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The Bipartisan Appeal of “Yellow Peril” Politics

The coronavirus pandemic is exactly the excuse Washington has been looking for to start a conflict with China.

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Kaiser Wilhelm II did not originate the term “Yellow Peril,” but after his “Hun speech” of 1900, he became forever synonymous with it. The German monarch was addressing soldiers who were shipping off to China to help put down the Boxer Rebellion, and what he said was so crass—even for the notoriously half-witted, insecure, and capricious heir—that the Prussian foreign office’s official transcript of the speech omitted its most “diplomatically embarrassing” paragraph. “Just as a thousand years ago the Huns under their King Attila made a name for themselves, one that even today makes them seem mighty in history and legend,” the kaiser had said, “may the name German be affirmed by you in such a way in China that no Chinese will ever again dare to look cross-eyed at a German.”

One hundred and twenty years later, partisans of Donald Trump—like the kaiser, a “bad-tempered, distractable doofus” who inherited an increasingly precipitous empire—are turning to Yellow Peril rhetoric to rally support for their regime as it faces an existential crisis. The coronavirus pandemic has rapidly emerged as the excuse everyone has been looking for to start a conflict with China—a trend that’s disturbingly spreading beyond Republican politics.

The strategy, such as it is, began early, with Trump congratulating himself for a late-January ban on travel to the United States from China—long after the virus had already arrived stateside, probably from Europe—and his subsequent insistence on calling the contagion “the Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus,” a telling emphasis on the crisis’s origins over any White House actions against its spread. But in recent weeks, Republican Party hawks have taken the racist football and run with it.

Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, another folksy war addict cut from nineteenth-century Prussian cloth, has pivoted from his perennial demands for a U.S.-Iran confrontation to issue new demands for a U.S.-China confrontation, citing what he calls Beijing’s “malign, deliberate actions to send the virus around the world.” He was referring to the theory, increasingly popular on the right, that a government-run laboratory in Wuhan developed the deadly virus as a biological warfare agent. There is no evidence that the virus was released from a lab there, intentionally or otherwise. But Cotton’s rampage continued this week, when he proposed a law to bar Chinese students from obtaining visas to study science in America. “If Chinese students want to come here and study Shakespeare and the Federalist Papers, that’s what they need to learn from America,” Cotton said Sunday, apparently forgetting that Stratford-upon-Avon is not in the United States. “They don’t need to learn quantum computing and artificial intelligence from America.”

Cotton has plenty of wingnut company. Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, a “post-liberal” whose main achievement thus far has been to reintroduce anti-Semitic coding to mainstream conservative political messaging, is spearheading the party’s move to allow Americans impacted by the coronavirus to sue the Chinese Communists “to learn the full extent of the damage the CCP has inflicted on the world.” Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who reaches for any fruit that hangs low enough, rolled out a proposal Tuesday to bar the Pentagon from cooperating on productions with Hollywood studios that create edited versions of their films to placate Chinese censors. “The SCRIPT Act will serve as a wake-up call by forcing Hollywood studios to choose between the assistance they need from the American government and the dollars they want from China,” Cruz said in a press release that would fill up any right-wing-buzzword bingo card.

The White House has loaded up its agenda with plenty more anti-Chinese paranoia. In fealty to Cotton’s Fox-friendly conspiracy theory about the virus’s origins, the National Institutes of Health this week halted funding to a half-decade-old program that had studied how coronaviruses can spread from bats to humans. The rationale was that some of the funding might have filtered to a Wuhan virus lab. This has led some Republicans to recalibrate their racist attacks in an absurd about-face: In March, Texas’s John Cornyn blamed “the culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that … that’s why China has been the source.” This month, Cornyn shifted from that Yellow Peril thesis to more narrowly suggesting that the Chinese government “unleashed a weapon on the world.”

If all this racism feels orchestrated, that’s because it is. Last Friday, Politico revealed that Senate Republicans were working from a 57-page internal memo guiding them to evade questions about Trump’s mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis by blaming China. “Coronavirus was a Chinese hit-and-run followed by a cover-up that cost thousands of lives,” the talking points state. “Don’t defend Trump, other than the China Travel Ban—attack China.”

All of this is proceeding according to the Steve Bannon playbook. Bannon, the former Breitbart chairman and Trump-whisperer who went largely forgotten by the U.S. electorate after he was bounced out of the White House in 2017, always viewed himself as a Bolshevik, someone willing to use a great emergency to build a technocratic dictatorship that operated on behalf of the agitated, propagandized masses. The populist linchpin of this Bannonism-Trumpism has always been xenophobia, and its key object—even more than brown Americans, or global Islam—has been the specter of Chinese dominance, an obsession for Bannon since his youth as a Navy officer.

