Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, launched a new ad, “Unprepared”, on April 18 which criticized the Trump Administration’s preparation and response to COVID-19. Many called the ad’s rhetoric and anti-China framing xenophobic and racist.
Biden’s attack ad comes after a series of attack ads and tweets between Trump and Biden on China regarding COVID-19. It is presumed to be a response to Trump’s attack ad in early April, in which Biden is portrayed as being too sympathetic to China. Some Trump supporters and PACs have even floated around the nickname “Beijing Biden.”
The goal of the Biden campaign is to criticize the Trump campaign on the way it's handled this pandemic at large, said Weinberg junior Adam Downing, the programming director of Northwestern College Democrats. Unfortunately, the message is accompanied by troubling tones and stereotypes, he said, but at the end of the day, he believes it is trying to hold Trump accountable.
Instead of directing fault at the Trump Administration for its domestic actions — which could have included downplaying the crisis, lack of medical supplies, insufficient testing, dismantling the pandemic response team in 2018 and more — the Biden ad targeted Trump’s relationship with the Chinese government. The ad’s rhetoric linked the cause of the U.S. crisis with Trump’s trust of Chinese officials, and depicted China’s government as untrustworthy.
Through dramatic narration, the ad claimed that Trump “rolled over for the Chinese,” “praised the Chinese 15 times” and even “let in 40,000 travelers from China into America after he signed [the travel ban].”
“The ad was pointed at the Chinese government, but it came across as targeting Chinese ethnic identity in general,” said Weinberg senior Anisa Codamon, an activist in the Asian American community.
Though the ad made more than a dozen audio and video mentions of China, it did not explicitly mention the Chinese government or President Xi Jinping. Instead, the ad failed to draw a distinction between the Chinese government and its people.
“It’s irresponsible for the Biden campaign to be using the same talking points that President Trump has been using —xenophobic talking points that imply that travelers from China are at fault for the global spread of COVID-19,” said Grace Pai, the director of movement politics for Asian American Midwest Progressives (AAMP).
In the first few months of 2020, as cases of COVID-19 increased, the U.S. also saw an increase in Asian American hate crimes and discrimination. Pai is concerned the Biden ad will only further the sentiment.
“There is a clear connection between rhetoric like this that demonizes the Chinese government or Chinese Americans and the rise in violence,” said Pai.
Biden’s ad is also the latest example of nationalist ableism in the U.S., said Medill professor Steven W. Thrasher, the inaugural Daniel H. Renberg Chair of social justice in reporting. The U.S. imagines itself as a disease-free space when it is not, he said, then places the blame externally during times of crisis, as it had during the AIDS crisis with Haiti and now COVID-19 with China.
“U.S. politics tends to posit itself as always protecting the nation,” said Professor Thrasher. “It’s disappointing but not unexpected to see both parties turning toward the enemy outside.”
This leaves many voters frustrated and disappointed with Biden’s campaign, especially Asian Americans and those already untrusting of Biden for what many consider his poor history on racial justice and sexual assault allegations.
But these more progressive Democratic voters don’t seem to be the target of this ad. According to NBC, three versions of Biden’s new digital ad are playing in the battleground states of Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin on Facebook and Instagram, mainly targeting white swing voters.
“The Democratic Party is trying to pull its white swing voters by saying Trump was not hard enough on China, so we’re going to be even harder on China,” said Professor Thrasher.
Some applauded the ad for being hard on Trump. On Twitter, Jon Cooper, the former chair of the Democratic Coalition (super-PAC), wrote “Damn, this ad by Joe Biden is brutally effective. Trump can run, but he can’t hide.”
Biden’s ad is one of the latest attempts of U.S. politicians to hold China accountable for the spread of COVID-19, but Pai believes that this conversation is premature.
“We’re still in the midst of the crisis and we should be talking about holding the U.S. government accountable for slowing this crisis first,” Pai said. “And come back to the conversation around [international] accountability later.”
In the meantime, Pai said Biden should shift to promoting cooperation among international governments to stem the spread of this crisis and collaborate with Asian leaders to fight against the rise of anti-Asian discrimination.
“This is an opportunity to draw that contrast between him and Trump that will motivate people, including Asian American voters, to turnout in November,” said Pai.
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