Trump’s anti-Chinese racist campaign strategy mobilizes right-wing extremists
In this April 15, 2020, file photo protesters carry rifles near the steps of the Michigan State Capitol building in Lansing, Mich. Protesters drove past the Michigan Capitol to show their displeasure with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's orders to keep people at home and businesses locked during the new coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak. | Paul Sancya / AP

In a direct attack on China and a clear indictment of international cooperation to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. President Donald Trump unilaterally ordered withholding funds from the World Health Organization. In a White House statement, Trump accused the international body of “preferential treatment” for China and “mismanaging” the pandemic.

Aside from the glaring hypocrisy and irony of Trump’s projection of his mismanagement of the crisis onto international actors, the move is part of a broader Trump campaign strategy in the run-up to the November presidential elections. The strategy entails using anti-Chinese xenophobia and racism to mobilize white voters to support Trump and Republican candidates.

Not only is this racist strategy a blow to democracy in the U.S., it also puts many lives at risk, here and around the world.

U.S. public opinion has turned sharply against the Trump administration because of its unsympathetic incompetence in handling the epidemic.

Hundreds of protesters gather outside Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’ official residence, Friday, April 17, 2020 in St. Paul, Minn. | Glen Stubbe / Star Tribune via AP

Trump ally and right-wing columnist Ben Shapiro, in social media and published columns, promoted this racist strategy. He senselessly defended the racist use of the phrase “Chinese virus.” Shapiro and other Republican commentators and politicians have used the term to blame China for the pandemic openly. “The Chinese government is chiefly responsible,” he wrote, and described it as having been deliberately “unleashed.”

In a Tweet in mid-March, Shapiro wrote, “If the media want Trump re-elected by massive numbers, they should keep asking him why he’s mean to China after they unleashed coronavirus on an unsuspecting world.” Shapiro claimed that the virus originated because of alleged Chinese unsanitary food culture and implied that the Chinese government used it as an attack on the U.S.

Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott recklessly accused China of causing the pandemic with the WHO as an accomplice. “The bottom line is the WHO’s actions and China’s actions killed a lot of people,” the Trump ally claimed. Scott, who went unpunished for his part in a massive medical fraud scandal as the CEO of Columbia/HCA, represents a state that is usually considered a toss-up in presidential elections.

Other Republican politicians attempted to promote conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus to fuel this campaign strategy. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas cruelly claimed that the virus originated in a military facility supposedly near Wuhan, China, and was deployed as a military operation.

These contradictory conspiracy theories were echoed by Sen. Lindsey Graham, who added the demagogic and odd proposal that the U.S. should refuse to pay the public debt owed to China. Graham’s demand seemed to indicate his low-level of knowledge of how the international bond market works.

Given the contradictions between Shapiro’s and Cotton’s theories about the origins of the virus, it is evident that Republican campaign strategists do not care about learning or sharing scientific truths about the disease. Instead, they want to promote fear and hostility to deflect from the incompetence of the Trump administration and his callous response to the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans.

In an open letter published in the British science journal The Lancet, a group of scientists prudently cautioned, “Conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumors, and prejudice that jeopardize our global collaboration in the fight against this virus.”

False and racist rhetoric as a strategy in the presidential campaign has coincided with a surge of anti-Asian racism and hostility in the U.S. In late March, the New York Times interviewed dozens of Asian-Americans, who reported being yelled at, spit on, and treated with hostility since Trump’s decision to deflect his incompetence with anti-China rhetoric.

“The rhetoric from the nation’s highest office is creating a climate of hate that is permeating the country and putting people at risk,” warned Southern Poverty Law Center’s interim CEO Karen Baynes Dunning. “There has been an increase in reports of bias-related attacks against Asians and Asian Americans in communities and online.”

In the state of Michigan, also a hotly contested state in the presidential election, “multiple reports of discrimination and bias incidents targeting Asian Americans and individuals of Asian descent in Michigan” raised new alarms, according to the Michigan Civil Rights Commission.

