By Eddie Wong.
With the election just two weeks away, Trump has emerged from his first-class treatment from coronavirus with his megalomania expanded to dangerous proportions. At a recent campaign rally, Trump said he did not know what drugs he took but that he “felt like Superman.” Indeed, Trump had access to first-class medical treatment including the monoclonal antibodies drug Regeneron and the steroid dexamethasone that are rarely afforded to millions of Americans infected with the coronavirus. Although he projects a vigorous image, one wonders about his mental health. His dubious boasts – “I’m the best President for Black America since Lincoln” – fly alongside truly unhinged acts such as retweeting an article about the QAnon conspiracy theory alleging “Biden and Obama may have had Seal Team 6 killed” and that Bin Laden may still be alive.
Trailing in national and state polls, Trump hopes to win by appealing to voters as the guardian at the gate holding back the forces of anarchism and social change. While some may abhor his personality, he upholds their conservative social values and espouses the anti-communism/anti-socialism deeply ingrained in a large sector of the American populace. Trumpism and its message to turn back the clock to a time women and minorities knew their subservient place is deeply rooted in American politics. Progressives will need to figure out a way to move people away from the fear and hostility amplified by Trump. Biden’s message of decency and unity provides a healthy starting point for a new national dialog on tough issues that continue to divide us.
At the moment, the tide appears to be turning in favor of progressives. Polls indicate that Trump has lost support among non-college educated white women in Minnesota and his lead in Wisconsin with white voters is shrinking in the face of a Biden/Harris surge. See Trump losing white voters – Politico. At this point, given the trend towards a larger Democratic turnout that began in the 2018 midterm elections and the huge amount of mail-in ballots by Democratic voters weeks before Nov. 3, the Democrats should carry the day. See High Early Voting by Democrats – USA Today. However, the election might even be closer than expected as many Trump supporters are highly energized in the swing states and with Trump’s implicit encouragement rightwing groups intend to intimidate voters at polling places on Nov. 3. Progressives are organizing election defense efforts via The Frontline/Working Families Party and Standing Up for Racial Justice.
Long lines for early voting in Bloomington, IN on Oct. 5, 2020. Photo by George Hale, WFIU News.
But even if Trump loses, the damage is done. Trumpism aka white nationalism has long been a strain of American politics but its institutions have grown under Trump, e.g. the rise of groups like QAnon and the growing number of far-right rallies. See Southern Poverty Law Center article on rise in far-right rallies in Trump era. White grievance politics has surged with a vengeance as it has combined with anxiety and anger over the coronavirus which Trump blames on China. That toxicity has resulted in thousands of acts of violence against Asian Americans emboldening racists and xenophobes to attack African Americans, Latinx people, and Jewish institutions too. In the 12 hours after Trump announced that he had coronavirus, there was an 85% increase in anti-Asian tweets and pro-conspiracy theory tweets out of 2.7 million tweets studied by the Anti-Defamation League. 41% of those tweets espoused conspiracy theories about the spread of COVID-19 with many of those tweets expressing anti-Semitism. Racial hostility and xenophobia were always present in the U.S., but Trump has encouraged it to flourish with his refusal to denounce right wing extremist groups such as the Proud Boys.
How China Bashing Became Trump’s Rallying Cry
As Trump barnstorms the country hoping to reverse his slide in the polls, he continues to call the coronavirus “the China virus” and follows up with a “make them pay” punchline. He almost makes bashing China one’s patriotic duty. On September 23, Trump said at a Pittsburgh rally: “It’s the China virus. It is not the coronavirus. Corona sounds like a place in Italy, a beautiful place…No. It’s the China virus…They don’t want you to say it… the radical left they don’t want to say it.” China virus/China plague” functions in the same way “build the wall” did in the 2016 campaign. It’s a call to action and linch pin that propels a campaign of hate and vengeance against those Trump deems as enemies.
As I wrote in an earlier article Trump’s China Bashing, Trump and the Republicans have an 57- page messaging playbook which puts the blame on China to redirect focus away from Trump’s disastrous handling of the pandemic. According to an AP/NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll in July 16-20, Trump hit a new low as only 32% of respondents supported his strategy on the pandemic. Only 20% of those polled believed the U.S. is headed in the right direction. Trump generally ignores negative news and calls these polls “fake news” and “suppression polls.”
