The Nativist Response to COVID-19

We are about to face the heart of the challenge: anti-globalist populism.

Donald Trump’s first response to coronavirus was denial, which is why he initially downplayed the threat and said it would soon pass. But as the exponential growth pattern of a pandemic begins to unfold, denial is no longer an option. When the fear begins to take hold among his base of supporters, he’ll have to switch gears, something that both he and his enablers are laying the groundwork to do.

During his oval office address last week, the president referred to COVID-19 as a “foreign virus,” suggesting that diseases actually have a nationality. By Monday evening, he was tweeting about the “Chinese virus.” There is a concerted effort on the right to call it the “Wuhan virus” in order to label the country of China as the originator. That is why we hear this kind of thing from the founder of the Federalist.

I’ve already noted that Senator Tom Cotton is blaming China for the virus, while promising revenge. That is how he hopes to make a play for being the Republican presidential nominee in 2024.

As recently as three days ago, Jerry Falwell, Jr.—an infamous court evangelical—said that people are overreacting, but then he switched gears and threw out a truly bizarre conspiracy theory.

With zero evidence, Falwell suggested that the North Koreans had teamed up with the Chinese to send out the coronavirus as their “Christmas present to America.” That is how far this lunacy has traveled.

Jonathan Chait noticed this trend and struggled to understand it.

I pay close attention to conservative thought, and try to understand the ideological roots of various strands of right-wing argument. Explaining the China obsession in philosophical terms, though, seems to give its adherents too much credit. It’s as if they are unable to grasp the concept of a positive-sum global problem, and lacking the proper capacity to analyze this category of problem, are using the parts of their brains that process external threats. Their lizard brains have transformed a crisis in which every country has a joint interest in mitigation into an act of war demanding retaliation.

The reason conservatives are turning this pandemic into an external threat is because that’s what ideologues do. They are unable to grasp the reality of interdependence and, instead, focus on identifying a villain. That provides them with someone to blame and a call for retaliation.

Finding a villain to blame also feeds into Trump’s isolationist tendencies. We’ve already seen how his moves to pull back from the systems Obama put in place for early detection and prevention of pandemics was incredibly short-sighted. Instead, he thinks that a virus can be shut down by closing our borders and building a wall.

Victor Davis Hanson recently made the case for isolationism as the appropriate response.

COVID-19 itself has raised fundamental questions about the merits of globalization in general, and in particular the wisdom of any sovereign nation outsourcing key industries like high-tech, pharmaceuticals, medical supplies, and food processing to an autocratic, non-transparent—and dangerous—nation like China.

What Trump and his enablers need in order to gin up that kind of isolationism in response to coronavirus is a villain to blame, mixed with heavy doses of nativism and xenophobia. That is the pot that is being stirred right now and will likely explode as the number of cases grows in the United States. People who have already become tribal in their fear of a changing world will be easy prey.

This is the heart of the challenge we face from anti-globalist populism. It is a blending of nationalism and xenophobia that, in the past, has led to world wars. That is why I decided to pin this to the top of my Twitter account a couple of weeks ago.

The antidote to what is surely coming over the next few weeks is to remind everyone that diseases have no nationality and don’t discriminate. No matter how scared we are, “any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.” Like it or not, we have a responsibility to one another as human beings, meaning that “our problems must be dealt with through partnership.” We will only conquer challenges like the coronavirus by expanding our moral imagination, which is what it means to share this world in the 21st century.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.