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COVID-19 and the Rhetoric of Racism
by Ethan Liu
FROM THE ABUSE OF FORMAT TO THE ABUSE OF A PEOPLE
Declared a global pandemic, the highly virulent respiratory disease, COVID-19, has been wreaking havoc across the world since late 2019. As of November of 2020, the global economy has been ravaged; much of the world has been put under required social-distancing lockdown in order to “flatten the curve,” or slow the rate of infection; and nearly one and a half million people have died. This has led to various responses by the leaders of different countries across the globe. But the response of the President of the United States has accumulated a particularly large amount of attention, most of which has been negative. Since the beginning of the outbreak, President Donald Trump has been addressing this global emergency through Twitter tweets and occasional press briefings. To some, it would look like Trump is fulfilling his presidential duties by addressing the needs and concerns of the American public with his incessant ramblings about contact tracing and potential vaccines. But as the number of cases of COVID-19 has risen exponentially, so has the amount of reported abuse against Asian Americans based on the president’s subtle—and sometimes very direct—scapegoating of China, and, by association, the Asian American community.
In times of emergency, presidential crisis rhetoric provides a format by which a president may console and unite the public, as well as a measure whereby we might evaluate his or her effectiveness. That being said, Trump has not only failed to console and unite the public, but has also used the format to transfer blame for his incompetence to China and promote his own problematic partisan agenda. In my analysis, I use this contrast to explain how Trump’s rhetoric twists the typical strategies of presidential crisis rhetoric, ultimately worsening the crisis by creating domestic division and provoking aggression towards the Asian-American community.
WHAT IS PRESIDENTIAL CRISIS RHETORIC?
Before analyzing how President Donald Trump has abused presidential crisis rhetoric and vilified the Asian American community, it is important to understand how presidential crisis rhetoric works and what it is intended to do. According to Marta Neuff, author of Words of Crisis as Words of Power, a crisis is a “dangerous social situation with regard to economics, the military, the environment, or politics. Often it is triggered by an abrupt change of the status quo” (Neuff 22). In times like these, state and government leaders—especially the president—are expected to address the problem and eventually solve it. They are supposed to persuade the audience of their ability to resolve the issue. As illustrated by ‘t Hart and Tindall’s model for “Understanding Crisis Exploitation,” this can be done in three different ways: the “business as usual” frame, the “crisis as a threat” frame, and the “crisis as an opportunity” frame. In the first frame, the importance of the crisis is downplayed and public services are expected to continue as if nothing happened. In the second frame, the crisis is treated as a threat and necessitates a call-to-action. And in the third frame, the crisis is seen as an opportunity to expose, and then address, the dysfunctionalities in the country and its government (Neuff 23). By using one—or a combination–of these three frames, and with the utilization of media, metaphors, and othering, a president can shape the views of the country quite easily.
At its best, presidential crisis rhetoric addresses a distressed public, offers support, and guarantees an end to the critical situation. As stated by rhetorician, Theodore Otto Jr. Windt, the president should first identify the crisis and emphasize the need for decisive action. Second, the president must give an overview of the crisis in order to keep the public well informed. And finally, the president must ask for the mobilization of public support (Neuff 26). Thus, by setting an example of calm and clarity, the emergency may be overcome more quickly. However, as stated previously, this format can easily be manipulated for personal advantage. And President Donald Trump has done just that. In the following sections I will explore the ways in which Trump has abused the format of presidential crisis rhetoric and how said abuse has manipulated the public perceptions of both COVID-19 and the Asian American community.
BUSINESS AS USUAL: SEWING THE SEEDS OF CHAOS
Following the first strategy for presidential crisis rhetoric, President Trump initially responded to COVID-19 with the “business as usual” frame. Since March of 2020, many parts of the country have been put under a patchwork quilt of social-distancing/mask/testing/tracing/etc. requirements in efforts to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19. However, hoping it would just “disappear,” Trump planned to lift the lockdown early. Originally the quarantine was going to be enforced for only two weeks, but health experts warned that two weeks would not be long enough, fearing that lifting it too early would result in more infections. Yet, despite the numerous warnings, President Trump stated that he wanted the country to be “raring to go” by Easter, less than two weeks after the lockdown was put in place (CNN). In a September interview with Bob Woodward, the President even acknowledged that he did, in fact, know how deadly the virus was, but he still refused to inform the public, stating “I wanted to always play it down, I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic” (Bloomberg). As a result of this, and a myriad of similarly incredible statements and actions, today we are experiencing a third spike in the number of daily cases in the United States, as well as a crisis of confidence in the nature of truth, the validity of science, and the integrity of our democracy.
