For a man who campaigned on inflammatory rhetoric and made anti-immigrant policies a cornerstone of his agenda, it should perhaps come as little surprise that appears to be the next turn in Donald Trump’s defense against the coronavirus.
With COVID-19 spreading across the US, Trump tweeted on Tuesday morning that “we need the wall more than ever!” falling back on his tried and tested trope of blaming immigrants for the country’s ills.
Trump’s allies in Washington and on Fox News have ramped up their rhetoric against China, as they are faced with a core dilemma: how to prepare the population for severe disruptions while ensuring no blowback on the man in the White House? At least part of the answer seems to be: xenophobia.
Fox News has shifted to nearly nonstop coverage of the coronavirus. During the day, viewers get largely straightforward information about the virus’s spread, the administration’s response, the danger of cruise ships, and general health advice. When the channel’s opinion powerhouses come out at night, it’s a different story.
On Monday night, two of the network’s three main opinion hosts — Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham — leaned heavily into the fact that the virus originated in China and that any response should further isolate the US from the country. (The third, Sean Hannity, focused on combating criticism of Trump’s handling of the crisis.)
“People you know will get sick. Some may die. This is real,” Carlson said at the top of his hour, striking a more alarmist tone than anyone else on the network. He called out those on the right, including those in government for being overly blasé. “People you trust — people you probably voted for — have spent weeks minimizing what is a very serious problem,” he said. But first, he had words for the left, speaking next to a graphic that blared: “the Chinese coronavirus.”
“On the left, you’ve heard them tell you that the real worry is you might use the wrong word to describe what’s happening to the country,” he said. “It’s racist, they’re telling you, to blame the most racist country in the world for the spread of this virus. Right.”
“It's extraordinarily predictable,” said Paul Lombardo, a professor at Georgia State University and expert on eugenics. “It's consistent with the usual historical trend — you decide who you want to stay away from, people you don't want in the country, and then you exploit them.” He pointed to the anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from Trump and his allies since before they entered the White House, and the language of infestation often deployed against those looking to enter America. “The bigotry against actual or would-be immigrants kind of goes hand in hand with the scapegoating of those same groups at a time of medical crisis.”
Attaching a Chinese descriptor to the virus — formally known as COVID-19 — has become a means of signaling xenophobic intent. When the virus first emerged late last year, many called it the “Wuhan flu” or something similar, but shifted after the World Health Organization formally gave the virus a name. “On the one hand I think that there could be a relatively innocent reason,” Lombardo said. “But that the messaging is coming out from people who know about messaging is not by chance.”
Rep. Kevin McCarthy has taken to calling the virus “the Chinese coronavirus,” first in a tweet Monday evening and then repeatedly that night in an interview with Laura Ingraham on Fox. Rep. Grace Meng, vice-chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said in a statement Tuesday that his use of the term was “embarrassing, disrespectful, offensive, and downright disgusting.” She continued: “Wrongly inserting ‘Chinese’ into the name of this disease only reinforces the disparaging and negative stereotypes of Asian Americans.” Asian Americans and Asians around the world have already been targeted by racist slurs and attacks in the wake of the virus.
“The naming of a novel disease is so critically important because of the power that a name — especially tied to a particular geography, region or place — can have in producing stigma,” said Alexandre White, an assistant professor of sociology and the history of medicine at Johns Hopkins. In the past, diseases were often named after where they originated — from Lyme to West Nile — but White said those diseases were “quite old” and standards had evolved since then.
The way previous outbreaks of disease were discussed worked to both stigmatize entire populations and to mask forms of transmission, White said, pointing in particular to the HIV epidemic.
Both Carlson and Ingraham called on the administration to further disengage the US from the global, and particularly the Chinese, economy. “One of the first things we can do to prepare ourselves is break our dependence on China for essential medical supplies,” Carlson said. Ingraham said Trump should take “steps that harken back to his original America First agenda.”
“We can’t keep flooding America with migrant families on the bogus asylum pretense. We gotta be stronger on these borders,” she said, while discussing the coronavirus. “While some people are being flown back to Mexico pending their cases, thousands are still getting in and impossible to screen completely — for health,” she said. “Now is not the time to take in any extra burdens on our schools or the health care system.”
“The question I would have for Fox News especially is: What is the benefit of this blame?” White asked. “And the answer is, foundationally, that it allows you to justify very aggressive responses against the Chinese economically, which are in no way in the interest of public health and solely in the interest of racist xenophobic anxieties or economic protectionism.”
“The US has a particular history of epidemic control and particularly Sinophobia,” he said, pointing to a 1900 outbreak of the bubonic plague in Hawaii following an epidemic in Asia. Local authorities dealt with the outbreak through a strict quarantine of Honolulu’s Chinatown — avoiding buildings occupied by white people. Later, they burned much of that Chinatown down.