Trump did not demonize China when he first heard of the coronavirus on January 3, 2020 from Robert Redfield of the Center for Disease Control who was in contact with doctors in China. Redfield then told Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar who informed the National Security Council. Trump dismissed the warning of a possible pandemic fearing it would jeopardize a $50 billion trade deal with China to buy American farm products. When Joe Kernan/CNBC asked on Jan. 22 if the U.S. could trust what China had to say about the coronavirus outbreak, Trump said that it was “under control” and that he trusted President Xi and that they were about to sign a big trade deal. At this point, Trump knew how terrible the coronavirus truly was, but the trade deal with key to Trump’s reelection efforts and he did not want to upset President Xi and squash the deal.
Phase One of a US-China trade deal was signed on Jan. 15, 2020 but that was not enough. Trump wanted to move onto Phase Two of trade negotiation. Thus, he traded a trade deal that would boost his standing over ensuring the safety of millions of people in the U.S.
Wuhan, China was locked down on January 23, 2020 until April 8, 2020.
Trump chose to lie while thousands were becoming infected and dying. In an interview with Bob Woodward on February 7, Trump referred to the coronavirus as “more deadly than even your strenuous flu.” Yet in public, Trump said on Feb. 27 that “it’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle.”
March marked the turning point towards a full-bore China bashing. At that point, COVID-19 was slamming the U.S. with 40,000 cases and 473 deaths. Travel was halted to the U.S. from China and Europe. States began to issue shelter-in-place orders. As multiple problems such as the lack of personal protective equipment and lack of diagnostic tests overwhelmed the health care system, criticism of Trump mounted and only 44% of those polled approved of his job performance.
Trump stepped on the gas to vilify China. According to the website Factbase, Trump uttered the phrase “China virus” more than 20 times between March 16 and 20. The World Health Organization established in 2015 that infectious diseases should not be attributed to a country, geographical area or animal because it stigmatizes people and animals and can often be inaccurate, e.g. the H1N1 influenza was mistakenly called swine flu even though it came from an avian source. Trump chooses to ignore WHO’s recommendations and brays “China virus” ad nauseum because he wants to project the image of a strong leader fighting an unethical China.
Trump and the Republicans’ anti-China message falls on fertile ground. There is a long history of derogatory stereotypes of Chinese and Asians as diseased predators and there is fear related to the enormous hardships caused economically and socially by the pandemic. The PEW Research Center’s March 2020 polling showed that 66% of those polled had an unfavorable opinion of China, no doubt related to China’s lack of transparency at the beginning of the crisis. (Note: Peter Hessler’s article “The Sealed City – COVID-19 questions in Wuhan, where it all started” in the New Yorker, October 12, 2020 provides a detailed portrait of alarm raised by Chinese writer Fang Fang and local doctors at the initial spread of what later became known as COVID-19. The article also describes how the total lockdown and tracing of the infections led to the current low incidence of the coronavirus in Wuhan.)
Anti-Trump rallies have continued since Day One of his administration.
False narratives Bolster Trump’s Racist Call
Casting himself as a great leader in a time of war, Trump said on May 7, “This is worse than Pearl Harbor, this is worse than the World Trade Center… could’ve been stopped at the source… and it wasn’t.” This inflammatory rhetoric casts a natural phenomenon, zoonoses, the transmission of disease from animals to humans, into an act of war. Given the racial animosity generated in the aftermath of US wars in Asia, one can easily see how Trump’s words would embolden people to attack Chinese Americans and anyone presumed to be Chinese.
Trump has repeated issued false statements to bolster his argument. He even floated out the idea that the coronavirus was made in a Wuhan lab and released, a theory that has been rejected by U.S. intelligence services. Trump’s current line of attack is that China stopped internal travel but allowed travelers to fly from Wuhan to Europe and the U.S. enabling the spread the disease. Could China have banned international travel earlier? Possibly, but in early January the Chinese medical establishment was sorting out and confirming the genome of the coronavirus. On January 11, 2020, the genome was shared with scientists throughout the world. The lockdown of Wuhan and the cessation of international air travel from Wuhan started on January 23, 2020.
