Why tough talk on China is troubling
In capitalizing on the twin fears of COVID19 and loss of American status, presidential hopefuls are playing with fire
The opening salvo in the general election has been fired — and it doesn’t bode well for the kind of national conversation we’ll be seeing from here on out. Instead of focusing on the economy, healthcare or any number of pressing issues related to the COVID19 crisis, Donald Trump and Joe Biden are exchanging attack ads accusing each other of being soft on China.
Trump’s Super PAC kicked things off by circulating three short spots under the hashtag #BeijingBiden. They feature a narrator talking over ominous music about how China is “killing our jobs, stealing technology, putting America’s health in danger.” Clips of Biden saying positive things about China — “They’re not bad folks” — are spliced in.
Not to be outdone, Biden’s campaign came out with an ad accusing Trump of “roll[ing] over for China” replete with footage of marching PLA soldiers that gave it menacing Cold War overtones.
This latest move is fairly typical of Biden’s political career. Today, it’s a competition of who can be the toughest on China, but in the 1980s, it was crime. Biden attacked Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush from the right, accusing the Republican presidents of being lax in their prosecution of the drug war. Under Bill Clinton, this same sort of posturing continued, culminating in the 1994 Crime Bill.
It’s a pattern that has played out over and over again in the past few decades. The Republicans call the tune and the Democrats dance to it. It’s a rigged game in which the right always wins by dictating the terms. Even if they lose elections, they still manage to bludgeon liberals into adopting some components of their platform, be it Barack Obama’s extension of the Bush tax cuts or Clinton’s “welfare reform.”
We saw it again post-Sept. 11, when George W. Bush was able to browbeat Democrats into supporting the Iraq War with his “with us or against us” rhetoric. Facing reelection in an environment of surging nationalism, Biden became one of the biggest cheerleaders for the war on the Democratic side.
Accusing Trump of caving to “the Chinese” is inconsistent with Biden’s earlier condemnation of the president for labeling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.” He called out Trump for inflaming xenophobic sentiments, which have already manifested in hate crimes against Asian Americans, only to turn around and effectively validate Trump’s messaging.
The stigma associated with the label “Chinese virus” is only a component of a larger, more harmful narrative. This type of scapegoating is dangerous for the same reason it’s effective.
Nationalist impulses run deep in the United States, and they’re ripe for exploitation by right-wing populists like Trump. Americans have a tendency to self-identify with the nation to the extent that any threat to the country becomes personal.
Even before the outbreak started, China was poised to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy this year. Its competent handling of the outbreak relative to the Trump Administration’s appears to have hastened this changing of the guard.
The offshoring of American manufacturing to East Asia has accelerated over the past few decades, and Trump seized on this in the 2016 election. Deflecting blame from US multinationals who relocated production in search of cheap labor, he accused China of “raping our country.”
Existing anxiety over the United States’ loss of status and anger about “stolen jobs” is only compounded by the erroneous perception that China is primarily responsible for the current threat to our health (New York’s outbreak was mainly driven by travelers from Europe). Due to our deeply rooted legacy of white supremacy, this cocktail of resentments is easily transmuted into racialized violence.
In the 1980s, fears over Japan’s ascension gave rise to a wave of Japan bashing among politicians and in the media. Widespread anti-Japan attitudes led to racist harassment against East Asians and in some cases violence. The most notable incident was the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, who was beaten to death by two laid-off autoworkers in Detroit because they mistakenly believed he was Japanese.
Biden’s ad reinforced the premise implicit in calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” — that the Chinese were the carriers of the plague. It asserted that Trump’s major error was failing to stop them.
The purpose of the ad was to show strength, but the opposite is true. It demonstrated that Biden’s campaign is too weak to seize control over the narrative. Instead of make a principled case purely on the basis of Trump’s inadequacies, they attempted to beat the Republican’s at their own game.
But there’s the rub. It’s their game. The rules are defined in their favor, and Biden isn’t going to beat Trump in a jingoism contest.
To paraphrase Audre Lorde: The house of fascism won’t be dismantled by fascism’s tools.