Viral Identity Politics

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As always, some people can’t resist playing politics with the coronavirus pandemic. This is disappointing, if not surprising. But elected officials from the president on down should know that their reaction to emergencies -- yes, even those not of their making -- is how Americans judge their leaders. It has been forever thus. Herbert Hoover didn’t cause the Great Depression any more than Donald Trump launched the coronavirus sweeping the world with mind-boggling speed. But Hoover was irresolute in responding to the crisis, and he paid for that unsteadiness with his presidency and his reputation.

Meanwhile, our two highly polarized major political parties, stoked by a predictably partisan news media, are indulging themselves by squabbling over what to even call this disease.

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Remember the obdurate mayor in the movie “Jaws”? Played to perfection by Murray Hamilton, the top elected official of mythical “Amity Island” was more concerned with losing tourist dollars than publicly acknowledging that a ravenous great white shark was feeding on beachgoers. Yet, director Stephen Spielberg was mindful of the tension between those wanting to protect the public with precautions that seemed drastic and those worried about the cost to residents’ livelihoods should the local economy crater. Spielberg mined that friction skillfully.

Donald Trump has found himself unfortunately cast in the role of Amity Island’s mayor. The president’s instinct at the onset of the outbreak was to calm the markets and downplay the danger. Trump was first asked about the crisis on Jan. 22, while in Davos, Switzerland, by CNBC financial reporter Joe Kernen.

“The CDC has identified a case of coronavirus in Washington state, the Wuhan strain of this,” Kernen began. “If you remember SARS, that affected GDP -- travel-related effects -- have you been briefed by the CDC?”

“Yes,” president said, nodding.

“Are there worries about a pandemic at this point?” Kernen continued.

“Not at all,” replied the president. “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China and we have it under control. It’s gonna be just fine.”

This was an almost uncanny Mayor Vaughn imitation, especially when one considers that four days earlier, the CDC had dispatched more than 100 staffers to international airport hubs in three major U.S. cities -- San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York -- to screen passengers traveling from the Wuhan region.

It wasn’t “one person,” in other words, and by Jan. 31, the president had ordered restrictions on flights from China. This was too little, too late -- but even that measured move was too much for a cadre of congressional Democrats who claimed the president was sowing ethnic intolerance.

“This is a virus that happened to pop up in China,” Rep. Ami Bera of California, who chairs a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee, told Politico on Feb. 4. “In our response we can’t create prejudices and harbor anxieties toward one population.”

The following day, at a hearing chaired by Bera, Democrats solicited similar sentiments from witnesses -- and echoed them as well.

“The United States and other countries around the world have put in place unprecedented travel restrictions in response to the virus,” said Rep. Eliot Engel of New York. “These measures have not proven to improve public health outcomes. Rather, they tend to cause economic harm and to stake racist and discriminatory responses to this epidemic.”

It’s not clear why anyone would consider it prudent to allow thousands of people at the epicenter of a lethal new virus to fly all over the world, but that wasn’t the end of it. (Last night, in his televised speech to the nation, Trump lambasted European nations for not restricting travel sooner. He made no mention of his own initial response.)

Earlier Wednesday, in perhaps the perfect example of the toxic brew that comes when hyper-partisanship is fused with campus-style political correctness, Democrats from coast to coast went haywire when House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy referred to the epidemic as “the Chinese coronavirus.”

“This labeling of the illness is embarrassing, disrespectful, offensive, and downright disgusting,” tweeted New York Rep. Grace Meng. “It is shameful. The minority leader must immediately apologize.”

Sen. Kamala Harris of California chimed in that calling this disease the Chinese coronavirus “isn’t just racist, it’s dangerous and incites discrimination.”

“Viruses don’t have nationalities,” added Minnesota Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar. “This is racist.”

Dissenting commenters responded by noting that referring to something originating in China as “Chinese” is hardly racist in itself, and that China is not a race anyway. Others pointed out that identifying a strain of virus by its place of origin had a long tradition and that reliable media outlets -- and health professionals -- had initially called this outbreak the “Wuhan virus.” The critics also pointed out that in 1918 the deadliest influenza epidemic in history was called “the Spanish flu” -- and that this wasn’t mean to cast aspersions on Spain.

This last point is the most interesting, but it cuts both ways. The “Spanish flu,” you see, didn’t really start in Spain. Or in Asia, which many believed at the time. That its source was hard to pinpoint underscores the accurate and astute nature of the first half of Rep. Omar’s tweet: viruses certainly do not have nationalities. They don’t discriminate between their human hosts, either. As for the 1918 global pandemic that killed some 50 million people worldwide, it apparently originated right here -- in the great American heartland. It didn’t start in a Chinese fish market or Spain or anywhere in Europe. It started in western Kansas.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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