Trump is blaming China for coronavirus even as he employs the same authoritarian tactics as Xi Jinping

Business Insider

President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping arrive at a state dinner at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, November 9, 2017.Thomas Peter/Reuters

  • President Donald Trump has mirrored the behavior of authoritaritarians like Chinese President Xi Jinping in his response to coronavirus, even as he blames China for the pandemic.
  • "The unleashing of barrages of misinformation to minimize the gravity of the crisis and maximize the leader's appearance of competency is typical and was done first by Xi and then by other leaders," an expert on authoritarianism told Insider.
  • "Trump and Xi are quite similar, and both trying to control the narrative by using bullying tactics, propaganda, and half-truths," a top expert on China told Insider.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

President Donald Trump has essentially blamed China for the devastating scale of the coronavirus pandemic, slamming Beijing over its lack of transparency and warning that the US could "cut off" its relationship with the Asian country.

But Trump is guilty of many of the same behaviors for which he's condemned China, experts say, as the president's response to COVID-19 has often mirrored the approach of authoritarian leaders like Chinese President Xi Jinping.Advertisement

"Trump is borrowing from an autocrats' playbook used not only by Xi but by Bolsonaro, Putin, and others too," Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University historian and expert on authoritarianism, told Insider.

"The unleashing of barrages of misinformation to minimize the gravity of the crisis and maximize the leader's appearance of competency is typical and was done first by Xi and then by other leaders," Ben-Ghiat added.

'Bullying tactics, propaganda, and half-truths'

Though Trump praised Xi over his handling of COVID-19 in the early days of the outbreak, as he simultaneously downplayed the threat of coronavirus and ignored myriad warnings of an impending pandemic, the president shifted to bashing China over the virus as the US outbreak escalated and the death toll rose.
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"This is really the worst attack we've ever had. This is worse than Pearl Harbor. This is worse than the World Trade Center. There's never been an attack like this," Trump said in early May. "It should've never happened. It could've been stopped at the source. It could've been stopped in China."

In the process, Trump has criticized China for suppressing information, even as he's removed watchdogs overseeing the government's coronavirus response, attacked whistleblowers, and repeatedly misled the public on the threat of the virus and scale of the outbreak in the US.The president also reportedly pushed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to revise or dial down death counts from COVID-19, which China has been widely accused of doing. And while the Chinese government in March pushed a conspiracy theory that the US military brought the novel coronavirus to Wuhan, the Chinese city where the virus originated, the Trump administration has floated the unverified theory that COVID-19 leaked out of a Wuhan lab. Advertisement

President Donald Trump attends a bilateral meeting with China's President Xi Jinping during the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, June 29, 2019.Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

"In a certain curious way, Trump and Xi are quite similar, and both trying to control the narrative by using bullying tactics, propaganda, and half-truths," Orville Schell, the director of the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society, told Insider.

Trump has also repeatedly contradicted his own advisers and scientists on COVID-19, rejecting their expertise as he pushes for the US to reopen and ease coronavirus restrictions in order to stimulate the economy. Advertisement

Though top public health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci have said that a robust testing system is key to thwarting the virus, for example, Trump in early May said that too much testing for COVID-19 makes the US "look bad."

The president will "never spearhead mass testing" for coronavirus, Ben-Ghiat said, because Trump "does not want accurate case numbers to be reported — more cases equals more disaffection with his handling of the crisis and could jeopardize the only thing he cares about: his re-election."

'Anything to distract from his deliberate negligence in the face of mass death'

Members of Congress and former US officials have also accused the president of mimicking authoritarians in his approach to the pandemic and attacks on political rivals. Advertisement

Former CIA Director John Brennan on Thursday tweeted that Trump's "propaganda & disinformation machine...operates according to a despot's playbook" and is "the most aggressive & odious in history."

After Trump on Thursday suggested that former President Barack Obama should be called to testify before the Senate over an unspecified "crime," Democratic Rep. Don Beyer of Virginia tweeted, "The point of these unhinged ravings is Trump again imitating his favorite dictators by seeking prosecution of his political opponents."

"Trump can't even explain what crime he imagines was committed, and his DOJ wrote that former presidents are 'immune from compelled testimony,'" Beyer added. Advertisement

Ben-Ghiat portrayed Trump's suggestion that Obama testify as "terrifying and straight out of the authoritarian playbook" and another attempt to deflect from his disastrous response to coronavirus

"Look for this theme to surge as deaths mount in the USA — anything to distract from his deliberate negligence in the face of mass death," she said. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Insider. Advertisement

'Democracies should have clear advantages over authoritarian regimes'

The US is currently the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, with the most reported cases of the virus and confirmed fatalities in the world. As of Thursday, there were over 1.4 million reported cases of coronavirus in the US, and nearly 85,000 confirmed deaths, per data from Johns Hopkins.

Meanwhile, roughly 36 million Americans have filed for unemployment in the past eight weeks as restrictions related to the virus have crippled the US economy.

Public health experts have said that Trump's response to coronavirus has been "abysmal," excoriating his administration over its lack of preparedness, dismissal of science, and complacency. The US public appears to agree, as polling has repeatedly shown that most Americans disapprove of Trump's approach to COVID-19. A Washington Post-Ipsos poll of more than 8,000 US adults released on Tuesday, for example, found that 56% of Americans disapprove of Trump's handling of the coronavirus, while just 43% approve.Advertisement

But even as experts warn against the potentially lethal results rushing to reopen the country, Trump appears determined to move forward as he criticizes anyone standing in his way.

Fauci, the nation's leading expert on infectious disease and a member of the White House coronavirus task force, earlier this week told senators that the US should not be "cavalier" about reopening the country given scientists are still learning about the virus and its effects. Trump on Wednesday said Fauci's remarks were "not acceptable."

"He wants to play all sides of the equation," Trump said of Fauci, who has advised half a dozen presidents on global and domestic health issues over the course of a long, distinguished career. Advertisement

"Whether or not Trump has directly borrowed from China's authoritarian playbook, it is certainly clear that the confusion and lack of clarity coming from the White House, as well as a general skepticism or even dismissal of the advice of public health experts, made coming up with a successful pandemic-fighting strategy extremely difficult," Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Barnard College with expertise in democracy, populism, and fascism, told Insider.

Berman said that the mixed and frequently incorrect messages from the White House on COVID-19 "also confused citizens about what was going on and what they should be doing in response to the pandemic, and created a context within which partisan divisions and conspiracy theories could flourish."

"Democracies should have clear advantages over authoritarian regimes in dealing with crises since information should flow freely and politicians should be responsive to the needs of citizens," Berman added. "But Trump's White House has undermined both of these features of democracy."Advertisement

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