The nation seems to have two Donald Trumps now: One is the calm, focused president who emerged last week to finally begin taking the coronavirus pandemic seriously. The other is the more familiar figure of division and xenophobia who has dramatically lowered the bar of our political discourse for almost four years now.
Unfortunately, that second Trump hasn’t entirely left the stage, as he demonstrated this week when he insisted on calling the pandemic a “Chinese virus.” With anti-Asian hate crimes on the rise, the president has a responsibility to stop feeding racism.
Former President George W. Bush made mistakes after the attacks of 9/11, but he deserves credit for his swift moves to tamp down anti-Muslim hatred in the U.S., including his visit to a Washington mosque — something no sitting president had done. It was a strong message to America that the enemies were specific terrorists, not entire cultures.
Citizen Trump didn’t get that message at the time, as evidenced by his lie about seeing thousands of Muslims cheering the fall of the towers. And now, as president, Trump is failing to project a needed message of tolerance about the coronavirus.
Yes, the virus originated in China (every virus originates somewhere), but there’s nothing about being Chinese, or Asian, that makes someone more likely to spread the infection. There’s nothing to the ridiculous conspiracy theories about the virus being a bioweapon by the Chinese or North Korean government. And there’s certainly nothing to the recent comment of Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, that the virus arose because the Chinese people “eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that.”
When the nation’s leaders talk like that, the likelihood increases that people on the fringes of rationality will act on it. Recent instances include a man who assaulted an Asian woman wearing a face mask in New York City, calling her a “diseased bitch,” and another man who accosted another Asian woman in Los Angeles with taunts that “every disease” comes from China.
People who think like that take their cues from the president, who in a news conference Wednesday defended calling the pandemic a “Chinese virus,” claiming it’s merely descriptive. Wrong — a virus that is now all over the world cannot accurately be called “Chinese.”
As Rep. Ted Lieu of California pointed out in a recent Washington Post op-ed, Trump’s apparent blind spot on that front has consequences beyond stoking racism: “The president’s view that the virus was a Chinese problem contributed to his failure to understand the importance of testing people domestically for the virus.”
The administration is, finally, trying to make up that lost ground. But testing and other measures won’t inoculate America from racial hatred. That has to start with its leaders.
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