How Trump and his allies are trying to use a 'fringe' COVID-19 conspiracy as a 'culture war' weapon

How Trump and his allies are trying to use a 'fringe' COVID-19 conspiracy as a 'culture war' weapon

In 2020, then-President Donald Trump went from bragging about his ability to make deals with Chinese government officials to pushing the conspiracy theory that the COVID-19 coronavirus was invented in a lab in Wuhan, China and leaked out. Never Trump conservative David Frum, in an Atlantic article published by The Atlantic on May 18, lays out some ways in which Trump and his sycophants are still trying to use that conspiracy theory as a political weapon in the United States.

Although Frum's article is critical of Trump, it is also critical of the Chinese government's initial response to COVID-19. The novel coronavirus was first reported in Wuhan, China in December 2019 and spread rapidly in January 2020, when Chinese officials downplayed its severity — which is the same thing Trump subsequently did when COVID-19 spread rapidly in the United States. But Frum rejects the conspiracy theory that COVID-19 originated in a lab in Wuhan.

"Early on, it became clear that Chinese authorities were lying about the disease's human toll," Frum explains. "Nick Paton of CNN, in December 2020, reported on 117 pages of internal Chinese government documents suggesting that the local authorities in Wuhan had massively underreported COVID-19 infections in the early weeks of the outbreak. In January 2021, HBO aired a documentary by the director Nanfu Wang minutely detailing the Chinese undercount. From the beginning, though, many have suspected the Chinese authorities of concealing an even darker secret about the outbreak than China's count of the sick and the dead. Those doubters suspected that the Chinese were also lying about how the outbreak started. They suspected that the official story of a spread from bats to humans was an excuse to conceal the fact that the virus had originated in a Chinese lab."

Frum adds that on January 29, 2020, the Washington Post published an article headlined "Experts Debunk Fringe Theory Linking China's Coronavirus to Weapons Research." And on February 17, 2020, the New York Times published an article headlined "Senator Tom Cotton Repeats Fringe Theory of Coronavirus Origins." Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, has been a devoted Trump supporter.

"Over time, the suspicious modulated their accusation a little," Frum notes. "In the spring of 2020, Trumpworld was also arguing that the virus was no big deal, no reason to shut down the U.S. economy. The president and his supporters wanted to argue that masking was stupid and that public-health officials were hysterical. You couldn't argue both that the virus was absurdly exaggerated and that it had begun its existence as a Chinese superweapon. By the time Secretary of State Mike Pompeo endorsed a lab-origin theory of the virus in May 2020, the suspicion about the virus' origin had been downgraded from 'superweapon' to 'medical experiment gone wrong.' Despite this softening, the scientific community, for the most part, continued to emphatically reject the lab-origin theory."

Scientists, Frum points out, are unsure exactly how COVID-19 started — adding that Trump supporters are happy to toss science aside if it is politically advantageous.

"If there is any group of people more disliked by Trump supporters than Chinese Communists," Frum observes, "it is the U.S. scientific community. For months, scientists had irritated Trump supporters by not falling in line with the pro-Trump argument that the coronavirus was much exaggerated and no big deal."

Frum adds, "Anthony Fauci in particular has become a hate figure to the pro-Trump world and the Fox News network. It's weird, it's hard to explain, but it is an organizing fact of American politics: More than Biden, more than Vice President Kamala Harris, more than any Democrat in Congress other than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Fauci has become the emblem and totem of everything that Trumpists resent."

The Never Trump conservative stresses that although COVID-19-releated "misconduct" on the part of Chinese officials needs to be called out, that shouldn't include pushing bogus conspiracy theories.

"Pro-Trumpers want to use Chinese misconduct — real and imagined — as a weapon in a culture war here at home," Frum warns. "They are not interested in weighing the evidence. They want payback for the political and cultural injuries inflicted on them by the scientists. They want Fauci to have time in the barrel. What the rest of us should want is the truth…. By actively seeking the truth, the Biden Administration will deny the Trump dead-enders the culture-war weapon they want."


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