In the midst of a crisis, leaders must tamp down fear, not inflame it
For the past decade, the United States and much of the Western world has seen a dramatic increase in right-wing populism. That movement helped catapult, Donald Trump, into the White House. Some might say that it has also inspired hate crimes and domestic terrorism. The current crisis threatens to exacerbate this situation. By calling COVID-19 “the Chinese virus,” the president contributes to the problem by legitimizing those who frame the pandemic in xenophobic terms.
Populism is a grassroots movement of people who perceive themselves as disenfranchised. Populists usually gravitate toward a charismatic leader who promises to address their grievances. They divide the world into “them and us,” often espousing a narrow definition of citizenship, and long for a return to an idyllic past.
For many, the call to “make America great again” means restoring it to the white, Christian nation they believe it once was.
Populists cloak their racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia in respectable terms like “white pride,” “celebrating European heritage,” and “traditional values.” Euphemisms do not make hatred less menacing.
Populists seemingly embrace conspiracy theories. Anyone visiting Stormfront, a popular white supremacist website, can read posts ranging from one claiming that COVID-19 is a bioweapon to another insisting it is fake news.
Most populists do not espouse such wild theories, but many have been slow to take precautions because they believed the president’s initial insistence that the media had hyped the threat to hurt his brand.
Scapegoating goes hand in hand with paranoia. Populists always love to blame their problems on someone else. Immigrants have long been the bête noir of the MAGA movement. The president’s supporters have accused illegal aliens, especially those coming from Latin America, of increasing crime and stealing American jobs.
From the border wall to the Muslim ban, Trump’s policies have targeted immigrants. Anxiety over COVID-19 has intensified populist xenophobia. The administration’s emphasis on border closures has allowed the president to situate the pandemic response within the context of his larger anti-immigrant policy.
People have, of course, often named pandemics for their alleged point of origin, and they have sometimes been terribly wrong. Experts disagree as to where the 1918-1919 “Spanish” flu began, but no one argues for Spain. The best candidate may be a rural county in Kansas from whence it spread to Fort Riley to be carried abroad by U.S. troops deploying to fight WWI.
Calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” has more to do with assigning blame than naming a point of origin. The president has managed the outbreak as both a health crisis and a public relations problem. Despite disbanding the pandemic unit in the National Security Council in 2018 and proposing cuts to the CDC in his latest budget, Trump insists that his response to the pandemic has been hampered by the failure of past administrations to prepare for it.
Blaming marginalized groups for pandemics has a long, ugly history. During the Black Death of the fourteenth century, Christians blamed Jews for poisoning wells. Lethal pogroms ensued. In the nineteenth-century, well-off Americans blamed cholera outbreaks on immigrants, whom they said chose to live in unsanitary conditions. Today’s leaders ought to know better.
The president blames China for failing to alert his administration to the threat early enough. Although Beijing initially downplayed the seriousness of the outbreak, U.S. intelligence agencies did not. Starting in January they briefed the White House about the seriousness of COVID-19. “Donald Trump may not have been expecting this, but a lot of other people in the government were — they just couldn’t get him to do anything about it,” one official told the Washington Post. “The system was blinking red.”
“What does it matter?” some may ask. “Doesn’t a virus by any other name make you just as sick?” Words, however, matter. The harassment of Asian Americans has increased since February as some people blame them for bringing the virus to the United States. Chinese communities felt the economic effects of the outbreak well ahead of everyone else as people in many cities avoided their restaurants and businesses. Now they are subjected to verbal taunts and even threats of violence.
As the virus spreads, things could get much worse. In addition to hoarding toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and even food, some Americans have been buying more guns and ammunition. Dealers across the country report dramatic increases in sales of firearms to first-time buyers and ammunition to current owners. Those lining up at gun stores insist they are arming themselves only for self-protection, but frightened people often act irrationally. As the death toll mounts, bereaved individuals may target those they blame for the loss of loved ones.
In the midst of a life-threatening crisis, leaders need to dampen down fear not inflame it with irresponsible rhetoric.
Tom Mockaitis is a professor of history at DePaul University and author of “Violent Extremists: Understanding the Domestic and International Terrorist Threat.”
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