Even the origin of the coronavirus has not been settled. Wuhan may not have been the original site of the coronavirus. Peter Daszak, who researches bat coronaviruses, told New Yorker magazine (October 12, 2020 issue) that the disease might have been already trickling through the population and that most likely it occurred in Kunming or Guangzhou, which are cities closer to bat caves and have active wildlife trade. Animal products might have been shipped from southern China to the Wuhan market and people may have become infected well before doctors began noticing in late December that a cluster of patients with flu-like symptoms did not respond to standard recovery medication.
Travel restrictions are cited by scientists as ineffective ways to deal with infectious diseases. Travel bans in 2006 to halt the avian flu did not work. “Our simulations demonstrate that, in a highly mobile population, restricting travel after an outbreak is detected is likely to delay slightly the time course of the outbreak without impacting the eventual number ill,” said Timothy C. Germann, author of a research study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science on April 11, 2006. With COVID-19, the campaign urged by Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is to prevent infection by wearing masks, practicing social distancing, and washing hands thoroughly, steps that Trump rejects by going maskless.
Trump ratcheted up hostilities in his September 22 speech at the United Nations with a call to “hold China accountable of their actions.” On Oct. 2 after Trump announced that he had coronavirus, Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) tweeted “China gave this virus to our President. We must hold them accountable.” This line of argument may stick with us even after Trump loses the election. If one accepts the argument that China committed a crime by “unleashing” COVID-19 then the wrongdoer must pay damages. China has not dignified this charge with any response. It’s ludicrous to characterize the pandemic as a form of germ warfare by China but the QAnon crowd will continue to amplify conspiracy theories.
International Cooperation vs America First
Trump’s hostilities towards the World Health Organization as the “enabler” of China’s lies and the withdrawal of US funding support have put the US in an isolated position. International condemnation came on July 8 with Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza calling Trump’s pullout decision “serious and wrong.” Jens Spahn, Germany’s health minister called Trump’s move a “setback for international cooperation” and added that more global cooperation, not less, is needed to fight pandemics.
Just as the U.S. exits from the international scene, China is ready to step in a big way. After being criticized for withholding information about the coronavirus in January by bloggers in China and the foreign press, China realizes that it must restore China’s image as a responsible world power. Thus, China wants to be the first nation in the world to come up with an effective vaccine. The Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention announced on Sept. 15, 2020 that four vaccines are in Phase 3 trials, which involve thousands of people being given the vaccine in Brazil, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Peru and Argentina. Full approval of the vaccines can only occur after the Phase 3 trials verify the safety and effectiveness of the drugs. The Chinese have high confidence in these vaccines and two plants have been approved for production. Nature magazine reported on October 9, 2020 that China will have capacity to produce 600 million doses by the end of the year, and one billion doses in 2021 according to government officials. Doses have also been promised for the nations in which testing has been done. The vaccines are reported to have an effectiveness of one to three years.
China and Russia have also teamed up on the development of vaccines. In August 2020, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova said that an agreement was signed to create a joint Chinese/Russian laboratory for coronavirus research (Nikkei Asia, Sept.18, 2020). Scientists at the lab run by the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Microbiology and the Mechnikov Research Institute of Vaccines and Serums will exchange information from clinical trials.
CanSino Biologics based in Tianjin, China conducted Phase 3 testing of its coronavirus vaccine in Russia. Once the vaccine is developed it will be registered in Russia and distributed by Petrovax Pharm, a major Russian pharmaceutical company. This vaccine would be used in addition to the Sputnik V which was approved by the Russian Ministry of Health in August 2020 even though it had only been tested on 76 people. The Gamaleya Institute developed this vaccine based upon its Middle East Respiratory Syndrome vaccine. Astra Zeneca and the University of Oxford researchers are pursuing a similar route with the adaptation of another MERS vaccine. American firms Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and Novavax also have drugs in Phase 3 trials.
Playa Maya Water Park in Wuhan, China reopened in August with temperature checks for all patrons as well as keeping the park at 50% capacity.
