Over the course of his 2016 campaign and his subsequent presidential term, Donald Trump has sought to exploit popular fears of foreigners and certain American ethnicities to his political advantage. His verbal attacks have been selective. Irish, Italian and Polish Americans, for example, have proved immune to his insults (at least in his public utterances). Trump’s favorite targets for public abuse have been Hispanics, especially individuals seeking to enter the country clandestinely along the border with Mexico. He has also complained bitterly and profanely, in a semi-public setting, about immigrants from Haiti and sub-Saharan African countries.
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This is hardly the end of things. Early on in his administration, Trump imposed a ban, which was overturned by courts, on all Muslims seeking to enter the United States based on popular fears of terrorism. Very much unlike his two predecessors, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who were careful to distinguish between terrorists and the followers of Islam, Trump sought to equate Muslims in general with terrorism, thereby inflaming existing popular fears.
Then came COVID-19, a disease that has taken the lives of nearly 168,000 of Americans to date. After some initial hesitation, Trump labeled it “kung flu.” To cheers and wild laughter at mass rallies and other public events, the president has sought to deflect widespread criticism of his handling of the pandemic by blaming the Chinese — not merely the government but the people in general — conflating the Chinese martial art of kung fu with influenza to the delight of his followers.
All this, of course, is classic demagoguery intended to mobilize Trump’s base of whites with less than a college education and win him their renewed support at the polls in November. The fact that he actually appears to believe what he is saying adds to the appeal of his message.
Trump’s demagogic appeals have consequences for those targeted by his abuse. Using data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report and the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey, researchers have reported a substantial decline in hate crimes committed against Asian Americans over the periods 2003-07 and 2014-18. Asian Americans appeared to be well on their way to acceptance by their fellow citizens. The arrival of COVID-19 arrested this development and turned it around. So that, for example, in the three months ending on July 1, another source reported over 800 discrimination and harassment incidents, including 81 assaults, aimed at Asian Americans in California alone.
The situation of American Muslims is somewhat different. For members of this religious minority, there was no reversal of the trend toward greater acceptance, simply a continuation of widespread animus. Illustratively, as reported in The Daily Beast, in the two months following the murder of 51 Muslim worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15, 2019, by Brenton Tarrant, a young Australian man who reported being a “fan” of Trump, mosques in San Diego, California, New Haven, Connecticut, and Queens, New York, became the targets of arson attacks.
These crimes were simply the most menacing of some hundreds of anti-Muslim hate crimes in the United States that followed upon the Christchurch killings. Abbas Barzegar, the director of a national watchdog organization that tracks anti-Muslim bias incidents, told The Daily Beast in 2019, “We’ve already reported over 500 incidences of anti-Muslim bias or harassment just this year so far.” Barzegar went on to say that the uptick in anti-Muslim events began in 2015 and continued unabated thereafter.
For how much of this is Trump responsible? The answer is not easily quantifiable, but at a minimum, we can say Trump has done little to qualm the poisonous atmosphere in the country. At a maximum, we can claim he has sought to promote a politics of inter-group hatred to advance his career and improve his chances of reelection.
There is a striking contradiction in this situation. As Trump and his base insult or, in some cases, physically assault Chinese Americans and Muslims, holding the Chinese responsible for COVID-19, individual members of such now stigmatized groups have been busy trying to save Americans from the disease. A long list of Chinese American epidemiologists, emergency room physicians and virologists, led perhaps by Dr. David Ho (director of the Aaron Diamond Research Center at Columbia University) and Dr. Thomas Tsai (Brigham and Women’s Hospital), have been playing vital roles in fighting the disease, often at the risk of their own lives.
About the same applies to America Muslims from both the Middle East and South Asia. The list here would have to include Dr. Ashish Jha (director of Harvard Global Health Institute), Mahrokh Irani (Harvard Global Health Institute), Dr. Najy Masai and Dr. Imran Siddiqui. Of course, the list could be extended.
Will these performances by Chinese American and American Muslim physicians and scientists have any impact on Trump’s campaign rhetoric and the bigoted perceptions of his base? Probably not. To do so would require Trump voters to link the physicians’ backgrounds to the groups to which they belong and modify their attitudes accordingly — not an easy feat. Further, the president and his campaign operatives have too much invested in his crowd-pleasing rhetoric to change at this late date.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.