Let me start with a concession: the Coronavirus did originate in China. To that degree, the president’s use of the term “Chinese virus” is accurate. I’ll follow it up with another concession: the Chinese government is deserving of criticism for its handling of the initial outbreak. Though recent governmental efforts have led to a vast reduction of new cases inside the country, it’s reasonable to think that more effective measures early on could have helped to prevent some of the worldwide chaos that we are experiencing now.
Those concessions withstanding, Donald Trump’s recent rebranding of COVID-19 as the “Chinese” virus is disgusting. It’s a transparent attempt to tap into the racism and xenophobia that animates much of his base, and perhaps worse, a shameful act of cowardice during a time when strong leadership and accountability couldn’t be more important.
I’ve repeatedly resisted the urge to call Donald Trump a racist. I’m a firm believer that that term should be reserved for people who truly hold hatred in their hearts for different “races” of people, not people who are racially unenlightened. Trump is definitely the latter, and while he may not be the former, he sure has no problem exploiting the racial hatred of others.
There had already been an uptick in discriminatory attitudes and behavior towards Asian-Americans since the Coronavirus outbreak began, and that was before the most influential person in the country decided to get in on it. Trump knows that his words will contribute to this ugliness, but he doesn’t give a shit. That’s because he’s already made the political calculation that his best hope for reelection lies in crafting the same xenophobic narrative that won him the presidency four years ago. Much like the boogieman of the Central American migrant was his ticket to victory in 2016, he believes that the boogieman of the Chinese virus will salvage his reelection campaign in 2020.
And that’s what makes Trump such a fucking coward. This was Trump’s chance to step up and be the brave “wartime president” that he imagines himself to be in his egomaniacal fantasies. This was his opportunity to be a leader of a nation in a time of crisis. But Trump has not been the strong leader we need.
Strong leaders accept responsibility for their shortcomings and promise to learn from their mistakes. Trump tries to rewrite the history of his own incompetencies and searches for scapegoats to deflect the blame. Strong leaders seek to bring diverse peoples together and unite them around a common struggle. Trump reads the words of unity from a script but can’t suppress his divisive impulses the second he’s asked to speak form himself. Strong leaders are champions of the most vulnerable. Trump victimizes them.
There are some governmental measures spearheaded by Trump that are worth commending. The weeklong, albeit, overdue efforts to get Americans to embrace social distancing and self-quarantining will hopefully help to flatten the curve. The massive stimuluses for American citizens and businesses will hopefully help to head off the enormous economic losses that are resulting from nationwide societal shutdowns. But these are things that any American government would have done anyway, regardless of who’s in charge.
Make no mistake, when it comes to the main responsibilities of an individual president in a time of crisis, Trump has been a total failure. Rather than providing leadership and inspiring confidence, Trump has been a fountain of misinformation, contradictory claims, and now blatant bigotry. We’ll make it through this crisis in spite of him, but when we do, and Trump tries to make the case later this fall that it was his courageous leadership that helped the country prevail, please, America, don’t fall for it.
P.S. If you want to see a difference in leadership styles during a time of crisis, just do a little comparison between the Twitter’s of our former president and our current president. No partisanship necessary.