White House

On Coronavirus, the Nationalists Aren’t Nationalist Enough

President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference on the coronavirus outbreak at the White House, February 29, 2020. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
One might have thought the coronavirus would activate Trump’s defensive instincts.

A foreign threat, emanating from China and requiring border controls and the exercise of government power to protect Americans, has arrived in the United States.

Yet President Donald Trump spent the initial weeks minimizing the threat and talking of it magically disappearing, despite being a nationalist who has long emphasized the importance of borders and the danger of China.

One might think the coronavirus would activate Trump’s defensive instincts at least as much as supposedly problematic immigrants and Chinese-made products do. Instead, the same Trump who in 2015 famously urged a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims coming into the United States until we could “figure out what is going on” has largely tried to shrug off the dangers of a new disease the risks of which are still not fully known.

The president struck a more sober tone in his Oval Office address, but many of his supporters have adopted his initial attitude. Seeking to provide him political cover and reacting against a perpetually hostile media, they’ve resorted to every possible argument to dismiss the threat of the coronavirus. It’s just like the flu. Only old people die. The swine flu killed more people.

And so, what is supposed to be a populist nationalist movement is reacting foolishly to what otherwise would be a natural populist nationalist issue.

It is China, the country that Trump supporters rightly want the U.S. to be more suspicious of and less reliant on, that gave the world the coronavirus. Surely this is more damaging than, say, putting together iPhones.

It is borders that are the first line of defense, both within countries and between them (Trump has indeed readily resorted to travel restrictions).

Relatedly, it is globalization and increased interconnectedness that have been a key vector for the spread of the virus.

It is the so-called Deep State, the vast apparatus that runs the federal bureaucracy, that played a big role in botching the initial testing here.

The New York Times ran a maddening account of a Seattle-area research project that wanted to test for the coronavirus early. But it got told “no” repeatedly by federal agencies that had a pettifogging commitment to senseless rules — the project was using the wrong kind of labs, the test didn’t have FDA approval, patient privacy could be violated, etc.

It is global supply chains that have increased the vulnerability of the U.S. if the virus runs out of control, with China manufacturing a large share of medicines for the U.S., and other countries beginning to hold on to the masks and protective gear that they make.

Finally, it is the government that will have to organize the U.S. response, not the free market that populist nationalists argue is overemphasized by conservatives and libertarians.

Nonetheless, Trump supporters on talk radio, on cable TV, and on Twitter have gone down rabbit holes of denial rather than reacting to a threat that should be in their wheelhouse with tools congenial to them.

There are honorable exceptions. Senator Tom Cotton, the Arkansas Republican, is a China hawk attuned to the full spectrum of foreign threats who was warning of the coronavirus when the country — or at least the media — was still obsessed with impeachment. Tucker Carlson, too, has been full-throated about the potential dangers from the beginning.

It is typical for big events to carry a distinct ideological charge. The September 11 attacks had a strong conservative valence — an attack that emanated from overseas, that exploited holes in our immigration and security apparatus, and that cried out for a military response.

The financial crisis was the opposite — a disruption that involved the big banks, that implicated risky financial practices, and that required massive fiscal stimulus.

President Trump has been on a path toward allowing the coronavirus to discredit him and his supporters when it rightly should vindicate their key assumptions — and spur them to action.

© 2019 by King Features Syndicate

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