President Trump’s new campaign ad attacking Joe Biden as soft on China and coronavirus is drawing attention for its ugly xenophobia. As many have noted, in order to portray Biden as weak and overly deferential toward China — and, by extension, toward coronavirus — the ad shows Biden bowing to an Asian man with Chinese flags in the background.

The man turns out to be American.

But there’s something more fundamentally absurd about this ad that is eluding notice. It’s that a look at the timeline shows that, early on, Trump was praising China’s handling of coronavirus at precisely the same time that Biden was insisting we must show skepticism toward China’s handling of it.

First, watch the ad:

President Trump's reelection campaign released this ad about 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden on April 9. (Donald J. Trump for President, Inc.)

Aaron Blake has a comprehensive takedown of the problems here. The ad clips Biden’s words out of context to misleadingly imply that Biden criticized Trump’s decision to restrict travel from China, when that’s not what Biden did.

(As an aside, Trump’s constant hyping of that one decision as an act of great leadership that saved us from far more coronavirus cases than we otherwise would have endured is an absurd exaggeration, as the New York Times decisively showed.)

Second, the ad relies on numerous past quotes from Biden to demonstrate that he’s supposedly been soft on China. But those quotes were mostly boilerplate diplomatic language — and Trump has repeatedly praised China in language very close to what Biden has used. Both have expressed diplomatic praise of China in various contexts, which is not in the least surprising.

And third, the Asian man that Biden bowed to turns out to be Gary Locke, a former Washington governor and U.S. ambassador to China — and an American.

But there’s a deeper absurdity here that needs to be appreciated.

Throughout the early weeks of coronavirus, Trump repeatedly praised China’s handling of coronavirus. Importantly, this praise was central to advancing the argument that Trump had totally beaten down coronavirus with merciless force and efficiency: Trump kept insisting he was successfully collaborating with China to defeat it.

Yet, at around that same time, Biden was warning against taking China’s assurances about coronavirus at face value.

The contrast is clear. On Feb. 25, Trump said that China was “working very, very hard” to contain coronavirus, adding that “they’re getting it more and more under control,” which led Trump to conclude that for the United States, coronavirus was a “problem that’s going to go away.”

Trump repeated this sentiment the next day, claiming that because of collaboration with China, coronavirus is not “getting larger, it’s actually gotten smaller.”

By contrast, on Feb. 26, Biden directly rebutted this line, saying: “I would not be taking China’s word for it. I would insist that China allow our scientists in to make a hard determination of how it started, where it’s from, how far along it is.”

Biden had voiced that same sentiment the day before, insisting that he would “insist, insist, insist” that China show more transparency about what was going on with coronavirus.

This pattern persisted throughout the early weeks, with Trump repeatedly praising China’s handling of it and confidently claiming China had it under wraps.

What’s important here is that Trump’s repeated insistence that China had coronavirus under control was absolutely central to Trump’s own downplaying of coronavirus, and to his suggestion that he had it under control — and that it wasn’t a problem here.

By contrast, throughout this same period, Biden repeatedly said we should take coronavirus far more seriously, demanding that Trump let experts take over the response.

We now know who was right about all of this, and his name isn’t Donald J. Trump. So, plainly, the core argument in this ad is laughable.

A bigger argument

By the way, this doesn’t settle the whole debate. That’s because this ad signals what’s coming: a much broader case from Trump that he has been tough on China (through trade wars), while Biden has supposedly been soft on it (having supported trade with China).

As Jeet Heer points out, this argument is already unfolding on two levels. The crude superficial version of it can be seen in Trump demagoguing about China at his daily campaign rallies masquerading as coronavirus briefings, to the bellowing cheers of pro-Trump media propagandists, which is meant to juice the base. This new ad is a particularly crude expression of this.

But that heralds a more complicated argument, as Heer notes, over our future relations with China — that is, over whether coronavirus reveals a broader over-dependence on China, and, if so, how we should wheel that back. Trump will use his supposed toughness on China to try to paint Biden as a neoliberal who cheered on while trade relations with China decimated the industrial Midwest.

Given what a disaster Trump’s trade wars have been in practice, and how nakedly plutocratic and anti-worker his agenda has been, that should be a winnable argument for Biden. And how he should prosecute it will be the subject of another post.

But for now, let’s note that this new ad’s opening bid in this argument from Trump is utter nonsense on every level. Once again, the truth is the direct opposite of what Trump claims it is — in a way that holds a mirror up to his ongoing failures, as his debunked lies so often do.

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