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President Donald Trump campaigns on fear and governs through grievance. He takes credit, without ever taking responsibility. His existence as an American political figure is possible only because he has convinced a large minority of Americans that there is always somebody else to blame for our problems.
In the context of this governing philosophy, Trump’s Oval Office address outlining the government’s response to the coronavirus was completely on brand. In the first sentence, he said that the outbreak “started in China.” In the fourth sentence, he talked about his strong response to the “foreign virus.” In the sixth paragraph, he praised himself for quickly restricting travel from China, while blaming the European Union for not doing the same.
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. The bigotry and xenophobia of Trump’s base is the train that is never late. Trump believes—correctly most likely—that his base will be more concerned about who to blame for the outbreak than who is responsible for mitigating the crisis.
In his speech, Trump announced no new public health programs. This is a president who has declared a “national emergency” so he could steal money to build a wall, but last night he did not declare a national emergency to implement containment measures or provide testing or to make sure kids and older people can get a hot meal in the absence of normal public assistance programs.
Instead, Trump’s big plan to combat the global pandemic: more travel restrictions. He said: “To keep new cases from entering our shores, we will be suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days.”
On MSNBC after the speech, Chris Hayes said: “When your only tool is a wall, everything looks like an invasion.”
Trump’s Travel Ban: But for White People (™) is the kind of America First rhetoric that his base goes in for, but, as with everything Trump, it promises a comprehensive form of xenophobia (and general “anti-globalist” ideology) that is easily bedeviled by the details. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) immediately had to release a statement cleaning up the president’s verbal flourishes. In reality, the travel ban does not apply to “all” travelers: US citizens, legal permanent residents, and immediate family are exempt. The ban doesn’t even apply to “all” of Europe: Trump himself said that the United Kingdom is exempt (I’ll bet you all the money in my pocket Trump thinks “Brexit” means they’ve closed the Chunnel). And DHS clarified that the ban applies only to the “Schengen Area” of Europe—a group of 26 countries that have abolished the need for passports to travel between themselves.
Again, at a policy level, this shows that Trump’s government thinks we’re fighting people, and the spread of people, instead of a disease. He’s so obsessed with undermining the concept of “open borders” that he’s making medical decisions based on his philosophical resistance to freedom of travel, instead of the science of biological contagions. Trump is approaching this exactly how a medieval king would: closing the gates on the populace without understanding that the microscopic contagion is already inside the castle walls.
Since Trump is trying to take us back to the Dark Ages, it’s instructive to look at how Dark Age people responded when their leaders told them that people, not fleas, cause pandemics. We know what European communities did back then: They killed Jews. Not all Europeans everywhere, but some communities, and viciously. We know from history that when panic grips the masses, minority communities are the first to suffer violence.
It’s already happening here. Yesterday, a Korean woman was punched in the face by another woman who allegedly shouted at her, “Where’s your [effing] mask?” This did not happen in 14th century France; this happened in midtown Manhattan.
It’s happening in London. Last week authorities there said they were searching for four men who allegedly attacked a Londoner of Chinese descent. The victim claims his assailants said, “We don’t want your coronavirus in our country,” before punching him.
Asian American communities are worried about these kinds of hate crimes. This week The Daily Beast published a story about a Chinese American gun store owner who has seen a fivefold jump in gun purchases over the last two weeks, largely by Asian American customers: “People are panicking because they don’t feel secure,” said David Liu, who owns Arcadia Firearm and Safety just east of Los Angeles. “They worry about a riot or maybe that people will start to target the Chinese.”
I’d like to tell those new gun owners that they’re overreacting, but I can’t. Everybody knows this president hates foreigners. Everybody knows that the most rabid people in our society takes cues on whom to hate from this president. And people of color know that, while the president might now be casting Europeans in with the lot of people who are threats, the people most likely to turn to violence won’t bother to take their rage out on a Welshman or Bulgarian, but they sure as hell will go after the person who “looks” like they might have an ancestor from the vast continent of Asia.
Read Trump’s Oval Office speech again. Here’s a bit from near the end:
We are at a critical time in the fight against the virus. We made a lifesaving move with early action on China. Now we must take the same action with Europe. We will not delay. I will never hesitate to take any necessary steps to protect the lives, health, and safety of the American people. I will always put the well being of America first…. The virus will not have a chance against us.
It’s “us” versus “them.” Trump is juxtaposing American health and safety with “lifesaving” “early action” against Chinese people—and now most Europeans. Last night’s speech was a dog whistle for grievance culture to direct fear and hatred toward foreigners and away from the federal government.
The federal government has enormous powers. But the only massive responses Trump suggested were small-business relief and payroll tax holidays. Republicans, who often act like they think tax cuts cure everything, are now figuratively relying on tax cuts to cure disease. There are people who can’t make rent if they don’t go to work and risk infecting all of their coworkers, but don’t worry, Trump is promising their bosses some financial relief.
Contrast Trump’s speech with literally anything President Barack Obama said during the Ebola outbreak. Admittedly, Ebola was by and large contained in a single, if vulnerable, part of the world, West Africa, while COVID-19 has already sprawling across large swaths of the globe. Yet, here’s what Obama had to say in 2014:
Faced with this outbreak, the world is looking to us, the United States, and it’s a responsibility that we embrace. We’re prepared to take leadership on this to provide the kinds of capabilities that only America has, and to mobilize the world in ways that only America can do. That’s what we’re doing as we speak…. We’ve been taking the necessary precautions, including working with countries in West Africa to increase screening at airports so that someone with the virus doesn’t get on a plane for the United States. In the unlikely event that someone with Ebola does reach our shores, we’ve taken new measures so that we’re prepared here at home.
Leading the world, instead of hiding from it. Working with other countries, instead of blaming them. This is how a president is supposed to talk in the midst of a global health crisis.
The coronavirus does not discriminate. Donald Trump does. Govern yourselves accordingly.