the national interest

Why Are Conservatives Obsessed With Revenge on China for the Coronavirus?

Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

If you have followed coronavirus news through the mainstream media, you have experienced a story about a global pandemic, economic and cultural fallout, and federal government dysfunction. If you are following it through the conservative media, as tens of millions of Americans do, you have probably understood the story as a narrative centered primarily around China. From this perspective, the drama centers around the refusal of the media and liberal elites to acknowledge China’s guilt.

“China has unleashed this plague on the entire world through their dishonesty and their lack of transparency and corruption,” charges Senator Tom Cotton on Fox News. “Communist China unleashed a viral plague on the world, covered it up, and is now trying to blame the U.S. for the whole thing,” writes Federalist co-founder Sean Davis, “and if that weren’t bad enough, U.S. corporate political media, some of which are literally paid to run Chinese propaganda, are actively helping.”

The crisis that grips conservatives is not the prospect that hospitals will be overwhelmed beyond their capacity and that hundreds of thousands of Americans might die. Indeed, some of the China-obsessed conservatives downplay the severity of the epidemic even as they foment rage at China for causing it. “If you point out that this whole thing came from China, why, that’s racism and xenophobia and all that — and yet we’ve got a bio-threat,” says Rush Limbaugh. Given that Limbaugh has insisted the coronavirus is no worse than the common cold, it’s not clear that anger at China is even required.

Focusing on China allows conservatives to sidestep the question of whether the coronavirus poses a serious health risk at all. That question becomes a sideshow to the primary objective of blaming China. Right-wing organs like the Federalist have mounted a campaign to brand the disease the “Wuhan Virus,” scolding anybody who fails to use their lingo as China appeasers. Breitbart’s coverage of Joe Biden’s coronavirus plan zeroes in on its failure to blame Beijing. “Not once in the detailed plan does Biden mention China or Wuhan — the origin city of the coronavirus,” it reports, accurately, “Instead, the Biden plan repeatedly focuses on fighting ‘global’ public health threats and refers to the coronavirus in its technical term of COVID-19.”

This is a completely bizarre passage to those of us who have read mainstream news. It credits Biden with outlining a “detailed plan,” but brushes aside this fact to complain that he describes the virus as a “global threat,” which it demonstrably is.

What’s so strange about the right’s China obsession is that it lacks any policy implications. Cotton has warned, “We will hold accountable those who inflicted it on the world,” but what actions could he be threatening? Create a pandemic virus of our own in the United States? There is no prospective course of action that follows from blaming China. It is a global pandemic.

And the reason the mainstream media and liberal elite are using the standard terms for the virus rather than the conservative movement’s preferred labels isn’t some delicacy about offending China. It’s that we don’t actually care at this point where it started. Biden focused his speech on ways to prevent Americans from suffering and dying, instead of on ways to blame China, because that seems more important, not because he’s secretly in hoc to the Chinese Communist Party (which Cotton, naturally, has also insinuated).

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.

It is certainly true that China’s government bungled and covered up the pandemic in its original stages. That is an unfortunate practice among authoritarian states. However, it is also true that President Trump’s administration has bungled its own response to the virus, and covered up its failures with a stream of lies. American conservatives who are most fixated on blaming the Chinese managerial failures and lies are also, oddly enough, the most complicit in justifying the same behavior by their own government.

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Conservatives Obsessed With Revenge on China for Coronavirus