Japanese Americans board a bus to the internment camp at Manzanar, CA, in 1942.
We are all familiar with the racist tactics that vaulted Donald Trump into the Oval Office. He demonized Mexicans, he denounced Muslims, and he cozied up on Twitter to ardent White supremacists. In recent weeks, he’s relentlessly attacked the Black Lives Matter protests.
Amid all the vitriol, it’s easy to overlook another racist weapon that Trump used back in 2016, and that he is ramping up again today: attacks on Asian nations, and on Asian Americans.
At his botched reboot rally in Tulsa (perhaps sunk, in part, by K-Pop fans), Trump gleefully spoke of the novel coronavirus as “Kung Flu” in a context where fears of COVID-19 have sparked a rise in violence against Asian Americans. Trump also repeatedly bashed China in his Tulsa speech, blaming it for the virus, and railing against its trade policies.
While there is wide agreement that phrases like “Chinese virus” and “Kung Flu” are racially prejudiced, commentators have been more hesitant to acknowledge the central role that attacks on Asians and Asian Americans play in Trump’s racist campaign arsenal. This likely owes to the longstanding erasure of Asian Americans from our race conversations. Few people know about the long history of White nationalist racism against Asia and Asian ethnics. Yet in an intensification of his bigotry from the first election, Trump is furiously taking more pages out of this racist playbook to win reelection.
The origins of Trump’s China-bashing run deep in Western history, dating all the way back to Europe’s recurrent campaigns to conquer Asia, from Greece’s wars against Persia and Alexander the Great’s adventures in Asia to Britain’s nineteenth-century colonization of India. At the same, as Edward Said showed in his classic study Orientalism, nineteenth-century European novelists and poets figured “the Orient” and the “exotic East” as an “inscrutable Other.” Modern European philosophers like Hegel (and in some of his notebooks, Marx) deemed Asia inferior for being irrational and subject to characteristically despotic institutions. A racialized form of condescension toward Asian empires and dynasties buoyed the steady spread of European control over the Asian subcontinent and the coastal entrepôts of China, leading to the golden age of Western imperialism.
Combine Orientalism, White nationalism, and an American exceptionalism that likes to blame “foreign” nations for health crises, and it’s no wonder that Asian ethnics living in America came to be regarded as viruses rather than human beings. Historian Nayan Shah found that from 1869 to 1887, for instance, Chinese Americans in San Francisco were vilified for four different outbreaks of smallpox, a disease that originated in Europe (and decimated Native populations). And Chinese Americans were also blamed for the transmission of syphilis to White bodies in the mid-1870s, all in the name of defining White America as purity and health.
Political scientist Kim Yi Dionne adds that Chinese ethnics were used to justify America’s “long history of immigrant exclusion on the basis of disease,” as “codified in the 1882 [Chinese] Exclusion Act” and in the 1875 Page Law, which forbade entry to Chinese women sex workers for fear of their sexual diseases. Thereafter, Chinatowns were believed to be nothing but hotbeds of dirty contagion, prompting White Americans to set ablaze Honolulu’s Chinatown in 1899 per rumors that Chinese bodies carried bubonic plague, according to historian Eiichiro Azuma. Fast forward to 2003, when Chinese Americans were attacked for supposedly “diseasing” the United States with SARS, and to 2009, when they were blamed for the H1N1 virus despite the assessment of the Centers for Disease Control that the first detected appearance of the virus was in America the Beautiful.
Thus when Trump spews “Kung Flu,” he is resurrecting a characteristically American form of racist rhetoric aimed at denigrating Asians and Asian-descent groups.
The difference from a century ago, however, is that China and other Asian nations are no longer “inferior” figments of Orientalist imaginations. Since Japan led the way in the mid-nineteenth century, other Asian nations have graduated into powerhouse status, with China threatening to eclipse the United States at any moment. Now that these countries pose “Yellow” (and “Brown”) Perils to American economic domination, Trump has even more reason to go after Asia and Asian-descent people today. In many ways, the focus of American anti-Asian racial animus in recent decades — that “they” are outsmarting and out-maneuvering “us” — culminates in the Trump Era.
For instance, Trump draws on the well of fear that White America built in World War II, when Imperial Japan seemed poised to paint the world “yellow.” So fearful was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration that “inscrutable” Japanese Americans would aid Japan that he mass-imprisoned mostly U.S. citizens without any probable cause. Trump also draws on America’s utter embarrassment from the Cold War, when it failed to vanquish North Korea and lost badly to Vietnam. As both were supported by China, it was a precursor to today’s battle with China for global economic supremacy. Threatened as well by today’s North Korea, Trump has retaliated by repeating historical stereotypes of Asian men as effeminate to insult Kim Jong Un’s lifestyle, height, and nuclear manhood (that is, before he decided to pal around with him).
Today, Trump wrings his famous hands over the fact that “they” have even more capacity to nuke, or infect, “us” into oblivion. After all, now some of them are also beating us at the movies! This is why he doesn’t just criticize the Academy for giving Best Picture to South Korea’s Parasite, he also uses the film to provoke loud boos at his rallies. At the same time, he makes sure to invoke one of the Whitest cinematic classics, Gone With the Wind, to reclaim Hollywood as the beacon of global culture.
Trump also mercilessly mocks the English accents of Asian businessmen and presidents. By affecting a grammatically incorrect “We want deal!” — all to boisterous laughter — Trump implicitly reasserts White America’s racial superiority — and his crowds know it.
Meanwhile, his cavalier treatment of reporter Weijia Jiang at a press conference suggests that he assumes Chinese Americans instinctively support China, an assumption that only emboldens racists in cities across America to attack those who look Chinese. Trump is therefore partly responsible for the recent spike in hate crimes, such as when Asian Americans find their car spray-painted with slogans like “Fuck Asi[a]ns . . . and coronavirus”; when their elderly are brutally beaten; and when one family of three, including two children, were recently attacked by a knife-wielding shopper in Texas.
When Trump brazenly spits “Kung Flu” at his most recent rallies, it’s because he believes that opposing an ascendant Asia (and whipping up racism against non-Whites) will help consolidate his base. We can only hope that American voters will reject this racist ploy, and stand on the right side of history this November.
Nadia Y. Kim is professor of sociology at Loyola Marymount University, and the author of the award-winning Imperial Citizens: Koreans and Race from Seoul to LA and the forthcoming book Refusing Death: Immigrant Women and the Fight for Environmental Justice in LA (Stanford Press, Spring 2021).