There is a remarkable similarity in the way populist leaders all over the world seem to be handling the COVID-19 crisis—particularly, the lockdown. Interestingly enough, all of them not only seem to be in favour of rapidly opening up—primarily because the urge to reopen echoes well with the natural popular sentiments and the desire to bring life back to ‘normal’—even if conditions for reopening do not exist or are not suitable yet. This is especially the case in the US where the US president has been insisting on reopening the country. For the US president, the US states resisting demands for reopening need to be ‘liberated.’ Inciting people towards reopening works well for Trump because it helps him project himself as a leader trying to ‘bring life back to normal.’ Given that this is already an election year in the US, self-projection as a ‘pro-people’ leader might have some political benefits for Trump.
An important part of his self-projection as a ‘pro-people’ leader is bashing China for the spread of COVID-19. Moving from calling it a “Chinese virus”, Trump has went to the extent of solely blaming China for the spread of the virus. Already, as reports in the Western media show, Trump is urging his ‘fellow leaders’ to blame China for virus and the consequent economic loss. Even though, as other reports show, Trump could have acted earlier to prevent the spread of the virus, this did not happen. As such, blaming China for the virus allows Trump to escape the responsibility. At the same time, bashing China allows him to give his voters a reason why he should be voted for again.
This is precisely what Trump did in 2016 to win elections. The only difference is that in 2016, the major target of his racism was Mexico. The Mexican people, Trump said many times in 2016, were bringing “lots of problems” to the US and that “they are taking our job” and “our money.” In 2020, Trump thinks that China has taken their money by spreading the virus. This blame-game has been invented, as a CNN report suggests, with a view to ‘energising’ the president’s political base ahead of elections later this year.
This blame-game is thus rooted in Trump’s election strategy. Whereas Trump is openly blaming China and aiming to restart trade-war, there is already a sizeable portion of the US population that believes China is responsible for the virus. A recently done survey by Pew Research Centre shows that roughly two-thirds of the people have a negative view of China. Whereas this negative view of China may not have directly originated from Trump’s China-bashing, there is little to no denying that Trump is now playing with it, making it an official version of the US and deliberately fanning it out to the people with an eye on elections. The fact that Trump may be able to attract votes out of this proportion of people makes China-bashing a logical election strategy.
Trump has been tweeting to attack China and even link Joe Biden with China, potentially setting China up for ‘interference’ in the US elections in the wake of Biden’s victory. “Attacking China” has thus already become an official strategy of the Republican party. A 57-page memo written a top Republican strategist advising GOP candidates and released by the National Republican Senatorial committee advises the party to aggressively attack China for addressing the COVID-19 crisis.
The memo says that the “Democrats are weak on China”, siting their criticism of Trump’s travel restriction on Chin as well as imposition of tariffs in September 2019. About the virus, the document advises to build the campaign on the ‘fact’ that “This [the virus] is China’s fault. The virus came from China and China covered it up. Because China lied about the extent of the virus, our public health officials acted late.” Because of China’s role in the virus, the Republicans “will stand up to China, bring our manufacturing jobs back home, and push for sanctions on China for its role in spreading this pandemic.”
This is already formulating in the form of Trump’s moves towards ending the trade deal with China and bring back the ‘trade war’ to create a smoke screen around his massive failure to revive the US economy and ‘Make American Great Again.’ Accordingly, the election argument will go like this: ‘if the US economy is in bad shape, it is no fault of the President; China is to be blamed and the President is being tough on China.’
This is trade war in simple and plain words. Whether this will work economically for Trump and the US or not is an all together different question. But this is a question that Trump will have to deal once he has won the elections. He can always do another deal even if he scraps the current arrangement. For now, Trump wants to paint China as the ‘evil’ responsible for the mess that the US is today. His rival, Biden, is also being projected as an undeclared ‘ally’ of China; hence, voting for Biden will be equal to voting for China—a country that, according to the Republicans, needs ‘tough’ response.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.