Though Bannon no longer works at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, he continues to bang the “blame China” drum as a means of power consolidation for Trump. “This is about a totalitarian regime, every bit as brutal, every bit as cold-blooded, every bit as tough as the Nazis in the 1930s,” Bannon told Fox News last Sunday. “They’ve got to be confronted.” The same day, he told The Wall Street Journal “that voters will see a powerful central government as essential as the U.S. moves into a long-term era of confrontation with China, where the coronavirus originated.”

Bannon’s occidentalist acolytes also continue to drive White House decision-making. It’s easy to forget that last year, Peter Thiel—the anti–First Amendment, German-born, South African immigrant billionaire PayPal co-founder, who worked closely with Bannon on an ideological underpinning for Trump’s surprise presidency—dramatically “left” Silicon Valley in 2018 over its “liberalism,” arguing that a glut of Asian-born CEOs had helped Big Tech become a traitorous fifth column for Chinese government influence. Thiel, who still somehow considers himself a libertarian hero in the Atlas Shrugged corporate-titan mold, now has a contract with Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services to track the coronavirus through Palantir, his data-mining and surveillance company, which fits with the racial profiling Palantir has already done for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (As Alexander Zaitchik has written for TNR, Thiel also founded a conservative newspaper at Stanford University, when he was an undergraduate there, that later became a platform for Hawley, the Republican senator; ultranationalism is a flat circle.)

Blaming China is a lovely treat for the Trump administration’s emerging nationwide Freikorps of nativist white men who will protest, under arms, anything from state-level social distancing rules to Roger Stone’s indictment. It also serves the more doctrinaire segment of Trump’s electoral base, evangelical conservatives, who still seek to “open” the Communist People’s Republic of China to the Gospel with the zeal of the Protestant missionaries who descended on that “heathen” land in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Perhaps it’s also an attempt to hold onto the votes of American senior citizens, a majority of whom voted for Trump in 2016 and now find themselves unable to avoid the uncomfortable truth that he is a solipsistic dope who is killing people they know.

All of this was alarming enough before Democratic politicians got in the act, too. Mid-pandemic, as the global economy implodes, millions of Americans lose their incomes and employer-tied health insurance, and the virus buzzsaws through the country, Team Trump has succeeded in dragging November election opponent Joe Biden into a pissing match over who’s “softer” on China. Last week, Team Biden pounced on this bait like an emaciated mouse on a rattrap’s soft cheese, releasing a viral ad insisting that “Trump rolled over for the Chinese; he took their word for it.”

This, my colleague Alex Pareene notes, “is what it looks like when a campaign tries to appeal to people it assumes are rabid xenophobes.” Nor is it the exclusive province of Biden’s centrist campaign entreaties; on Tuesday, Democratic Senators Chris Murphy and Ed Markey sent the State Department a letter demanding information on old diplomatic cables that suggested U.S. authorities had concerns about security at one of the Wuhan labs at the center of the coronavirus conspiracy theories. “We still have more questions than we have answers about the origin of this virus,” Murphy told The Washington Post.

Because we live in this kind of America—where a Democratic senator is just asking questions that just happen to reinforce the right wing’s Yellow Peril conspiracy theories—here is where old media conventions oblige me to insert a “to be sure” paragraph into my analysis to appear even-handed: To be sure, China’s government is totalitarian, anti-transparency, and proven to be fundamentally dishonest toward its own citizenry and global citizens regarding the deadly virus that originated in its borders. And, while scientists say it’s highly unlikely that the coronavirus originated from a lab in Wuhan, it can’t definitively be ruled out until the origin of the virus is discovered (if that ever happens).

None of which excuses these politicians’ bad-faith xenophobia. Trump and his acolytes—and, increasingly, his chief Democratic opposition—are all racing to position themselves as global cops looking for an outside arsonist to prosecute, while Americans are left to put out the fires raging on at home. Rather than making November’s ballot a referendum on Trump’s citizen-killing incompetence, insouciance, stupidity, and caprice, both major-party establishments are engaging in a competition to convince Americans to fear the Yellow Peril and to entrust their leadership with saving them from it. We are free to choose a different kaiser, it seems, but loath to forge a better America.