Denise Yee Grim, who serves on the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, in a public message directly to President Trump, said, “You just put a target on the Asian community.” She cited physical assaults on Asian people as well as boycotts of Asian-American owned businesses.

Militias, neo-Nazis, and neo-Confederates

Republican rhetoric about the virus and China fans the flames of racist hatred. The President and his allies crave racist violence, abuses, and hostility to flourish between now and the election, perhaps even permanently. These so-called leaders might as well be walking the streets themselves lashing out at Asian Americans. But they will leave that work up to their emboldened fans and followers.

In Michigan last week, the Republican Party mobilized a pro-Trump political rally that defied medical advice about social distancing and demanded an end to the statewide stay-at-home order. The Republican Party rally was fueled in part by a widespread fear of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s popularity for authoritatively taking on Trump’s callous response to the pandemic and forcing him to use more federal resources to address it.

In part, the rally organizers were motivated by Trump’s widespread lies and distortions of the “stay-at-home” policy, which have been further propagated by Sen. Ted Cruz and Republican media personality Meghan McCain. For her part, Whitmer ordered a moratorium on utility shut-offs and extensions for rent payments, won promises from health insurers to pay for COVID-19 testing and treatment, and accessed stockpiles of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers and a host of other worker protections during the pandemic.

The pro-Trump political rally prompted participation from large groups of heavily armed right-wing militias, along with the white supremacist Proud Boys waving the Confederate flag. Dark money groups tied to Betsy DeVos and the Trump campaign funded the event.

Public health experts warned that the gathering of so many people for the Republican Party rally could result in the further spread of the virus and necessitate an extension of the “stay-at-home” order.

An man holds a confederate battle flag and South Carolina state flag outside an appearance by former U.N. Ambassador and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley at a campaign rally for Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., Monday, March 9, 2020, in Marietta, Ga. | John Bazemore / AP

Fox News, the right wing, and COVID-19 capitalism

Right-wing media has taken up Trump’s demand to force people to defy medical advice to stay at home during the pandemic and return to the workplace. Anti-worker ideologue Scott Walker told Fox News that workers should be forced to return to manufacturing first. Companies should close down break rooms, he said, and force workers to stay at their machines.

TV-Dr. Oz told Fox News that authorities should force children back to school. Describing that idea as “appetizing,” Oz claimed that a 2-3% mortality would be likely but acceptable to him.

Adding to the push to force workers back into the economy and children back into schools was another celebrity “Dr.” Phil McGraw. McGraw told his viewers that staying at home to stop the spread of COVID-19 would have economic effects that would be deadlier than the disease.

The energized campaign to force people back to work and back into the public puts the lives of workers and their families at risk of infection, illness, and death. It dovetails with right-wing callousness and resistance to public interventions during times of social crisis. It highlights the worst characteristics of neoliberal political strategies that aim to privatize public entities and energize the predatory nature of the corporate sector to profit from disaster.

More fundamentally, this move exposes how desperate capitalism is to access the labor-power of the 25 million workers who have been laid off and the millions more whose productivity has been drastically reduced due to the pandemic. Because capitalism cannot operate without the labor-power of workers, the profits of the capitalist class are in danger. Thus, they have mobilized right-wing callousness to shift the public discourse from solidarity against the disease and support for the working class in this crisis to the return to work.

The Trump campaign and the Republican Party have shown themselves willing to align with this capitalist urge. They have used campaign and public resources to mobilize their fringe allies in the militia movement, as well as neo-Nazi and neo-Confederate elements, to threaten public officials who resist forcing workers into dangerous exposure for the sake of Wall Street profits.


Joel Wendland-Liu
Joel Wendland-Liu

Joel Wendland-Liu teaches courses on diversity, intercultural competence, migration, and civil rights at Grand Valley State University in West Michigan. He is the author of "Mythologies: A Political Economy of U.S. Literature, Settler Colonialism, and Racial Capitalism in the Long Nineteenth Century" (International Publishers) and "The Collectivity of Life" (Lexington Books).