From a high-resolution photograph of Donald Trump’s printed-out remarks for his Thursday press conference, we know two things. The first is that Trump’s speech was printed out for him in a huge font and protected by a plastic page protector. The second was that the visible page of the speech was unmarked except in one place—where the word “Corona” in “Corona Virus” (two words) had been crossed out with a Sharpie and replaced with a word in distinctive penmanship printed in all caps: “CHINESE.”
It was clear Trump had replaced the accepted shorthand for the COVID-19 virus with another that would blame another country for the pandemic while inflaming antipathy against the “Chinese” and (because ethnic hatreds aren’t especially discerning) Asians in general.
And he’d done so quite deliberately.
This was a new development. Trump had previously referred to the pandemic as “the coronavirus.” So what changed? The answer is obvious: People familiar with Trump’s limited but effective toolbox will recognize by now that the turn to racism is a sign of Trumpian distress. It means that Trump—who hasn’t been able to hold rallies amid his adoring fans—is feeling not just insecure but trapped. He thought the coronavirus was one more narrative he could control. He couldn’t. And so, perhaps sometime around March 16, when he first used the phrase “Chinese Virus” on Twitter himself, it became clear that the president was ready to embrace an ugly construction Mike Pompeo and others had earlier tried to mainstream.
This xenophobic strategy is emerging because Trump, who handled the outbreak disastrously, is now engaged in a Herculean pivot toward a narrative that he takes the crisis seriously and always has. You can trace this lexical shift to that effort. During the many weeks Trump downplayed the epidemic and told Americans not to worry, he referred to the virus using perfectly conventional language. As recently as Feb. 22, he tweeted, “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA,” adding, “Stock Market starting to look very good to me!” Earlier, on Jan. 22, he was insisting to CNBC that the virus was “totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China.” (As of this writing, the United States has nearly 20,000 confirmed cases in what appears to be an exponential rise.) A lot of people took Trump at his word, so they didn’t take protective measures. The government also failed to ramp up production of N95 masks or hospital ventilators or protective equipment. South Korea discovered its first case the same day the United States did, but while South Korea was testing 10,000 people a day in drive-thrus, for free, the United States was suffering an inexplicable test shortage. As late as March 9, Trump was still trying to compare the coronavirus outbreak to the seasonal flu to make it seem like nothing Americans should worry about. “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. … At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”
On Thursday, still in his first week of admitting the seriousness of the threat, Trump said, “Nobody in their wildest dreams would have thought we would need tens of thousands of ventilators”—despite weeks of reporting and pleas from medical professionals that the country did not have nearly enough ventilators for the crisis. Americans have notoriously short memories, but even some Trump supporters can probably recall how egregiously and how recently Trump downplayed the danger. So out came the Sharpie pen. Time to pivot to the language of war. Time to find a target people can turn their ire on. Time for the “Chinese virus.”
This strategy of ramping up racism under duress—developed by his former adviser Steve Bannon—is as familiar as it is ugly. It gives Trump supporters not one but two exciting wars to get worked up about: one literal, one cultural. The former is stupid and psychologically transparent—viruses aren’t combatants, but a “wartime” president brooks little dissent, and his obvious and even disastrous mistakes are easily excused by a frightened populace unified against a hated enemy. Difficult though it may be to muster jingoistic fury at a virus, many Republicans are doing their level best. Some, like Sen. Tom Cotton, have tried to link the coronavirus’s “villainy” with China’s, falsely suggesting that China (which has suffered the greatest losses) had a hand in developing the virus and announcing that the U.S. would “hold accountable those who inflicted it on the world.” It’s perfectly true that China was less than forthcoming in the early stages of the pandemic. But it’s hard to feel superior about that when the United States was itself aggressively undertesting its citizens in part because the president himself expressed a disinclination to inflate the number of U.S. cases by, for example, letting sick American cruise passengers disembark on American soil.
