Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


“The ‘Invisible Enemy’: Language, Trump, and COVID-19”

Janet McIntosh

MIt’s remarkable how Trump can make an unprecedented situation seem so familiar by cranking it through the language grinder he’s been using all along. Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, we have seen his florid playbook at work: anti-PC tough talk; near-gleeful verbal bigotry; theatrical claims and rapid reversals; catchy and chantable hostilities; and a veneer of military grandeur. Partisan conflict is re-heating in his hands, and we’ve reached a point where some Republicans are refusing to wear masks as a semiotic protest against government infringements upon freedom. How did we get here?

Team Trump has fostered this climate by interpreting a public health disaster through Trump’s familiar frameworks. He has stayed on message, for instance, by blaming the disaster on two entities. First: liberals; Obama supposedly left the nation with “broken” test kits for a virus that didn’t exist in humans yet. Second: foreigners. While this particular coronavirus originated in Wuhan province, China, the WHO named it COVID-19 in February 2020, deliberately sidestepping any designation that could stigmatize a region or social group. But even in late March, State Department officials were still tagging the virus with the “Wuhan” predicate, while Trump repeatedly and ostentatiously invoked it as “a Chinese virus”; kompromat to hold over China’s head.

Like so many of Trump’s insults, this one has played into the deep cleavages in how Americans think about language politics. When critics objected that Trump was stoking anti-Asian sentiment, even hate crimes, Trump rebutted: It’s “not racist at all…It comes from China, that’s why.” Along with many on the political right—and, it must be said, some shapeshifting liberals like Bill Maher, too—Trump pretends to an innocent, transparent relationship between language and the world, in which words merely refer and don’t (or shouldn’t) wound. Yet nonwhite racial groups have a long history of being linked to disease in white rhetoric (including “yellow peril” propaganda), which has attributed fictitious pollution to different hygiene practices, foodways, and sometimes just an invisible, racialized essence. The words do harm, yet Trump’s supporters cheer him as “authentic,” and for some, there’s even schadenfreude to this dynamic: a certain delight in offending “the PC liberal snowflakes.” 

In fact, COVID-19 has offered Trump a near-perfect metaphor for the polluting immigrant “invaders” he has long aspired to block. We see this conflation in his tweet of April 20th: “In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy, as well as the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens, I will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States!” Reading quickly, one would be forgiven for seeing a melding of the “invisible enemy” with persons aspiring to enter the nation.

The pandemic has also furnished a stage for dangerous bloviating, some of which falls into the technical category of bullshit. “Bullshit,” a philosophical concept formalized in 1986 by philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt, is speech that attempts not to conceal truth (that would be “lying”), but rather to persuade or impress without regard to truth. You can smell it when Trump gets theatrical and hyperbolic: “Anybody that needs a test, gets a test…and the tests are beautiful.” To save face, Trump has a time-tested pattern of floating unfounded ideas and backpedaling if they don’t take. In late April, Trump claimed researchers were looking into “hitting the body with ultra-powerful ultraviolet light” and injecting disinfectant, “almost a cleaning,” to treat COVID-19. (An outpouring of creative memes about bleach followed, though calls to poison control also spiked.) When called out, Trump walked back his comments as “sarcastic,” directed at “the fake news media” to see what would happen. Those petty journalists, falling for the bait by listening to his words!   

In one of Trump’s grander reversals, he pivoted from rhetorically minimizing to maximizing the COVID-19 threat. As the virus made its way from China across the globe between January and mid-March, Trump offered empty reassurance—it’s “all under control” and “it’ll just disappear.” But when America’s caseload spiked and the economy began to crumble, he adopted a new and self-flattering tack: military footing. Asked what he’d want to say to America’s school children, Trump replied, “We were attacked and we are winning the battle and we’re going to win the war.”

A war against what, though? For a while it was mostly that “invisible enemy” (and its evil twin, the immigrant), but by mid-April, the nation seemed to face a terrible choice between public health (staying at home) and economic viability (opening up). A new implicit enemy became the medical scientists issuing warnings, and the professional-managerial class of liberals who believed them. As Dr. Anthony Fauci of the White House coronavirus task force dampened talk of rapid reopenings and miracle cures, Trump included the hashtag #firefauci in an April 13th retweet—another catchy, chantable phrase for Trump supporters, in the vein of “Lock her up” and “Build that wall,” quickly picked up and shouted by his base.

On April 17th, Trump played to his most bellicose supporters as he tweeted the voice of a revolutionary leader: “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd amendment.” Second amendment? Good thinking. Less than two weeks later, hundreds of protestors, some of them armed members of the “American Liberty Militia,” stormed the Michigan state house to try to intimidate the governor into lifting the state’s lockdown.

Across the nation, many anti-lockdown protestors have been connected to the alt-right and its white supremacist ideals. Some have claimed they are protected from COVID-19 by a “higher power,” failing to grasp the structural racism behind the high mortality rates of people of color. For these enthusiasts, Trump’s call to “LIBERATE!” was not just about medical eggheads or governors stopping workers from collecting vital paychecks, but also, implicitly, about (re)claiming white potency. As Nicholas Mirzoeff puts it, “The old settler-colonial slogan ‘Liberty or Death’ has been revamped: ‘my (white) Liberty in exchange for your Death’” (http://www.nicholasmirzoeff.com/bio/blog/).

The verbal mapping on Trump’s part is the work of a savant. He’s managing to make the COVID-19 crisis about contaminated international opponents, invading immigrants, unreliable scientists, oppressive liberals—even gun rights. The logic has taken swiftly among his supporters; consider the equivalencies in this protestor’s sign: “Social distancing = communism.” Crude binaries are being mapped onto a murky health and economic disaster, the resolution of which has to involve some deft compromises between public health and socioeconomic life.

Trump’s COVID-19 crisis embodies in microcosm the perversions of language and reason he has manifested since his first presidential campaign. One such perversion is lurching between stances of minimalizing, maximalizing, and minimalizing again—from asserting the virus will disappear “like a miracle”; to heroically declaring victory over a fearsome enemy against which we’ve waged an “all-out military operation”; to reversing polarity again—the enemy is so invisible, maybe it’s not as bad as all that; let’s go back to the salons and casinos. Such contradictions are part of Trump’s funhouse, in which millions of people are now lost. You’d think Trump would cancel himself out with his own inconsistency, but he remains painfully effective in his ability to hold the loyalty of his base as he stokes far-right ideas about what really threatens this country.

Many of the above themes are elaborated in the forthcoming anthology, “Language in the Trump Era” (eds. Janet McIntosh and Norma Mendoza-Denton, Cambridge University Press, August 2020).in the forthcoming anthology, “Language in the Trump Era” (eds. Janet McIntosh and Norma Mendoza-Denton, Cambridge University Press, August 2020).

Language in the Trump Era Edited by Janet McIntosh and Norma Mendoza-Denton
Language in the Trump Era Edited by Janet McIntosh and Norma Mendoza-Denton

About The Author

Janet McIntosh

Janet McIntosh is Professor of Anthropology at Brandeis University. Her work focuses on linguistic and sociocultural anthropology in the United States and sub-Saharan Africa. Her 2...

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