In his scholarly journal article, “United States Strains to Act as Cases Set Record,” researcher and journalist Warren Cornwall claims that compared to the rest of the world, the United States’ pandemic response to COVID-19 has been and still is lackluster. More specifically, he argues that the United States’ number of cases continues to grow because of President Donald Trump’s indifferent response to the virus. Cornwall writes, “The United States is first, and not in a good way. Last week, it set a grim record, surpassing all other nations in the reported number of people infected with the coronavirus [. . .] the U.S. pandemic response remains a work in progress—fragmented, chaotic, and plagued by contradictory messaging from political leaders.” Here, Cornwall suggests that if Trump had responded seriously to the danger of COVID-19 in its early stages, the American public may have been more prepared to protect themselves from the threat. However, because Trump’s statements were contrary to those of public health experts, the American public was practically divided into two groups: those who believed in the health experts and those who believed in Trump. And as COVID-19 has continued to take over the world, this has led to a series of thorny problems.
Trump thrives on chaos and uses it to his advantage. By contradicting other’s—and, often, his own—statements and policies, sometimes within the same day, he leaves the American public unsettled, vulnerable, and with no clear direction. When he then follows up with pronouncements that place blame and create a supposed enemy, it allows him to direct the public animus against said enemy, effectively turning attention away from his own ineptitude and questionable thinking and towards that external villain. And in this case, that villain is China, which, to an uninformed and biased public, extends to the Chinese people, Chinese Americans, and Asians in general.
CRISIS AS A THREAT: THE WAR ON THE PANDEMIC
In March, it was reported that Chinese officials promoted a conspiracy theory that accused American soldiers of bringing COVID-19 to China (Cillizza). Thus, beginning March 16, Trump shifted from referring to COVID-19 as the “foreign virus,” to using particularly pointed language, implicating China as the current “wartime” enemy—completing the “crisis as a threat” framework. Repeating phrases like “the war on the Chinese virus,” the “Wuhan virus,” and “it comes from China,” Trump made it very clear who he wanted to blame for the spread of the pandemic. This could also be heard in the tone and emphasis of his words during his press conferences—the drawn out “CHIIIINA,” and the ruffled feathers when asked about his terminology. He even went so far as to cross out the word “corona” in his staff-prepared speech notes and replace it with the word “Chinese” (Cillizza). And all this regardless of subsequent pronouncements from the World Health Organization condemning such accusatory language as inflammatory and dangerous (Rogers).
In “Officials Keep Calling the Coronavirus Pandemic a ‘War.’ Here’s Why,” reporter Eric Levenson explores such usage of wartime language. Analyzing the benefits and drawbacks of using war metaphors in times of emergency, Levenson writes, “The primary reason officials use war metaphors is to convey a sense of urgency and emergency [. . . however,] the idea of a nation under attack can [also] be used by authoritarian leaders to seize more power.” In this excerpt, Levenson suggests that although the use of war metaphors can be used to unite groups of people under a single cause, they can also be utilized dishonestly.
Proving Levenson’s point, on multiple occasions, Trump has called himself a “wartime president.” The coronavirus is now the “invisible enemy.” Healthcare workers are now “troops.” And places with high levels of morbidity are now the “home front.” Use of war metaphors during a global public health emergency like COVID-19 can be very effective. It can bring people together to fight for a cause. As Dr. Leena Wen, professor at George Washington University Milken School of Public Health stated, “People understand what a war means, what the consequences of a war mean in terms of pain and loss and death [. . .] They understand the sacrifices that have to occur during wartime and they understand the massive mobilization of resources needed in a war” (Levenson). But this is not a war being fought between two countries, nor has it united this country to collectively fight the pandemic. Conversely, Trump’s divisive language has ultimately pitted states against states, states against the federal government, counties and cities against one another, and has continually stoked aggression and outright violence towards the Asian American community.
In the latter part of his March 23rd press briefing, Trump was pressed on this very issue. Confronting Trump over his rhetoric, PBS White House correspondent, Yamiche Alcindor asked “do you think, using the term ‘Chinese virus’ [and other accusatory wartime language. . .] puts Asian Americans at risk, that people might target them?” (Al Jazeera). Trump interrupted before the reporter could even finish, stating, “no, not at all. I think they probably would agree with it 100%. It comes from China” (Al Jazeera). In this statement, Trump not only denies the accusatory connotation of his language, but actually negates the fact that thousands of Asian Americans have already been targeted since he started using those terms. He even suggests that Asian Americans would agree with him. In truth, Trump’s omission of the contrary evidence and use of wartime language reveal that he is a silent advocate of the problematic behavior.
