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In addition to the sorrow for the lives lost, two troubling thoughts immediately came to mind. First, was this another instance of anti-Asian violence? And then, the elephant in the room, the question that almost didn’t need to be asked: If it was a deliberate effort to kill Asians, does former President Donald Trump, who has spent more than a year referring to the coronavirus by using Asian slurs, bear any responsibility for helping set the stage for the rising tide of anti-Asian American violence?
The answer is obvious to many. California Rep. Judy Chu, who heads the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said the former president, “clearly stoked the flames of xenophobia” against Asians. After public health officials named the virus Covid-19, deliberately seeking to avoid potentially xenophobic overtones, Trump ostentatiously, mockingly called it the “China virus,” the “Wuhan virus,” and the “Kung Flu.” According to Chu, that led to attacks on Asians increasing exponentially. And what happened in Atlanta, she argues, is the result of what Trump unleashed. Chu is hardly alone in reaching that conclusion.
The Atlanta area shooting suspect, according to Police Captain Jay Baker, claims he wasn’t looking for Asian victims, but there’s much we don’t know about the case. The fact that Baker, who was the spokesperson for the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office’s case, has himself allegedly posted racist anti-Asian material on social media is only one more reason to be skeptical of the claim that race and national origin were not a factor.
Whatever the killer’s motives, it would be naïve to deny a link between the skyrocketing number of attacks on Asians and the words coming out of politicians’ mouths. From the US-Mexico border to the streets of Georgia, California, and across the country, those who look like they might be immigrants, no matter how many generations ago their families arrived in the US, can become targets of violence.
Politicians didn’t invent prejudice, but they are exploiting it for political gain, and destroying lives in the process.
Using fear of others to further a political career is hardly new. But in the United States there’s nothing in living memory quite like the anti-immigrant rhetoric Trump deployed to propel his 2016 campaign. He stoked fear of migrants, described Mexicans as rapists, murderers, and drug dealers, and generally tried to frighten voters about Muslims, Hispanics, and others. Tragically, it served him well in his campaign. He became president and he continued his xenophobic reign while in office. When he came under pressure for mismanaging the pandemic, he sought to shift blame by focusing on China’s role in the disaster.
The Trump playbook has been photocopied and reenacted across a party now remade in his image. Xenophobia has become one of the preferred political tools of countless figures on the right.
During House hearings on anti-Asian violence Thursday, Texas GOP Rep. Chip Roy, somehow managed to speak approvingly of lynchings — “Find all the rope in Texas and get a tall oak tree…we take justice very seriously…” — while excoriating China’s regime and its role in the pandemic. It was a virtuoso performance of false equivalency and incitement.
But stoking racism and fear of immigrants has become one of the go-to tools of the Trumpist Republican Party.
It was Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona who apparently came up with the “Wuhan virus,” idea, tweeting it a year ago. It was promptly retweeted by Rep. Kevin McCarthy. Then by Trump. Then by tens of thousands of their supporters.
In 2018, the Republican gubernatorial primary in Georgia became a competition to see who could be more grotesquely anti-immigrant. The winner, now-Gov. Brian Kemp, declared “I got a big truck,” in his ads. “Just in case I need to round up criminal illegal aliens and take ’em home myself.”
The entire issue of what to do at the border is treated by many Republicans more as a photo-op game than as the wrenchingly complicated human drama that it is. With the number of unaccompanied children growing at the border, Rep. McCarthy rushed there this week, saying before the TV cameras, “This is a human heartbreak,” and blaming it on President Joe Biden. It is, indeed, a human heartbreak. We don’t know if McCarthy found Trump’s policies, like forcibly taking children away from their parents at the border, a heartbreak.
The current crisis was predictable — and predicted. After four years of Trump’s brutal border policies, a new administration would almost inevitably face copious amounts of asylum seekers.
The matter is complicated. It affects millions of lives. It deserves serious discussion, not political exploitation. But that’s too much to ask these days.
The United States is not the only country where xenophobia pays dividends for politicians. It is painful to see it manipulated for gain anywhere on Earth. But it is particularly disheartening to see it done in the US, where in addition to destroying lives, it threatens to rip up one of the traits that made America great: its ability to attract people from different parts of the world and allow them to make a life for themselves and become part of the country.
Politicians exploiting differences for their benefit bear part of the blame for destroying lives, they are also guilty of lacerating the very country they claim to serve.
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