Few people now contend that China is blameless in causing the crisis that has enveloped the globe. One doesn’t have to believe every conspiracy theory to note that at minimum the Communist government failed to be forthright in a timely manner with the World Health Organization and other governments. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has called for an investigation into China’s role, a move that sparked veiled threats of economic blacklisting from state-controlled Chinese media. Even normally more cautious European allies have called for “more transparency” from the secretive and closed regime.
Polls show that Americans are also blaming China. A Harris Poll in early April showed that majorities of Democrats and Republicans thought China was not forthcoming about the virus. While Republicans were predictably much harsher in both their views and in how to respond, anti-China sentiments were shared across the political spectrum. A Pew Research Center survey from March also found anti-China views were shared across party lines. An Economist/YouGov poll from last week even found a plurality of Americans believe the coronavirus came from a lab, with two-thirds of Republicans and nearly three-quarters of Republican primary voters in agreement.
Those data explain why recent television ads for Republican congressional candidates have featured harsh, anti-China themes. Jim Bognet, a Republican running in the Democratic-held Eighth District of Pennsylvania, pledges to “make China pay” for “the lies they told and the jobs they stole.” Florida Republican Casey Askar’s latest spot accuses China of “unleashing the Wuhan pandemic on the world,” while Indiana Republican Carl Brizzi says he will stand with Trump to “break our dependency on China.” Texas candidate Kathaleen Wall has perhaps the most over-the-top ad, featuring arrows with the words “Chinese virus” flying across the Pacific to invade the United States.
Trump’s super PAC joined the chorus with its own ads this weekend. Two ads tying former vice president Joe Biden to China are running in the blue-collar swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. They use clips of Biden saying complimentary things about the Chinese government, hobnobbing with Chinese Communist Party leaders and criticizing Trump’s partial ban on travel from Wuhan. One closes with the unsubtle point: “To stop China, you have to stop Joe Biden.”
Thus, a Republican strategy has emerged. As the U.S. death toll mounts and the election fast approaches, it’s natural that both parties would try to pin the blame on a convenient target. For Democrats, the target will be Trump. For Republicans, the target will be China.
Making China the campaign’s focus is crucial to Trump’s faltering reelection bid. Trump’s lackluster poll ratings have dropped amidst his unsteady performances during the once-daily coronavirus update briefings. Biden, the presumptive Democratic Party nominee, has thus far not been dragged down by the Tara Reade affair, and nothing the president is likely to throw at Biden in the fall appears to be serious enough to make him anywhere near as unpopular as Hillary Clinton. With Republicans nationwide tied to Trump’s mast, the entire party needs him to discover something that can turn the race around.
China’s culpability for the virus plays nicely to the president’s strengths. He is always at his political best when on the attack. He struggles to project a consistently positive message but relishes sticking it to an enemy. China’s unsavory human rights record, its repression of democracy in Hong Kong and its pre-crisis efforts to punish the National Basketball Association for permitting anti-Chinese comments by its employees or its fans simply make it that much easier for Trump to whip up popular fervor. Just as Clinton gave Trump a lot of ammunition to use against her, the Chinese government is an easy target for Trump.
Trump will gain from the enthusiastic support of Republican congressional candidates, too. They want the election to be about almost anything but the man in the Oval Office and will be all too eager to expend their campaign kitties by pushing the China angle. Many won’t mention Trump directly, but their tens of millions of dollars in television ad spending will keep Chinese culpability front and center. Add in the conservative media, which is already talking about this regularly, and one can easily see where this is going.
Trump may not pull this off, but Democrats have reason to be concerned. Republicans have used national security for decades to win presidential races. Biden will need to convince voters that he can stand up to Chinese President Xi Jinping. If he can’t, he might find that playing the China card is the ultimate political trump.