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With ‘kung flu,’ Trump sparks backlash over racist language — and a rallying cry for supporters

President Trump speaks during a Students for Trump event at the Dream City Church in Phoenix on June 23, 2020. (Saul Loeb/ AFP)

President Trump’s first use of the phrase “kung flu” — during a campaign rally in Tulsa last weekend — drew broad political backlash as a racist slur against Asian Americans.

Within three days, however, it was also something else: a rallying cry for his supporters.

Trump’s appearance before a crowd of several thousand enthusiastic young people at the Dream City Church in Phoenix on Tuesday showed how his casual use of a demeaning phrase — one that even some White House aides rejected three months ago — has swiftly morphed into a staple of his reelection message amid tumbling poll numbers.

The president hadn’t even used the words in Phoenix before audience members, presumably primed from having heard his riff on the “many names” of the coronavirus at the Tulsa rally, beat him to the punchline and began shouting out “kung flu” — prompting Trump, with a grin, to repeat it.

Over the past four months, President Trump has regularly sought to downplay the coronavirus threat with a mix of facts and false statements. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

“Kung flu — yeah,” Trump said, eliciting cheers. “Kung flu.”

The episode laid bare how, despite attempts from White House aides to justify Trump’s rhetoric as a way to pin the blame for the coronavirus pandemic on China, where it originated, the president appears more interested in juicing his conservative base.

“The fact that he got the crowd so riled up was just chilling,” said Chris Lu, a Chinese American who served as cabinet secretary in the Obama White House. “In that really primal desire to get a rise out of the crowd and get that affirmation he wants, he went to this place that has such bad consequences for Asian Americans broadly and for Asian American kids in particular. It’s a joke to him but not to us.”

Lu was among a number of prominent Asian Americans, including actor George Takei, former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who denounced the president’s language as racist on social media.

The president’s weaponized language around the pandemic this week marked a clear escalation of his previous use of “Chinese virus” and “Wuhan virus” to demonize the Chinese. Those terms also drew condemnation from Democrats as offensive and xenophobic, prompting Trump in late March to publicly express support for Asian Americans and state that “the spreading of the virus is not their fault in any way.”

His use of “kung flu” coincides with polling that shows low public support for his handling of both the coronavirus, which is spiking in many states, as well as his response to the nationwide protests for racial justice, in which he has denounced protesters and called for a militarized police response.

White House aides this week struggled to explain the president’s latest rhetorical shift. On Wednesday, Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to the president, defended Trump by telling reporters he was trying to make clear that the “virus originated in China.”

Yet she grew defensive after Weijia Jiang, a CBS News correspondent who is Chinese American, asked her to explain the connection between Trump’s language and holding Beijing accountable.

“How do you know people aren’t anticipating that or not connecting that?” Conway responded.

The exchange represented an about-face for Conway. In March, Jiang reported that a White House official, whom she did not name, used the phrase “kung flu” during a conversation with her. At that time, Conway had called the language “highly offensive” and “hurtful,” noting her children are Asian American because her husband, attorney George Conway, a prominent Trump critic, is of Filipino descent.

“Kellyanne now out there proving once again that having an Asian spouse isn’t a racism vaccine,” Jeff Yang, an author and columnist who writes about race and culture, said on Twitter.

In an interview, Yang said white Americans have long used the Anglicized term “kung fu” as a catchall to describe a range of Chinese martial arts that they have internalized through popular culture — but one that frequently has been used to stereotype Asian Americans as foreign or culturally exotic.

Trump’s use of “kung flu” has effectively created a “schoolyard taunt” that is being mimicked by the president’s supporters, he added.

“The framing around ‘kung flu’ is uniquely problematic because it’s not simply attaching a geographical moniker to the term — which was their original excuse — to make clear where this came from,” said Yang, who co-hosts a podcast on Asian American issues called “They Call Us Bruce,” named for martial arts icon Bruce Lee.

Trump’s appearance in Phoenix came at a conference for Turning Point Action, the 501(c)(4) political arm of founder Charlie Kirk’s nonprofit organization of young conservatives. Though the White House listed the event on Trump’s official schedule, it took on all the trappings of a campaign rally — from warm-up remarks from the president’s son, Don Jr., to the use of his campaign music.

The crowd was mostly young and overwhelmingly white, and most attendees did not wear face masks as they filled most of the church, violating federal safety guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to protect against the spread of the coronavirus. Arizona is one of more than 30 states that are experiencing a spike in infections, and it is among seven reporting new highs in hospitalizations for the disease.

Among those in the audience was Kimberly Yee, a Republican who became the first Asian American to serve in the Arizona state legislature and now serves as state treasurer. She also is a co-chair of Asian Americans for Trump, a group that Trump’s reelection campaign announced last month.

“As an Asian-American, I’m much more concerned about the media and Democrat’s refusal to acknowledge China’s lack of transparency and culpability in the spread of this terrible disease than I am with the president’s reference to it,” Yee said in a statement.

In the 2016 election, Democrat Hillary Clinton won 65 percent of the Asian American vote to Trump’s 27 percent, according to exit polls, but Trump’s rhetoric and policies could be further eroding his standing with the small but fast-growing voting bloc. In the 2018 midterms, 77 percent of Asian Americans backed Democratic candidates in the House elections, up from 49 percent in the 2014 midterms.

This week, Trump signed an executive order to extend restrictions on foreign workers and some family members of U.S. citizens during the coronavirus, a policy that restricts a popular program used by many Asian immigrants.

John C. Yang, president of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC, said his organization has registered a spike in reports of violence against Asian Americans since the outbreak began, having tracked 2,300 incidents since late March. He said Trump was seeking to distract the public “from his own abysmal record” in overseeing the federal response to the virus.

Yang noted that the World Health Organization, which formally named the pandemic “covid-19,” and the CDC “made clear that referring to the ‘Chinese virus’ was an effort to stigmatize and was not helpful to the medical community. To suggest ‘kung flu’ is somehow better in any way is ludicrous.”