But the second war, the culture war, is at least as important. It’s the war Trump knows he can use to win back any supporters who might have started to doubt him after he insisted for weeks that the virus was “totally under control” and “like the flu” and that the economy was “great.” The Democrats—and the scientists who have been sounding the alarm, and the media Trump hates that has reported the truth about the virus’s likely spread despite Trump’s lies to the contrary—have the high ground on every axis that matters right now. The Democrats have been striving to protect Americans first while putting politics second (see New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s tentative praise for the Trump administration after it began taking things seriously). Meanwhile, two Republican senators—Richard Burr and Kelly Loeffler—appear to have misinformed their constituents, falsely reassuring them that the media was lying to them about the gravity of the situation, even as they privately dumped huge amounts of stock and invested in industries that would profit under a coronavirus pandemic.
Trump, whose sole priority is his reelection, desperately needs to remind his supporters that the Democrats, scientists, and journalists who took the outbreak seriously from the start are still their enemies. He can achieve that easily enough; all he has to do is reignite a debate over whether something he says is or is not racist. If Trump can make it look like the very people who took the pandemic seriously are now frivolously objecting to his nomenclature, maybe he can claw back any support that may have been waffling.
Republican lawmakers, as ever, support Trump’s messaging effort. Sen. John Cornyn defended the use of “Chinese virus” by saying things like, “China is to blame because the culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that,” safe in the knowledge that this strategy is a win-win. If no one objects to appalling pronouncements like this one, his message lands. And if they do object, the offended parties will only bolster the Trumpist perspective that the enemies of the people prioritize political correctness over human lives. Look! They’re talking about racism in the middle of a pandemic! Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted that he knew of an entire family who lost their jobs, and yet “some people want to argue over what name we should use for the virus.”
That calling COVID-19 the “Chinese Virus” is not just theoretically but materially harmful to Asian Americans should go without saying. And yet it must be said, even and especially in these desperate times when the more strategic countermove might be to ignore the bait. People of Asian descent have seen increased mistreatment since the outbreak began—being yelled at, being beaten, their children attacked and their businesses boycotted. People stopped eating at Chinese restaurants. A fake flyer in Los Angeles purporting to be from the World Health Organization instructed people to avoid Asian American—not Chinese but Asian American!—businesses. People are being openly racist to Asian journalists. So common was anti-Asian sentiment that the University of California, Berkeley’s health center infamously posted a set of “common reactions” in January that included “xenophobia: fears about interacting with those who might be from Asia and guilt about that fear.”
Why would a president amplify a counterproductive fear of Asians in a public already unnerved by a rising epidemic and dramatic social and economic disruption? The fog of war lets you get away with incompetence and reversals. Of course he’s waging a war on two fronts with that one tiny phrase; the move lets him pivot from total denial that the coronavirus is a concern to a statesmanlike acknowledgment of the threat. And it applies to everyone on the field with him. Take Sean Hannity, who on March 9 said, “I see it, again, as let’s bludgeon Trump with this new hoax,” and 10 days later said, “This program has always taken the coronavirus seriously. We’ve never called the virus a hoax.” Telling people they didn’t actually hear what they heard is no small undertaking. It takes all of a box, a saw, some mirrors, and plenty of smoke. It’s why Trump has gone from trying to reassure the stock market with “everything’s fine!” to declarations that he always knew a pandemic was coming.
Here’s the dispiriting truth: The racist trolling will work—unless Americans can adapt to Trump’s stratagem. Yes, it’s risky to let Trump set the agenda yet again by letting him distract people from his deadly mismanagement of this crisis with a racist phrase. But there is a countermeasure worth considering, and it would mean narrating the racist turn as exactly what it is. We know that racism, for Trump, is as much a tool as a mindset. We should put his deployment of it in context, both for ourselves and to others. Trump gets more racist when he’s nervous. When a judge was ruling over Trump University’s fraudulent practices, Trump attacked the judge’s ethnicity. Leading up to the 2018 election, Trump tweeted hysterically about “migrant caravans” headed toward our border full of MS-13 members and people from the “Middle East.” The racist turn doesn’t activate his base in a vacuum; it requires liberal outrage to produce a feedback cycle that keeps his supporters riled up and convinced that there is a war to fight.
This is a nasty loop, and it’s hard to break out of it. But this is a president who responds remarkably well to incentives, however craven, and at present he has no incentive to act differently. His racism feeds his perceived strength. If we, by which I mean the media and the public, could internalize and be clearer about the frantic bet Trump is making—that his calculated racism isn’t just a strategy but a tell that he’s desperate to change the story—the incentives might work a little differently.