China Virus vs. Trump Virus: Playing the pandemic blame game

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NEWS ANALYSIS

Though they once denounced President Trump for linking COVID-19 with its birthplace in China, Democrats appear to be fine with hanging the virus around the president’s neck.

Democrats blame Mr. Trump personally for all the consequences the coronavirus has wrought in the U.S., including the death toll.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi went so far as to label the disease the Trump virus, a moniker has been taken up by anti-Trump Republicans at the Lincoln Project.

Presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden has been equally scathing.

He recently told supporters that the president was “directly responsible, in my view, for the loss of tens of thousands of American lives and millions of jobs.”

It’s a charge routinely leveled by Mr. Biden, who has surged ahead of Mr. Trump in polls as the coronavirus crisis drags on.

Every aspect of the coronavirus response, down to the local level, has been pinned on Mr. Trump. The Biden campaign recently blamed Mr. Trump for a shortage of protective equipment in Milwaukee.

When Mr. Trump uses the phrase “Wuhan virus” or “China virus,” a kind of shorthand once common with everything from Lyme disease (first discovered in Lyme, New Hampshire) to Ebola (first discovered along the Ebola River in Africa), Democrats denounced his language as “racist” and “xenophobic.” It is improper, they howled, to attribute the virus to any specific location or people.

Ms. Pelosi then coined the phrase “the Trump virus” during a recent interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, to which Mr. Blitzer seemed taken aback, pressing Ms. Pelosi to explain.

“Clearly it is the Trump virus,” she said, going on to blame the president for “holding rallies and making it like a manhood thing about wearing a mask. So I think a good deal of what we have suffered is because of the Trump virus.”

It’s an age-old, though low, rhetorical trick, according to political scholars.

“It is perfectly legitimate to criticize the president’s actions; it is rhetorical malpractice to label the virus with his name to gain political advantage,” said Towson University communications professor Richard Vatz, who has written widely on political rhetoric. “It is irresponsible to so label the virus, but not surprising given the detestation of Donald Trump in an election year.”

It makes no more sense to call COVID-19 “the Trump virus” than it does to call the Cuban missile crisis the “Kennedy missile crisis,” Mr. Vatz said.

Mrs. Pelosi hasn’t publicly thrown around the phrase in the week since she first floated it.

Others offered a more charitable take of her terminology, saying “the Trump virus” was mere spin.

“I don’t think labeling COVID as ‘the Trump virus’ is going to make any difference in how voters perceive it,” said Marc Joseph Hetherington, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina. “Rather than the public, the target for this label is almost surely the president himself. It is the virus’ nickname like Sleepy Joe is for Joe Biden.”

Wherever the phrase may rank on the ethics scale, both sides believe it works.

“With Pelosi, that was nonsense, it’s always the same trick with her,” said Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist in close contact with the White House. “But this is the whole ballgame, COVID, and if they lose the edge on this issue Joe Biden is going to lose.”

A Democratic strategist who is not on the Biden campaign said the more 150,000 deaths and calamitous economic decline due to coronavirus is a powerful argument against Mr. Trump, even if Mrs. Pelosi’s name-calling is over the top.

“I can’t tell you what her thinking was on this but it’s not a bad idea,” said the strategist. “More than anything else, this will be about Trump’s handling of this virus and he’s sinking on that.”

Ms. Pelosi’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The Lincoln Project, whose antipathy toward Mr. Trump has led the Republican group to also attack GOP’s slim Senate majority, also adopted the blame-Trump tactic.

In a new $4 million ad buy targeting vulnerable Senate Republican incumbents in Alaska, Maine and Montana, the group declared, “It’s Trump virus now.” It is a slightly different wording than Ms. Pelosi deployed but carries makes the same point.

“We have suffered needlessly because Trump is a fool, a liar and a failure,” the ads said. “Most countries stopped it, Trump refused. It’s Trump’s virus now.”

Mr. Biden has accused Mr. Trump of “surrendering” to the virus. He said the president’s response, which he characterizes as “ignore, blame others and distract,” is responsible for needless suffering.

“It’s a bunker and mask strategy,” Mr. O’Connell described it, saying as long as Democrats can keep coronavirus at the center of the discussion, Mr. Biden isn’t forced to campaign in person where he could stumble on the stump.

“That’s where Joe Biden is outperforming, on the question of the handling of the Chinese virus,” he said. “They want to convince people the bubonic plague is outside at their front door and President Trump is to blame.”

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