Just about five years ago, Donald Trump descended the escalator at Trump Tower and proceeded to put the US electorate on edge with a nationalistic, racist tirade that kicked off his presidential campaign. The racial characteristics of the speech were not subtle; they were indeed overt and shocking. Few thought he had a spot in the presidential race, let alone a shot at winning the presidency.
For more than three years now, that same race-baiting white supremacist nationalism is still at the core of his base of support. In the last day, he has been able to turn the COVID-19 pandemic into a rancorous partisan divide that pits his nationalist base support against the remnants of a marginalized Republican Party (don’t confuse the party of Trump with the Republican Party; there is nothing Republican about this incarnation of the party) and an increasingly progressive base of the Democratic Party. His executive order to stop immigration into the country may face a steep constitutional challenge, but by the time this is completed, it will have already had the intended effect of rallying his base of support to focus on others instead of the ill-conceived policy responses that have come from his administration. As polls show him trailing the presumptive Democratic Party nominee Joe Biden by six points or more, Trump went back to a campaign style that worked: attack and distract. This time it is again immigrants and immigrant populations that are going to bear the brunt of this. The sad part is that it works, at least on a minority of the population; a dangerous minority of the population.
These tactics are not new. As I have written for an upcoming post, in pandemics, strong political leadership unites the population behind one message: stop the virus. Fear and uncertainty can escalate during pandemics. They potentially create “us vs. them” social conditions that divide and stigmatize people. Political leadership embodies the capacity to connect people in the common struggle. In failing to do so, the results can be harmful and potentially deadly.
Almost 40 years ago, the CDC reported the first cases of HIV in the US, though HIV had been making its way across the world for a much longer period, possibly decades. The federal government did not have a concerted response to HIV and even Reagan administration members joked about it being a “gay plague.” Such rhetoric fueled harassment, assaults, and even murders of LGBTQ people. More recently, the SARS pandemic, much like today’s COVID-19 pandemic, created a backlash against Asian and Asian Americans that lead to their stigmatization as the pandemic sources. Political leadership can convey a moral voice of reason that may decrease stigmatization and the incidences of hate and violence.
In choosing not to voice the moral collective, the Trump administration has again to take the country down the path to blame a group, any group, for the erratic, ill-conceived policies that have exacerbated the COVID-19 response in the country at the federal, and, in some cases, at the state level. The danger is clear – the Chinese and immigrant groups south of the border are being stigmatized to further a nationalist, racist agenda in the election playbook of Donald J. Trump. In doing so, the country has now entered the “us v. them” phase of a cultural battle that should never have entered into the COVID-19 response.