Will conspiracies sowing division and hate by blaming the Coronavirus pandemic on Chinese and Asian people be part of Donald Trump’s 2020 re-election strategy?
Were you to locate the COVID-19 outbreak within the ‘five stages of grief”, it would be reasonable to conclude that we are currently still in the early shock and denial phases – an understandable state of mind given that we are being confronted with a threat that promises unprecedented social and economic ramifications.
But, in this process, anger will likely come next and it is here that far-right groups and individuals are laying the groundwork for yet another spike in race-based hate by spreading online conspiracies about the Coronavirus. Just when things can’t get any worse, along come those who seek to exploit the public’s fears and anxieties at a time of global crisis.
Enter Donald Trump, who has signalled a reconfiguration of his re-election strategy by referring to the Coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” and “Kung flu” – thus affirming suspicions that the remainder of his 2020 campaign will be an effort to re-brand xenophobic slogans used four years earlier, only this time, Chinese and Asians will replace Muslims and Hispanics.
Trump’s COVID-19-sharpened campaign messaging was amplified hours later by Republican Senator John Cornyn, who told reporters: “China is to blame because the culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that, these viruses are transmitted from the animal to the people and that’s why China has been the source of a lot of these viruses like SARS, like MERS, and the Swine Flu.”
Never mind the fact that MERS originated in Jordan; Swine Flu was first found in Mexico; and that a US citizen in Kansas was the first known case of the Spanish Flu. But, facts have never really mattered to the Trump administration and Republican Party, given both have anchored their political survival to disinformation, conspiracy theories and racism.
To that end, Trump has an entire Kremlin-backed far-right ecosystem to demonise his favourite targets – including immigrants, Asians, multiculturalism, leftists and the so-called “deep state” – with Coronavirus-related conspiracy theories.
“Six weeks ago, China lost a major trade battle with the United States,” reads one of the more popular conspiracies being shared by far-right groups online. “In retaliation, China released the spread of the Coronavirus, which is a man-made bio weapon being used to topple the economy of the United States and its Western allies by causing fear and panic, which is going on right now. It’s interesting that China warned its friends Russia and North Korea to close its borders and limit flights. Russia has had zero deaths from the Coronavirus.”
While most conspiracies pivot on at least a kernel of truth, there’s nothing in this conspiracy that warrants further conversation, other than to say that scientists have universally concluded that COVID-19 was not manufactured in a laboratory but evolved naturally over time.
Others claim, without a shred of evidence, that the virus was manufactured by Democrats working in cahoots with the “deep state” to overthrow Trump, while some consider COVID-19 to be a United Nations-led plot to kill 90% of the world’s population or a precursor to forced vaccinations. In another retelling of the latter conspiracy, a secretive Jewish cabal is behind a plot to vaccinate the world in order to make people “complacent, obedient and easily subdued” or what they refer to as “medical totalitarianism.”
Anti-Hate, a group that tracks far-right groups in Canada, has said that the level of hatred being expressed towards Asian people on online far-right message boards suggests that these groups are “taking advantage” of the virus in order to advance their political agenda. Posts such as “I hope this dirty virus decimates China’s population” or “fucking sub-humans. They deserve the plague” provide a glimpse of the hatred that Trump and other far-right politicians aim to profit from.
“The themes that emerge from these conspiracy theories point to fears and anxieties typical of the right-wing surrounding globalisation, multiculturalism, and government cover-ups on the level of the belief of a ‘new world order,’” observes Kurt Phillips for Anti-Hate.
Worse, these conspiracies have moved from the fringes and are being amplified by the right-wing media ecosystem, particularly on Fox News, where primetime hosts Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson already refer to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” or have suggested that it is part of a “deep state” conspiracy.
Then there’s Russia. Wherever Trump and the far-right are sowing discord and division, the Kremlin’s guiding hand is always there.
“A significant disinformation campaign by Russian state media and pro-Kremlin outlets regarding COVID-19 is ongoing,” according to a document produced by the European Union’s foreign policy arm, the European External Action service. “The overarching aim of Kremlin disinformation is to aggravate the public health crisis in Western countries… in line with the Kremlin’s broader strategy of attempting to subvert European societies.”
These conspiracies are already producing deadly consequences, with hate crimes against Chinese people or those perceived to be Chinese being reported in Europe, UK, Australia and the US.
This hate is being encouraged at a time when our societies are only just in the shock and denial stage of the Coronavirus pandemic. What happens when these racist conspiracies start getting people angry?