This virus isn't nationalist. The leaders exploiting it are.
Welcome back to The Long Version, a newsletter by Jonathan Myerson Katz.
The right wing’s pivot from murderous denial to racist blame-shifting was the obvious next step in the coronavirus disaster. But that doesn’t make it any less important to pay attention to Trump’s unmistakably fascist turn in the last twenty-four hours. It’s a sign of where he may try to drive the crisis next, and a response to where he rightly fears it might go.
An email blast sent last night by the president’s reelection campaign set the tone. Look past the headline—an absurd accusation against Joe Biden and a reminder that the Republicans will red bait whoever gets the Democratic nomination. The key line comes just after:
“America is under attack—not just by an invisible virus, but by the Chinese.”
Today it got worse. Trump opened his now-apparently-daily White House briefing: “We continue the relentless effort to defeat the Chinese virus.” (Trump got caught having personally crossed out the word “corona” and scribbling the country’s name himself in his prepared remarks.)
Then he took a question from One America News, a far-right pro-Trump cable outfit:
The correspondent, Chanel Rion, is a notorious racist conspiracy theorist. Her online bio says she grew up between Texas, France, and her mother’s native South Korea. Having someone of partial Korean-American descent run interference for Trump’s anti-Asian ranting is par for the course with Trumpworld’s normal bluster: introducing enough plausible deniability to get self-appointed moderators arguing about whether the obviously racist thing is racist. The president took Rion’s cue. Immediately he started deflecting criticism back onto his critics—most of whom are gullible enough to take the bait.
But we don’t have to fall for it. Trump is demonizing billions of people on purpose. The only question worth asking right now is why.
The point is bigger than his usual health-themed xenophobia or entertaining his racist base. Trump is suddenly in deep trouble, and he knows it. His one advantage this coming November—other than vote suppression and whatever ratfucking his allies have planned—and was a good-enough economy and a booming stock market. That’s gone now. The Covid-19 crisis is revealing, at the worst possible time for him, his incompetence, his inability to lead, and the vulnerability of the nation with him at the helm.
“What do you have to lose?” he asked four years ago. The answer for many in the coming months will be their savings, their loved ones, and their lives.
Worse for the TV businessman, the virus and the inability of American society to cope with it starting to look like an indictment of capitalism itself. It won’t be lost on many that the “free market” and private healthcare did little to protect us from the virus. Nor that a mere bug, which Trump until recently taught his followers to mock as “just the flu,” brought corporations to the point of ruin and a country that depends on them to a standstill in a matter of days.
Trump and his fellow Republicans could become the targets of a major backlash. There must be some sense in Washington that, for all the seemingly empty recent bluster of “political revolution,” if the crisis proves dire enough, a real one could be waiting in the wings.
That fear of the people, not some newfound sense of social responsibility nor a desire to outflank the Democrats “from the left,” is what is driving the GOP to suddenly champion cash handouts and other limited forms of welfare that, just weeks ago, they and their centrist allies mocked. (It will not be lost on voters either that, it has also not apparently kept some—like Sen. Richard Burr, a senior Republican from North Carolina—from secretly trying to cash in on the crisis.)
But any pandemic can also provide a despot with a way out. In her 1989 book AIDS and its Metaphors, Susan Sontag wrote about the way societies tend to frame epidemics in military terms: “a fight, a struggle, a war.” “Particularly dreaded diseases are envisaged as an alien ‘other,’ as enemies are in modern war; and the move from the demonization of the illness to the attribution of fault to the patient is an inevitable one.”
If Trump can get away with identifying Covid-19, not with the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes it but the country where it first happened to surface, he might be able to transform himself from a malignant clown who severely botched a public health emergency to a commander-in-chief in a war—a pose that voters often reward with reelection. It would give the public a far-away place to direct their rage. The odds of cosplay paramilitaries from Kansas staging an attack on Beijing are remote. Letting people hunger for one, though, might prevent a mass action in Washington. Mob violence against Asian Americans is a price he is perfectly willing to pay.
The irony, of course, as Republicans are eager to tell you, is that Chinese leaders are trying to do the same thing. Their problem is similar: faith in the system, in that case a “socialist market economy” overseen by an authoritarian Communist Party, has been shaken by the epidemic. Chinese officials were also slow to admit the outbreak was real, then forced to resort to draconian measures to contain it. Building on social media rumors, some in Beijing have spread wild fantasies that Covid-19 is caused by an “American virus,” a U.S. Army bioweapon meant to bring a rising rival down.
Trump and his sycophants say they are fighting back against Chinese propaganda. Yet the OAN correspondent Trump praised today pushed a very similar conspiracy theory to the Chinese one this week—repeating, without any evidence, a fellow conspiracy-mongerer’s claim that the virus was created in a North Carolina lab as part of a “deep state” plot to bring the Trump economy down.
You don’t have to keep track of every twist and turn. The point of all of this is to create confusion, fear, and hate. It seems extremely unlikely that Trump is actually planning a war against China over a disease that struck that country’s own people hardest and first. Just a month ago, Trump was singing Chinese President Xi Jinping’s praises with bilateral military gusto—“strong, sharp, and powerfully focused on leading the counterattack on the Coronavirus,” as he put it—an egregious bout of overstatement one might be tempted to call “Chinese Communist Party propaganda.”
Despite the threats to their systems and economies, authoritarians like Xi, Trump, and Vladimir Putin each have a lot to gain if they can exploit the fear of the coronavirus. And that’s the real threat of Trump’s new rhetoric. He is trying to ride the wave, and not be drowned by it. As Steve Bannon, Trump’s former adviser, told Fox News in 2014: “When the economy crashes, when the country goes to total hell, and everything is a disaster, then you’ll have riots to go back to where we used to be, when we were great.”
Regular people, on the other hand, have far more to gain if we work together. All people are threatened by a pathogen that doesn’t care about race, borders, or economic systems. In the end, it is just a virus. We have to be bigger than it is.
Thanks for reading.
Jonathan Myerson Katz is a journalist and the author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, will trace the origins and contradictions of America’s empire. Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.
Photo: Londoners protest Trump, Press Association