In March, as the pandemic began to affect the United States, President Trump gave a speech at which a photographer captured his notes. The photo showed that Trump had used a Sharpie pen to replace the term “Corona Virus” with “Chinese virus” — a phrase he has used frequently since, alternating it with variants like “kung flu.” We offer new evidence that such racialized language has prompted many Americans to blame Chinese Americans for covid-19. But it’s done more: Other Americans have reacted by turning against Trump, including some likely supporters.
Blaming foreigners for disease is an old strategy
Trump’s goal in using “Chinese virus” seems to be to avoid blame for the pandemic by redirecting anger toward China. Trying to avoid blame is nothing new in politics. Research often finds that politicians blame other politicians or public or private service providers when they want to escape blame. Foreigners are often blamed for new diseases.
But framing the pandemic as a foreign problem violates international guidelines. The World Health Organization recommends against naming viruses after specific regions because it can lead people to unfairly stigmatize ethnic groups. In the United States, Asian Americans worry that such racialized language will make them the target of public ire.
Along with our co-authors, political scientists Asmus Olsen and Jason Anastasopolous, we conducted a survey experiment on a sample of 1,500 U.S. residents in late June, shortly after the United States passed 120,000 deaths and 2.5 million confirmed cases of covid-19. Our sample was recruited using CloudResearch, a research platform that integrates with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, allowing greater selectivity for high-quality subjects. While we use an online convenience sample rather than a nationally representative poll, responses from such samples appear to be comparable to those obtained using more representative samples. After filtering out responses completed in an unusually short amount of time (less than 180 seconds) and multiple responses from the same IP address, 1,439 usable responses remained.
We asked respondents to read a short description of the pandemic. Some respondents read a version in which the coronavirus was called “COVID-19;” for others, it was called the “Chinese virus.”
We then asked people a number of closed- and open-ended questions about who they believed was most responsible for the spread of the virus in the United States.
Conservatives and liberals had different views of the virus
Not surprisingly, we found that conservatives and liberals had very different evaluations of whether covid-19 was a serious threat and who was to blame. Respondents were asked to rate the severity of the threat on a scale from 0, meaning it was completely overblown, to 10, meaning it was extremely serious. On average, conservatives rated the threat at 5.9, while moderates and liberals rated it at 7.7. We also asked respondents to rate on a similar scale whether Trump was responsible for the pandemic’s spread, with 0 meaning not responsible at all and 10 for extremely responsible. Conservatives assigned Trump a score of 4.1 while moderates and liberals gave him a 7.3.
Social scientists call this “motivated reasoning,” meaning that people are motivated to give the benefit of the doubt to public officials who share their views, and are willing to blame those with different political ideologies. For example, after the poor response to Hurricane Katrina, liberals blamed President George W. Bush and conservatives blamed Democratic public officials.
Even given that, however, these differences in blame are quite large — suggesting that Americans’ perspectives on the pandemic are especially polarized.
How did the term “Chinese virus” affect respondents?
Among respondents who read the description of the pandemic that used the term “Chinese virus,” 47 percent picked Chinese Americans from a list of ethnic groups as the one most responsible for the pandemic, eight percent more than those who read the description that used the term covid-19, at 39 percent. Given that Asian Americans as a group make up only about 6 percent of the U.S. population, and that the strain impacting the hardest-hit regions came from Europe, there is simply no basis to single out Chinese Americans for blame.
Meanwhile, when respondents were asked to rate the extent to which they blamed the Chinese government using a scale of 0 (not responsible at all) to 10 (extremely responsible), being exposed to the term “Chinese virus” had no effect.
Surprisingly, the use of the term “Chinese virus” prompted more respondents to blame Trump for the pandemic. We asked respondents to write some thoughts about who had done poorly at responding to the pandemic, and used machine-learning techniques to detect patterns of word use in this text. Those exposed to the term “Chinese virus” were significantly more likely to echo common critiques that Trump did not take the pandemic seriously enough, using words like “Donald,” “downplay,” “virus” and “spread” in their response than those who read about covid-19.
Our findings showed that even conservatives responded to the phrase “Chinese virus” by blaming Trump more often. Conservatives who read about a “Chinese virus” were significantly more likely to use words such as “Trump,” “president,” “bad,” and “job” than those who read about “covid-19.” One conservative respondent criticized Trump because “he has set a poor example” and “made light of the virus.”
That suggests that scapegoating ethnic groups might hurt in the short run, creating its own backlash. While Trump’s use of that phrase increased Americans’ willingness to blame Chinese Americans, it failed to shift blame away from himself.
Donald Moynihan (@donmoyn) is the McCourt Professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University.
Gregory Porumbescu (@gporumbe) is a professor at the School of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers University at Newark.