Animal Farm: Scapegoating in the 2020 US Presidential Elections

President Trump has shifted his campaign strategy in light of heavy, bipartisan criticism of his response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather than make the election a referendum on his administration, he has decided to pin the blame for the crisis on China. 

It’s a political strategy contingent on an angry electorate starved for revenge yet lacking  answers from their national government. Unable to defend their record on policy, it seems, the White House has begun to attack their opponent for defending who they believe bares most of the responsibility for the spread of COVID-19. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden, according to an April 9 ad from the Trump campaign, “stands up for China” while President Xi “cripples America.” Pro-Trump super PACs have propagated misinformation about the origins of the virus, suggesting without evidence that Chinese officials created it in a laboratory, and have flooded twitter with posts tagged #BeijingBiden. The aforementioned attack ad concludes by arguing, contrary to what Biden has said in the past, that it is not “in [The United States’]  interest that China continue to prosper” but rather “Just Biden’s interest.”

It is not uncommon for Donald Trump to scapegoat others as responsible for complicated problems. Indeed, political scientists Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart in their book Cultural Backlash note the startlingly authoritarian ring to the outsider-hostile rhetoric which has characterized his political brand for five years. Deflecting criticism of his administration and assigning blame to China is no different. There is perhaps no greater evidence of Trump’s ill-will than the previously-mentioned ad itself, which “includes an image of Gary Locke, a former governor of Washington state” and falsely implies that Locke “is a Chinese official” because he is Asian American.

Biden responded to these accusations not by taking the moral high ground, which he has suggested is a hallmark of his presidential bid. Instead, he has tried to out-hawk Trump on China, responding with an attack ad charging the president with being too soft on them. The ad opens by suggesting that the attacks against him are merely efforts by the Trump administration to “hide the truth,” that the White House has “rolled over for the Chinese.” The ad slams Trump for praising the Chinese response to COVID-19 and questions why he “didn’t hold China accountable.”

It is tempting to conclude that the Biden campaign simply wanted to address the claims thrown at them by the White House. But the attack ad, equipped with the standard dramatic music and deep-voiced narrator, unambiguously conveys the message that China is responsible for spreading the coronavirus and Trump has not punished them sufficiently for their doing so. 

Clearly, both Joe Biden and Donald Trump think that they can leverage Americans’ fear of the coronavirus for personal, political gain. But in so doing they have engaged in a reckless politics that prioritizes their short-term benefit over the long-term effects of successfully combating the pandemic. 

For one, neither candidate benefits from blaming China once the election is over. President Trump is still grappling with the trade war he initiated years ago, having only made moderate progress in reaching a new agreement. China has previously retaliated for Trump’s accusatory rhetoric and could react in a similar way should he continue. 

It is clear, from Trump’s May 29 press conference in the Rose Garden, that he has every intent on doing so. Doubling-down on his blame-shifting talking points, the president lectured the Chinese government for their coronavirus response, saying that “The death and destruction” they produced is “incalculable.” He then announced that the White House would terminate Hong Kong’s diplomatic privileges and sanction various government officials both there and in the mainland.  

National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow swore in an interview that the phase-one deal “is continuing,” but he also echoed the White House’s talking points, undermining his diplomatic credibility: “We have other issues with China, and of course the origin of the virus…” he said. 

Should President Trump secure another four years in office, he will have done so in part by pinning the blame for the coronavirus entirely on China. Surely smearing a country, assigning them sole responsibility for a worldwide crisis, and punishing them for unfounded conspiracies would strain relations between the two.

Meanwhile, if Biden manages to beat the incumbent, he will have to navigate the already-frail US-China relations in a (hopefully) post-coronavirus world. Adding to that burden a pile of inflammatory rhetoric will surely hinder his ability to maintain a constructive, mutually-beneficial relationship. 

There are more serious downsides to engaging in this type of discourse, though. To blame China for the spread of COVID-19 is to commit an egregious offense not just against reason, since there are no empirical grounds on which one can justify pointing fingers at a singular party, but also against a number of innocents who will lose their lives if not for swift, coordinated action in the face of the pandemic. Because secondly, scapegoating China more immediately jeopardizes bilateral cooperation in combating the coronavirus. 

Earlier this year, when the spread of the coronavirus was not yet a global phenomenon, Chinese hospital workers begged for additional supplies as they attempted to contain the virus amidst severe shortages. Chinese communities in the US “had sprung into action” in response, “organizing donations of masks and protective gear” to help relieve the overworked frontliners. Several months later, as the incidence of the disease worsened in the United States, those same communities worked to facilitate the transfer of supplies from China.

The impact of these small communities on the provision of necessary medical supplies, while likely small, is substantial. But what they can accomplish pales in comparison to the potential when two or more governments work together.

Case in point: Chinese charities have given at least 100,000 masks, 50,000 test kits, and five respirators to the government of Mexico. Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrad described the relationship between the two countries as “commendable,” noting that the Chinese “have shared with us all their information, their findings.” Only a few days later, a shipment of medical supplies from the Chinese government arrived in Budapest. Hungarian Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade thanked the Chinese and added, according to reports, that “true friends stand by each other in hard times.”

Some have speculated that the motivation behind such charity is ultimately selfish – that the Chinese merely want to preserve their image on the world stage, which has undoubtedly taken a hit since January. Nevertheless, the Chinese government has shown incredible generosity in helping other countries overcome potentially deadly shortages of medical supplies. And while the United States has been a beneficiary of such support, their reluctance to support the Chinese Communist Party, unwarranted skepticism of the supplies’ quality, and exasperation over red tape has created tension between the two countries. 

It could very well be that China will ignore these rebukes and continue to assist in the US’ recovery efforts. But with both major presidential candidates routinely scapegoating the Chinese as responsible for the pandemic and an increasingly hostile White House, Biden and Trump, through their harmful rhetoric, risk alienating those willing to assist them. Such unnecessary recalcitrance is alarming, especially as the death toll in the US surpasses 100,000. 

This is not to say that US officials have no basis on which to criticize China. Indeed, there is irrefutable evidence that the Chinese government downplayed the severity of the crisis early on and suppressed those trying to get out the truth. But the United States is guilty of precisely these same sins, as we know from both their own officials’ statements (Kudlow made the absurd claim in February that the virus was “contained”) and a whistleblower complaint from Rick Bright, who was allegedly dismissed for trying to warn President Trump about how serious the disease would be.

All of this to say that nobody ought to be pointing fingers, at least not presently. The crisis rages and a second wave looms. There is still much to be done in terms of slowing its spread and treating the ill. The curve, as it were, has not quite been flattened.

US officials who blame China solely for the spread are engaging in exactly the type of short-term oriented politics that is unwelcome during a pandemic. Sure, Biden and Trump may benefit politically from doing so, but they risk China’s support, supplies, and cooperation in the long run. 

And as John Maynard Keynes warned about the consequences of governments’ failure to intervene quickly in times of crisis, “In the long run we are all dead.”