflicted it on the world.” A Twitter commentator explicated these words as meaning “China will pay for this.” Cotton affirmed that interpretation. Last month, Cotton suggested, without evidence, that the coronavirus might have been created in a Chinese “superlaboratory,”
Cotton was echoing a virulent conspiracy theory that many right-wingers are carelessly spreading. In late February, the American Enterprise Institute, the most influential foreign policy think tank on the right, tweeted out, “Was coronavirus a bioweapon? We don’t know, but history shows we can’t trust China.”
Sometimes the anti-Chinese bigotry is petty and childish. Other right-wing outlets have taken to referring to the coronavirus as “Kung Flu.” Rudy Giuliani, the president’s lawyer, retweeted someone who wrote, “Suddenly people are ‘racist’ because they won’t eat at a Chinese restaurant? I will not be eating at a Chinese restaurant simply because common sense tells me not to.”
The Republican exploitation of xenophobia serves many political ends. Beyond deflecting blame from Trump’s bungled handling of the coronavirus crisis, it also bolsters the key political theme of Trumpism, the “America first” agenda that combines protectionism, a unilateralist foreign policy, and hostility towards immigrants. The coronavirus, in other words, is the globalist monster that Trump was elected to slay.
The problem with this approach is not only that the racism is morally repugnant but also that the coronavirus crisis requires international cooperation. Nationalism is the exactly wrong approach to take to a global pandemic, where the solution requires a worldwide pooling of medical resources.
Trump’s border control approach to stopping the spread of the coronavirus has already failed. Thomas Bossert, who served as homeland security adviser to Trump, tweeted, “There’s little value to European travel restrictions. Poor use of time & energy. Earlier, yes. Now, travel restrictions/screening are less useful. We have nearly as much disease here in the US as the countries in Europe.”
Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University Law School, made a similar point in an interview with Vox. “There’s a fine line between the president’s pro-US, anti-internationalist position where he thinks that he can restrict his borders on things like trade or immigration,” Gostin noted. “That doesn’t work with a germ—particularly with a germ that’s already here.”
Immigration restriction, at best, slowed down the arrival of the coronavirus in America. But now that the virus is here, the United States needs to work on mitigation, which means relying on medical equipment that can only come from Europe and China.
As Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy notes, “There is a shortage of the Coronavirus testing reagent. 2. Much of the reagent supply comes from Europe. 3. Pissing off Europe by not giving them prior notice of the travel ban was totally unnecessary.”
Maintaining good relations with China is even more important. Anti-Chinese polemicists have often complained that the United States has offshored its productive capacity to China. That’s true, and perhaps a problem to solve in the future. But in the near term, when mitigating the coronavirus is paramount, the United States has to rely on China to provide the ventilators, masks, and other medical equipment that are urgently needed.
The bungling of the Chinese government has played a major role in creating this global crisis. But China is making use of its unmatched productive capacity to win diplomatic points. According to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, the Chinese government has agreed to sell 1,000 ventilators and 2 million masks to Italy. China is also sending as a donation thousands of respirators, protective suits, and test kits.
It’s easy to view the Chinese actions as a cynical exercise in damage control. But whatever motives the Chinese government has, this kind of international cooperation is key to solving the coronavirus crisis.
In remarks on Thursday, Joe Biden rightly emphasized the importance of working with other nations. “We should be leading a coordinated, global response, just as we did to the Ebola crisis, that draws on the incredible capability of the US Agency for International Development and our State Department, to assist vulnerable nations in detecting and treating the coronavirus wherever it spreads,” Biden argued. “We should be investing in rebuilding and strengthening the global health security agenda, which we launched during our administration, specifically to mobilize the world against the threats of new infectious diseases.”
The historian Mike Davis, coming from a political position much more radical than Biden’s, also underscored the need for a global response. Writing in Links, Davis argued that “capitalist globalization now appears to be biologically unsustainable in the absence of a truly international public health infrastructure.”
Davis neatly summed up Trump’s xenophobic response to the crisis: “Walls not vaccines: could there be a more evil template for the future?”