To deflect attention from his failure to prepare for the pandemic and his failure to manage it, President Trump and the people around him are steering the nation toward a third epic blunder: an ill-advised and poorly-thought-out conflict with China.
But wait: Didn’t the virus come from China, and didn’t China initially lie about it, giving it more time to spread?
Yes, and yes. The administration’s indictment of China is basically accurate.
Not only that: China’s Communist Party is waging a global propaganda campaign arguing that its authoritarian government can handle a crisis like this better than the U.S. system can.
With nations around the world watching carefully, it is crucial, a Western diplomat told me last week, that the West contest that campaign.
“The outcome has to be that liberal democracy is more successful,” the diplomat said.
But what’s the best way to win that contest?
The smart approach would be for the United States to demonstrate its commitment to alliances, global cooperation and plain, simple charity. Whereas China engenders suspicion by demanding something in return for its loans or gifts of medical equipment, the United States could deliver aid with no strings attached — or with only a nudge toward good governance.
An America that held true to its values would work with the international organizations it helped create, such as the World Health Organization and the International Monetary Fund.
It would recognize its own diversity as a strength in this crisis. It would affirmatively salute the role that Chinese Americans are playing on the front lines of science and medicine, as throughout society. It would honor the “dreamers” who are risking their lives in ambulances and emergency rooms, and invite them to become citizens once and for all.
Such an America would respect the scientists, doctors and public health experts who are fashioning a response to the pandemic, and cheerfully share the fruits of their labor with the rest of the world.
We would enlist our technology companies to devise methods for testing and tracing, and by transparently disclosing how data would be used and protected, we would encourage voluntary cooperation in public health programs.
We would monitor and quantify inequities as the crisis reveals them, and do our best to respond with food and health care and Internet connections.
Mindful of the weaknesses exposed by the crisis, we would commit to investing for the long term in strengthening our society — in schools, scientific research, public health and clean energy.
When it came to China itself, we would protect others, including Taiwan, from any bullying — but we would also welcome and encourage China’s cooperation in fighting the pandemic, especially in the world’s poorest countries.
Some democracies, such as Taiwan, South Korea and New Zealand, have shown great skill in responding to the pandemic, refuting by deed China’s argument.
Trump, by contrast, often seems more interested in sinking to China’s level than playing to America’s strengths. Like the Chinese Communist Party, he can say one thing in January (“China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. . . . I want to thank President Xi [Jinping]!”), something else in March (“China was very secretive, okay? Very, very secretive. And that’s unfortunate.”) and believe he should go unquestioned.
Though Trump has frequently lavished praise on China’s regime, his campaign is now fundraising by vilifying it: “President Trump has always been tough on China, but he can’t hold them accountable on his own. That’s why he is calling on YOU to stand with him and hold China accountable for their lies and deceptions during the Coronavirus pandemic.”
His administration sometimes gets right its criticism of China’s abuses of human rights. But as it is unbothered by egregious abuses elsewhere — Egypt, say, or Saudi Arabia — the outrage seems tactical at best.
Ironically, it is Trump’s “America First” philosophy that weakens America the most. Many nations are suspicious of China’s motives and methods. But if the United States is in it just for itself, as Trump boasts, and China can offer more medical masks or pharmaceutical products, then any country will be tempted to throw in its lot with China.
Fundamentally, the world will be watching how the United States copes with this virus and recovers from it.
So far, the results are discouraging. The machinery of government, after years of underinvestment, is failing to provide what is needed in a timely way: tests, protective equipment, small-business loans, support for the jobless.
And the nation’s leader ignores warnings, dodges responsibility, flails for scapegoats and, as he has in the past, fixes on enemies: Islam, Central American caravans, now China.
Of course, the American system still has a strength not available to the Chinese people: the ability to replace its leader when he falls short. That may be what the world will be watching most closely of all.