In times past, from Hitler to Kennedy, the crisis as a threat frame has utilized media, metaphors, and othering to gain the trust of the public. And while these techniques are commonly used to address the crisis or, in this case, the virus, Trump has twisted their usage to reify and antagonize a group of people–a common rhetorical tactic used in war and genocide. Manipulative phrases, particular word choices and emphases, and now his directing the intelligence apparatus to investigate the possibility that COVID-19 was created in a Wuhan laboratory, continue to indirectly implicate some “other” as the source of our current woes and sustain the hostile atmosphere for Asians and Asian Americans in this country (Mazzetti).
CRISIS AS AN OPPORTUNITY: BLAME IT ON CHINA
With the announcement of Trump’s campaign for re-election, Trump moved on to the third and final frame for presidential crisis rhetoric: the “crisis as opportunity” frame. In their article, “A Key G.O.P. Strategy: Blame China. But Trump Goes Off Message,” national political correspondents Jonathan Martin and Maggie Habberman examine Trump’s plan to elevate China’s responsibility for spreading COVID-19 as the best way for him to improve his re-election chances. More specifically, they argue that “Trump’s clashing comments on China illustrate not only his unreliability as a political messenger but also his long standing ambivalence over how to approach the world’s second-largest economy.” They write, “the G.O.P. is attempting to divert attention from the administration’s heavily criticized response to the coronavirus by pinning the blame on China.” In this statement, Martin and Habberman suggest that Trump is taking advantage of the crisis situation to progress his campaign even at the expense of another country and its people. And while I agree that this decision illustrates his unreliability as a political messenger, it does not illustrate his uncertainty over how to approach China. In fact, Trump knows exactly what he is doing. By centering his campaign around blaming China for spreading COVID-19, Trump not only turns attention away from his own late, confusing, and inadequate leadership regarding the pandemic, but also continues his tacit advocacy for violence against the Asian American community.
But how exactly has Trump’s twisting of presidential crisis rhetoric and reification of Asians actually affected the Asian American community? Recently, Russell Jeung, the chair of the Asian Studies Department at San Francisco State University, started an online reporting center for abuse against Asian Americans. Recording written reports and monitoring social media for hashtags like #Chinesevirus, as of April 2nd, 2020, the center has received at least 100 reports daily—accumulating over 1,200 reports since it was created on March 19th. While the Federal Bureau of Investigation has warned about a spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans in the coming months as the global public health emergency continues, Professor Jeung’s work shows that the spike is already happening (Redden). Even former Democratic presidential candidate, Andrew Yang has spoken out against these bias incidents. In an interview with Lisa Ling on CNN he explained “I’ve gotten the same messages you have, Lisa, about friends and Asian Americans who are being either spat on or attacked or assaulted around the country [. . .] Chinese virus is definitely part of the lexicon at this point, and you know, I’ve heard of schoolchildren getting called the Chinese virus and being bullied mercilessly” (Sullivan). Clearly, a new era of homegrown hate has begun—Asian Americans only being the most recent targets of those ascribing to Trump’s reality.
THE BOTTOM LINE
For the past year, the global pandemic, COVID-19, has been devastating the entire world. Countries across the globe have responded to this global public health emergency differently, but all are attempting to mitigate its impact, control the infection, find a cure, and reopen their economies. While the United States has identical goals, the response of the President of the United States, in particular, has been inconsistent, confusing, accusatory, self-congratulatory, ineffectual, and, most importantly for this topic, toxic to the Asian American community and to international relations with China and other Asian countries. Trump’s response not only highlights the extent to which the format for presidential crisis rhetoric can be stretched to meet the needs of an authoritarian leader, but also stimulates and encourages the re-emergence of long-held xenophobic anti-Chinese sentiment into contemporary American culture.
The situation is important and revealing. Trump’s response to COVID-19 follows the format for successful presidential crisis rhetoric. It follows all three frames for approaching a crisis and uses all the rhetorical techniques meant to keep the public calm and united. Yet, upon observation of the current situation, the American public is divided, agitated, and the most disunited it has ever been for the past decade or longer. Personally, as an Asian American, his rhetoric is painful. At a community level, his rhetoric is dangerous. And societally—both domestic and globally—his rhetoric sets international relations and racial climate back decades. As reporter Katie Rogers comments, “The finger-pointing over which country has done less to contain the disease has caused tensions between the two nations [China and the United States] almost daily.” And now there is talk of war (Shesgreen).
