Trump Is Inciting a Coronavirus Culture War to Save Himself

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, 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.

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