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Faced with mounting pressure over the spread of the coronavirus and his administration’s sluggish response to the global pandemic, Donald Trump has gone running for his one true drug. That drug is “racism,” and he’s ingesting it with a chaser called “xenophobia.”
Trump is now blatantly blaming the coronavirus on China. Instead of calling it by its scientific name, Covid-19, Trump is now using a geographic nickname (there’s no need to repeat it) and saying that the disease “comes from China.” Meanwhile, bigoted Republican senators, like John Cornyn from Texas, are making the connection more explicit, framing Chinese culture and dietary habits as the “source” of a string of modern diseases. Cornyn’s cultural chauvinism conveniently leaves out how our own dietary habits, which look strange to many parts of the world, contribute to the spread of everything from mad cow disease, in England, to E. coli right here. I wonder if the senator from Texas would have liked it if we called E. coli the “American Pooping Cowboy Plague.”
But their hypocrisy doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Trump and a number of Republicans are using these terms to distract people from the administration’s incompetent response to the virus. They’re giving Trump’s aggrieved white base somebody else to blame for our problems.
Their words are working. AAPI people from all states and backgrounds are sharing stories of hate and vitriol directed at them and their children. One man told me on Twitter that people are calling his kids “coronavirus” at school. An Asian man was sprayed with Febreze on the New York City subway. The NYPD arrested a 13-year-old for allegedly assaulting a 59-year-old man while making anti-Asian comments and shouting something about coronavirus.
If the media were doing their job, this would be the story: The president of the United States is putting lives at risk during a global pandemic by inciting violence against fellow Americans. If Trump were incorrectly blaming the coronavirus on “millionaires and billionaires,” and rich white people were getting beat up on the subway, the press would be all over him to answer for his hateful, divisive rhetoric.
But: Because Trump is directing his hatred at a community of color, and because white people could die from Trump’s incompetence, but only Asian Americans could die from Trump’s bigotry, the media is giving us a completely different narrative, telling us, “Don’t take the bait.” The “bait,” as I understand it, is talking about Trump’s racism instead of his incompetence. Trump, and his supporters, would rather be defending Trump’s right to be racist and horrible than his actual job performance. Fighting about racism is somehow fighting on Trump’s ground, because nearly half the country does not find Trump’s overt bigotry to be a deal breaker.
This is a good political argument only if you center your thoughts on the perceptions and values of Trump’s base. If you think about anybody else, the argument that we should functionally ignore Trump’s racism toward other Americans is demonstrably ridiculous.
Look at what happened during Trump’s coronavirus press conference on Wednesday. PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor asked Trump if he was worried that his rhetoric would bring harm to Asian American communities. Trump didn’t answer the question. The next reporter, RealClearPolitics’ White House correspondent Philip Wegmann, started by saying he was “switching gears to a larger question here,” and then asked about Trump’s “message” to rural Americans who were already suffering from isolation and despair before this pandemic.
That, my friends, is the problem in a nutshell. From the perspective of many white media professionals, talking about the president’s racist attacks on minority communities is the “distraction” from the “larger issue” of white people being depressed about coronavirus.
The only people taking Trump’s “bait” right now are members of the media who insist on reprinting and publicizing every slur that tumbles out of Trump’s vicious mouth. I’ve got a #CoronavirusChallenge every major media outlet could take right now: Stop disseminating Trump’s hate. Stop reflexively reprinting his racist nicknames for things. Stop acting like the Republican defense for such racism is a legitimate argument in the marketplace of ideas. Stop inviting guests who will defend, excuse, or double down on the president’s racism.
For the love of humanity, stop playing Donald Trump live! All he does is spout lies, misinformation, and bigotry that is going to get people killed. The media should be playing Trump on a seven-second delay, at least, and bleep him out when he uses racial slurs. Hell, the broadcast networks will show the Super Bowl halftime show on a seven-second delay for fear of a pop star popping out a nipple—but they won’t bleep out the president when he incites violence against Asian Americans? There is no tenet of journalism that demands that news organizations help Trump start a hate crime spree against the AAPI community. The media is not required to be complicit in Trump’s fearmongering. The only reason it goes along is for ratings and clicks.
As for Trump, he would rather have people talking about his racism, because he knows that the media has thus far been unable to cover his racism without devolving into a both-sides-athon. Check out this meekly titled New York Times article. It’s a classic example of reporting on the “controversy” instead of reporting on the mendacity of President Trump. The three authors dedicate a couple of paragraphs to “critics” who take Trump to task for his racist remarks, followed by a couple of paragraphs in which Trump people defend those racist remarks. They do a bit about how public health officials refer to diseases by their scientific names, then cut the moral authority of that information by quoting Republicans talking about “Spanish flu.” This is the kind of coverage of Trump’s racism that gives aid and comfort to racists and legitimizes bigotry as one option among many.
To meet the threat of Donald Trump, in this moment and every moment, the media must do better. Who the heck cares which kind of xenophobic nicknames were used for diseases in the past? How is it relevant that one of the worst pandemics of the 20th century was called “the Spanish flu” (even though the first reported case was in Kansas)? If the Times were really concerned about putting Republican talking points in their proper context, its reporters could write: “People in the past dumped their human waste in their watersheds, used lead in paint to make the colors pop, and named viruses after the wrong thing.”
It’s not hard to talk about Trump’s dangerous bigotry, without giving voice and a platform to that very bigotry. Astute readers will notice I’ve written a thousand words now on this topic without once referring to the coronavirus by Trump’s nickname. I’m not special, I just have a modicum of intellectual discipline when writing for public consumption. It’s not too much to ask The New York Times and The Washington Post to get at my level.
The media, even the Fox News segment of the media, now realizes that coronavirus is “bad.” They now talk about it as an “infection” that needs to be “fought” by all Americans, across all regions and industries. Trump’s racism is an infection too. And it also needs to be fought, by everybody, all the time, but especially in times of panic and hysteria. Or else it will kill people.