China’s commitment to international cooperation was highlighted in a May 2 announcement by President Xi that it will allocate $2 billion to fund the distribution of a vaccine to neighboring countries in Asia and to partners in Latin America and Africa. On October 9, China joined the COVAX, the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility, which promises to distribute two billion doses of a vaccine by the end of 2021 to low- and middle-income countries. 150 nations have agreed to participate in COVAX, and the organization aims to raise $18 billion to accomplish its goals. To date, the UK has contributed $640 million, Canada pledged $166 million; Japan $140 million; Germany $120 million and the U.S. zero dollars. It is unclear how much China is allocating to COVAX vs its own bilateral agreements with countries.
China’s participation in the face of the Trump administration’s refuse to participate is being viewed favorably. Alexandra Phelan at the Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health Science and Security characterized China’s participation as “sending a strong message about a commitment to an international, multilateral effort and commitment to vaccines as global public goods.” (Washington Post, Oct. 9, 2020).
These international efforts to curb the pandemic are truly the only humane and realistic way to move forward. As long as there are people infected with coronavirus anywhere, the longer this disease will be a danger to us everywhere. Trump’s go-it-alone attitude has left the U.S. disconnected from efforts that could benefit the U.S. This is why getting Trump out of office is the main priority. There can be no movement forward on solving our health crisis or economic collapse with Trump at the helm of the federal government.
Shifting the Dialog from Recrimination to Recovery
Trump’s toxic rhetoric will only die down over time. Long after he is out of the White House (as of this moment Trump is trailing in the national and state polls and early voting appears to be heavily Democratic), the right wing media machine that creates and sustains a world view based on falsehoods and advocacy for white nationalism remains firmly in place. The right wing remains entrenched in many local and state governments. The think tanks and policy institutes that lobby against climate justice, LGBTQ+ rights, and economic reform remain well-funded with a steady pipeline of talking points to legislators, talk show hosts, and activists. These are formidable obstacles to overcome.
Woman’s March January 2017 in Oakland, CA. Photo by Eddie Wong.
Progressives have the same conversation every four years, i.e. the need for long-term messaging and base building to solidify and expand support for social change. Yet, our efforts remain scattered and uncoordinated though there are encouraging signs such as wide ranging support for reform efforts such at the BREATHE Act promoted by the Movement for Black Lives and the THRIVE Agenda , an economic revival program pushed by environmentalists, labor, liberals, and other progressives. And on the local level, multi-racial, multi-sectoral alliances (the rainbow coalitions of today) continue to push for a People’s Budget to reset priorities in funding at the city and county level. Progressives will need to apply people pressure on a Biden/Harris administration to advance fundamental change. But first, we must win the election on Nov. 3.
It’s clear to many people that the inequalities that were baked into the system must be addressed in the upcoming recovery efforts. In addition to the often-touted and much needed investment in repairing the U.S. infrastructure with green construction projects in housing, roads, bridges, water and power systems and more, there is a need for more human services, e.g. child care, senior care, mental wellness, physical wellness, and education. Thousands of workers who have lost their jobs permanently due to the pandemic and/or automation could find new good-paying socially beneficial employment in these fields. The only entity capable of funding new infrastructure, new job development, income support, unemployment benefits and expanded health care is the federal government – all the more reason to sweep the Repugs out of office.
Lastly and most importantly, the recovery is about developing and deploying vaccines and/or effective treatment in case the hunt of an effective vaccine lasts for decades. The health inequities that make people of color and low-income folks more vulnerable to COVID-19 must also be addressed if we truly want to achieve lessen the likelihood of coronavirus spikes.
Trump has driven political discourse to its lowest point through his lies and misinformation. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain by setting high goals and new standards for a better and more equitable society as we move towards recovery.
Author’s bio: Eddie Wong is the editor/publisher of East Wind ezine. He was a co-editor of Roots: An Asian American Reader (UCLA 1971) and co-founder of Visual Communications, the pioneering nonprofit Asian American media company in Los Angeles. He later served as National Field Director for the 1988 Jesse Jackson for President campaign, Executive Director of NAATA/Center for Asian American Media, and Executive Director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation.
Trump rally July 9, 2020 in Tulsa, OK. Photo from The Guardian.