Knowing this, the situation provides us with an opportunity to acknowledge the need to address racism and problematic language in presidential rhetoric. According to the organization Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy, “scapegoating of Asian Americans is fueled by fear and racism simmering just below the surface. When it comes from our country’s top leaders, whether direct or implied, it signals an official stamp of acceptance and puts Asian Americans in harm’s way” (AAPIP). And the same can be said about any group targeted by the current administration, whether that be illegal aliens from South and Central America, the Muslim American community (remember who coined the term “radical Islamic terrorist”), or any other group being scrutinized and scapegoated for personal, political, and/or economic goals—in Trump’s case, it may be all three.
I believe that history will look upon this period as the tipping point that either leads to more abusive, reactionary, and authoritarian leadership both domestically and around the world, or toward a more open, just, and multicultural society. It truly is up to all of us to determine the future of truth, justice, and the American Way.
Cillizza, Chris. “Yes, of Course Donald Trump Is Calling Coronavirus the ‘China Virus’ for Political Reasons.” CNN, Cable News Network, 20 Mar. 2020, http://www.cnn.com/2020/03/20/politics/donald-trump-china-virus-coronavirus/index.html.
Levenson, Eric. “Officials Keep Calling the Coronavirus Pandemic a ‘War.’ Here’s Why.” CNN, Cable News Network, 2 Apr. 2020, www.cnn.com/2020/04/01/us/war-on-coronavirus-attack/index.html.
Martin, Jonathan, and Maggie Haberman. “A Key G.O.P. Strategy: Blame China. But Trump Goes Off Message.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 Apr. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/04/18/us/politics/trump-china-virus.html.
Mazzetti, Mark, et al. “Trump Officials Are Said to Press Spies to Link Virus and Wuhan Labs.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 30 Apr. 2020, http://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/30/us/politics/trump-administration-intelligence-coronavirus-china.html.
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“Open Letter to Philanthropy: The Cure to Viral Racism Is Within Our Hands.” AAPIP, 6 Apr. 2020, aapip.org/our-stories/open-letter-to-philanthropy-the-cure-to-viral-racism-is-within-our-hands.
Peters, Jeremy W., et al. “260,000 Words, Full of Self-Praise, From Trump on the Virus.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 Apr. 2020, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/04/26/us/politics/trump-coronavirus-briefings-analyzed.html.
Redden, Elizabeth. “Scholars Confront Coronavirus-Related Racism in the Classroom, in Research and in Community Outreach.” Inside Higher Ed, www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/04/02/scholars-confront-coronavirus-related-racism-classroom-research-and-community?utm_source=Inside+Higher+Ed&utm_campaign=76f3923d73-DNU_2019_COPY_02&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_1fcbc04421-76f3923d73-197417325&mc_cid=76f3923d73&mc_eid=d6e9a17020.
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Sullivan, Kate. “Yang: Asian Americans Being Attacked over Coronavirus Is ‘Heartbreaking’.” CNN, Cable News Network, 3 Apr. 2020, www.cnn.com/2020/04/02/politics/andrew-yang-asian-americans-attacked-coronavirus/index.html.
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“Trump Defends Calling Coronavirus the ‘Chinese Virus’.” Coronavirus Pandemic | Al Jazeera, http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/newsfeed/2020/03/trump-defends-calling-coronavirus-chinese-virus-200323102618665.html.
“Trump Wants Nation ‘Raring to Go by Easter’ – CNN Video.” CNN, Cable News Network, 24 Mar. 2020, www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2020/03/24/trump-easter-fox-news-coronavirus-sot-vpx.cnn.
Wingrove, Josh, et al. “Trump Says He Intentionally Downplayed Virus Threat to Maintain U.S. Calm.” Bloomberg, 9 Sept. 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-09-09/trump-told-woodward-he-intentionally-downplayed-virus-risks
Ethan Liu is a sophomore at the University of San Francisco, and a recipient of the J. Paul Getty Honors Scholarship. With a major in international studies, Ethan has a strong interest in bridging cultural gaps, cultural translation and localization, and effective global leadership. He gives credit to his growth as a writer to Professors Leigh Meredith and Syndee Wood. After graduating, Ethan hopes to incorporate his language skills in Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean, to live and work in the Asia Pacific region and contribute to an increasingly multicultural world.
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