When the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. began to climb in late March and remained on track to surpass the total number of cases in China, President Donald Trump began calling the new coronavirus the “Chinese virus.”
It was no coincidence. By late February, Trump’s poll numbers had begun to plummet because of his handling of the outbreak. They reached their lowest point in several weeks by mid-March, just as he and his cabinet began heavily associating the virus with Wuhan, China before steadily picking back up again in a very short-lived coronavirus bump. Today, polls again show most Americans disapprove of the president’s pandemic response.
Since then, Trump has promised to stop calling COVID-19 the Chinese virus. “Look, everyone knows it came out of China, but I decided we shouldn’t make any more of a big deal out of it,” he told Fox News two weeks ago.
Nevertheless, Trump has found other ways to blame China without changing the virus’s name. Most recently, he accused the World Health Organization of being “China-centric” and bragged about issuing travel bans to the country.
The Trump administration’s decision to amplify China as the source and cause of the virus appears little more than a thinly-veiled attempt to deflect criticism from its own pandemic response. But it’s also more than a failed public relations campaign.
Last month, police said a man in Midland, Texas stabbed an Asian family because he believed they were Chinese and spreading the virus. The FBI, who is treating the stabbing as a possible hate crime, has already sounded the alarm on other similar cases. “The FBI assesses hate crime incidents against Asian Americans likely will surge across the United States, due to the spread of coronavirus disease,” read an intelligence report from the bureau obtained by ABC News.
As Trump continues to associate COVID-19 with China to save himself in November, his allies and fellow party members have followed in his footsteps, including Sen. John Cornyn, also facing reelection in November.
Days after receiving flak for joking about the virus, Cornyn went on a right-wing radio show and began blaming the “cultural habits” of Chinese people for the new coronavirus. In an interview with The Hill, he again blamed Chinese culture and food.
Democrats quickly picked up on the change in messaging.
“We are now watching in real time as the Republicans change the way they talk about coronavirus, intentionally stoking xenophobia in order to shift attention away from President Trump’s truncated response,” Rep. Judy Chu, Chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus said at the time.
The strategy has also trickled down the ballot as well. Last week, Kathaleen Wall, a Republican candidate running to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Pete Olson (R-Sugar Land) released an ad that described COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” and accused China of poisoning Americans. Wall’s Democratic opponent, Sri Preston Kulkarni, called the ad “irresponsible” and “race-baiting.”
On Tuesday, Texas Democrats held a press conference decreeing the growing trend, encouraged by Republican leaders like Trump and Cornyn.
“This is not a Democratic issue, this is not a Republican issue,” said state Rep. Gene Wu of Houston. “The Asian American community, the Chinese community is pissed.”
“I think the political play on this is obvious,” Wu said. “Everyone sees through it, nobody thinks that you don’t get that this is a racist dog-whistle.”
Ling Lou, Chairwoman of the Asian-American Democratic Club, said she was dismayed that President Trump nor GOP House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (who referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese coronavirus” in a tweet) apologized for their rhetoric, which she said has made the Asian American community feel inferior.
“Our community is living in fear right now,” Lou said. “They don’t dare go outside, they don’t dare to talk to non-Chinese or non-Asian people. We are very worried that a new Chinese exclusion is coming up again.”
“Nothing is going to happen, nothing is going to change,” Lou said of Trump’s rhetoric. “It’s getting worse.”
Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images