Trump’s mixed mes­sages about the coron­avirus pan­demic aren’t help­ing

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - PERSPECTIV­E - Clarence Page Clarence Page, a mem­ber of the Tri­bune Editorial Board, blogs at www.chicago tri­­page. [email protected]­ Twit­ter @cp­time

Here’s one of the great jour­nal­is­tic ques­tions in our age: If a politi­cian does some­thing scan­dalous in plain sight, even on pur­pose, is there still a scan­dal?

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has raised that ques­tion in my mind many times. The lat­est came in an over-the-shoul­der photo that Wash­ing­ton Post pho­tog­ra­pher Jabin Bots­ford caught of the pres­i­dent’s speech text dur­ing his daily coron­avirus news brief­ing Thurs­day.

Blown-up, the photo shows the word “corona,” a med­i­cal term for a fam­ily of viruses, crossed out and the word “Chi­nese” put in its place with a black marker.

If ev­ery pic­ture tells a story, this one added a new twist to the de­vel­op­ing dust-up over the pres­i­dent’s use of the term “Chi­nese virus,” a us­age that has been roundly con­demned as racially in­flam­ma­tory by Asian Amer­i­cans, among many of the rest of us.

There goes our rule-break­ing pres­i­dent again. Most of us might have gone the other way, re­plac­ing di­vi­sive words with some­thing more diplo­matic. Trump puts them in.

In fact, the phrase “Chi­nese virus” for the coron­avirus is re­ported to have be­come a point of pride for some mem­bers of Team Trump. Trump came up with the la­bel “Chi­nese virus” to de­scribe the novel coron­avirus be­cause it was first de­tected in Wuhan, China, late last year.

Some White House staff are re­ported to have used the even more bla­tantly of­fen­sive la­bel “Kung flu.”

There’s more than mere of­fense in­volved here, with Asian Amer­i­can and other civil rights lead­ers cit­ing an in­crease in anti-Asian hate crimes since the COVID-19 pan­demic erupted. It is one of the most tragic as­pects of hu­man na­ture that group hate al­ways lurks be­neath so­ci­ety’s thin sur­face of ci­vil­ity.

I don’t blame Trump for the hate, but I do con­demn his cal­lous in­dif­fer­ence to the fear that his words stir up in a ma­jor seg­ment of our so­ci­ety.

Mo­ments like this give a sin­is­ter tone to the deep sighs of “That’s just Trump be­ing Trump.”

But it’s not hard after years of watch­ing Trump to see through this tac­tic. As a lot of his fellow con­ser­va­tives would say, he’s just “trig­ger­ing the libs,” de­lib­er­ately pro­vok­ing out­rage among his po­lit­i­cal crit­ics to dis­tract from more sub­stan­tive is­sues that he might rather not have to han­dle.

I’m talk­ing about is­sues like the wide­spread short­age — or nonex­is­tence — of test­ing fa­cil­i­ties for the pres­ence of COVID-19, the virus that causes the coron­avirus ill­ness. While thou­sands of South Kore­ans, for ex­am­ple, have been tested, giv­ing of­fi­cials a work­able idea of how the virus has spread and what progress is be­ing made to fight it, most Amer­i­cans are left in the dark.

But Trump, who seemed to be out of his com­fort zone, to say the least, with the virus cri­sis until he had an ad­ver­sary or scape­goat onto whom he could shift blame, re­ceived a big gift from Chi­nese lead­ers who have tried to shift blame on Amer­i­cans.

Some Chi­nese of­fi­cials crit­i­cized Amer­i­can of­fi­cials for politi­ciz­ing the pan­demic. Other Chi­nese of­fi­cials and news out­lets floated un­founded the­o­ries that blamed the United States.

Some of their con­spir­acy the­o­rists, ap­par­ently out of em­bar­rass­ment after al­low­ing the virus to spread unchecked for weeks of valu­able time, have been push­ing the no­tion that COVID-19 is re­ally an Amer­i­can dis­ease brought to Wuhan by vis­it­ing mem­bers of the U.S. Army. So much for that long-stand­ing part­ner­ship.

This plays right into Trump’s hands — but so, alas, do me­dia pun­dits like me who can’t find enough space to han­dle all of the out­rages that he pushes our way. As if to taunt us, he threw in some more free­wheel­ing as­saults at “fake news,” and the cov­er­age of his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s han­dling of the cri­sis.

Never mind the rare mo­ment Mon­day when he praised re­porters for help­ing to keep the pub­lic in­formed of the na­ture of the cri­sis. Re­porters were do­ing so, I might add, dur­ing weeks of his at­tempts to play down the dan­ger from COVID-19.

In a time of cri­sis, the pub­lic looks to the White House for lead­er­ship, an eas­ier word to say than to dis­play. We saw Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush rise to the oc­ca­sion after the Sept. 11 ter­ror­ist at­tacks with speeches that helped unify and re­as­sure the na­tion with a sense of shared pur­pose. Pres­i­dent Trump is still learn­ing.

He still has a prob­lem with mixed mes­sages. After weeks of play­ing down the threat posed by the virus, for ex­am­ple, he sud­denly whipped around, in­sist­ing two weeks ago that, “I’ve felt it was a pan­demic be­fore it was called a pan­demic. All you had to do was look at other coun­tries.”

Right. Mean­while, there were those oc­ca­sions when Trump ei­ther down­played the threat of the virus, over­stated the gov­ern­ment’s ca­pac­ity to re­duce the cri­sis or openly spec­u­lated on untested treat­ments. Un­re­li­able in­for­ma­tion is not nec­es­sar­ily a scan­dal, but it can lead to one.


Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump stands with his notes, which show where the word “corona” was crossed out and re­placed with “Chi­nese” as he speaks Thurs­day at the White House.

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