Trump election strategy: Blame China for coronavirus, bad economy
President Donald Trump is making anti-China rhetoric a central part of his re-election strategy, blaming China for everything from coronavirus to the bad economy and more. Here, he speaks before signing a trade agreement with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He, left, in the East Room of the White House, Jan. 15, 2020. | Evan Vucci / AP

With the latest opinion polls showing Joe Biden leading Donald Trump by 53% to 42%, Trump needs desperate measures. A major part of his re-election strategy now is to up the ante against Beijing. Last weekend, he announced yet again that China had caused great damage to the United States and the rest of the world over its handling of the coronavirus crisis.

As on many previous occasions, Trump has made exaggerated and often nonsensical accusations about China’s role in the pandemic. One major claim is that the virus was deliberately created in a virology laboratory in Wuhan, China. China has denied that and also Trump’s further claims of covering up the extent of its domestic coronavirus outbreak.

In answer to Trump’s statement last weekend, Beijing said Trump was attempting to divert public attention by demanding that China must be held fully accountable for what Trump called its secret deception and cover-up that allowed it to spread the coronavirus all over the world. This was a continuation of previous similar attacks by Trump. In May, he claimed that it was the incompetence of Beijing that led to the mass deaths in the U.S. and internationally.

Another theme is that only he has the courage to stand up to the Chinese. The Chinese, he tweeted, “are desperate to have Sleepy Joe Biden win the presidential race so they can continue to rip off the United States, as they have done for decades, until I came along!”

The truth is, of course, that Trump’s domestic policies and the results of them would in normal circumstances make him totally unelectable.

By the middle of last month about a quarter of U.S. workers had applied for unemployment benefits. The coronavirus and the great lockdown have done serious damage to the economy. It abruptly ended the longest economic expansion in the US on record, for which, along with buoyant markets, Trump has always tried to claim credit.

With just over five months to go to the election, it is impossible for the economy to return to the level of employment and income growth it had before coronavirus exploded in the U.S.

The real threat to Trump’s re-election bid is not just the frightening jump in unemployment, but where the pain of that lack of jobs is being most acutely felt. Among the worst-affected places are the swing states that will likely determine the election’s outcome.

Many of Trump’s core supporters are non-Hispanic white males who live in these swing states. His re-election bid requires that he wins these states, but it is here that things have taken an alarming turn for him.

Data from the Department of Labor shows that these swing states have some of the highest unemployment. For example, in Pennsylvania and Georgia, jobless figures are around a quarter of the labor force and they continue to rocket.

As the severity of economic contraction became evident, Trump’s reaction changed from shock to anger. Early in the crisis he had claimed that the U.S. was unaffected by the coronavirus outbreak and dismissed warnings of its dangers as “fake news” planted by the Democrats and mainstream media outlets.

Facts caused him to change tack, and he then tried diverting blame from himself by pinpointing U.S. governors as the ones who botched the response. Internationally, he targeted the World Health Organization (WHO) for giving bad advice and for sucking up to China. He announced that he would freeze U.S. funding of the WHO. Now, he has pulled out completely.

Throughout, he has relentlessly attacked China. He constantly describes the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus,” the “China flu,” “Kung Flu,” and other racist monikers. He regularly repeats the Wuhan virus lab conspiracy theory that COVID-19 was manufactured as a biological weapon.

He also compares the coronavirus outbreak with Pearl Harbor—the infamous Japanese imperial military attack on the U.S. in 1941. “It is worse than Pearl Harbor,” he has both tweeted and said in interviews. For him, there is an unmistakable connotation that coronavirus is also a deliberate attack on the U.S.

On May 12, he ordered the main federal government pension fund, the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, not to invest in Chinese companies, citing the risk of “future sanctions” over Beijing’s handling of the virus and national security claims.

Trump is constantly painting China as the communist bogeyman of international relations—an external enemy whose attacks he hopes will divert voters’ attention from his administration’s clear and disastrous domestic failings.

Could this crude tactic work? It won in Britain for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who in 1982 appeared a weak, broken leader with little support even within the Tory Party. She declared war on Argentina over the Falkland Islands, a windblown rocky outcrop in the South Atlantic Ocean. When “Britain beat the Argies,” a jingoistic nation gave her an overwhelming landslide victory in the next election.

Focusing his attack on China does come with new risks for Trump, though. Previously, while he always portrayed himself fighting to protect the U.S. from its enemies, his targets were never fixed, and they changed from one day to the next.

NATO was accused of free-riding on the U.S.’s generosity. Then European and Japanese car-makers were targeted for competing unfairly against their U.S. counterparts. Next up was the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which allowed Mexico and Canada to prosper at the expense of the U.S., and the list goes on.

Now he’s narrowing on one primary enemy: China.

Trump’s prior aim was to create a general impression among the U.S. population that there was an unseen danger lurking out there. This allowed him to paint himself as ever so busy in fighting hard for the U.S. without getting pinned down on exactly what he had accomplished.

Previously, having a whole number of interchangeable bogeymen had left a lot of wiggle room for Trump to claim success without proof. Now that China has become public enemy number one for Trump, it will not be so easy to claim success without concrete results.

International media and social media make comparisons between the U.S. and China easy to make and verify. It is going to be hard for Trump supporters to understand why China has so many fewer reported coronavirus deaths than the U.S., even though China’s population is over four times that of the US. Trump says the Chinese are lying about the figures, of course.

Equally hard for is voters to understand will be why they read reports of shortages in medical testing kits and personal protective equipment (PPE) in the U.S. while China is exporting billions of dollars’ worth of them all over the world.

One of Trump’s favorite slogans has been “America First.” Now the U.S. has the unfortunate distinction of leading the world—America First in coronavirus deaths and America First in infections.

China, meanwhile, seems on the eve of a strong economic recovery compared with the U.S. This is even more perplexing to many Trump supporters, given what their president has promised.

More vexing still is that China has shown no sign of backing off from an intensifying confrontation with Trump. Beijing is standing up to Trump the bully and pulling no punches in answering both his criticisms and his outright lies. It will be increasingly difficult for him to hide from his supporters that he is getting nowhere in confronting China.

His key supporters in swing states and rural areas who had been counting on Trump to protect them are watching those rocketing unemployment figures and feeling betrayed.

In focusing his attack on China, Trump may have provided clear evidence of his failure to “make America great again,” and thereby actually ruined his re-election chances.

I’ll vote for that.

This is a slightly excerpted version of an article that originally appeared in Morning Star.

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Peter Frost
Peter Frost

Peter Frost is a journalist for the Morning Star, Britain's socialist daily newspaper and website. He also writes for Culture Matters, a platform for socialist and progressive art, culture and politics.