Donald Trump, the coronavirus and the power of white privilege

Want proof that racism hurts white people? Consider this pandemic, and how we might have avoided its worst effects

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published March 18, 2020 7:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump during a news conference with U.S. President Donald Trump in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, March 13, 2020. Trump declared a national emergency over the coronavirus outbreak to allow for more federal aid for states and municipalities. (Zach Roberts/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Donald Trump during a news conference with U.S. President Donald Trump in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, March 13, 2020. Trump declared a national emergency over the coronavirus outbreak to allow for more federal aid for states and municipalities. (Zach Roberts/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Racism hurts black and brown people. But it hurts white people too. In the case of the coronavirus pandemic, this is true on a very literal level.

To this point, Donald Trump's regime and its propaganda machine have turned the coronavirus pandemic into a debacle that will likely kill Americans in large numbers. 

Trump and his sycophants have systematically lied about the threat to public health, safety and order posed by the coronavirus. Trump himself called the epidemic — or at least the media's coverage — a hoax.

The Trump regime has purged scientists and other experts who were deemed insufficiently loyal. These are the very same experts and career government officials who are essential to protecting America from the coronavirus pandemic and other threats.

Fox News and other parts of the right-wing echo chamber have circulated lies to their public about the coronavirus, downplaying its threat and encouraging behavior that will actually spread the lethal disease. Why? Because in the twisted reality of TrumpWorld, showing loyalty to the Great Leader is more important than public safety.

Trump and his cabal have repeatedly shown that they possess no belief in public service or the common good, and have no genuine feeling of care and concern for the American people. 

Trump is being advised by Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller, a slumlord plutocrat and a white supremacist, respectively. Neither are scientists. Neither have any experience managing a public health crisis.

Vice President Mike Pence is leading Trump's coronavirus task force. Pence is a right-wing Christian fundamentalist. He does not believe in science. He believes that a person can somehow "pray the gay away." As governor of Indiana, Pence failed to respond when the HIV epidemic hit his state in 2015. In the normal world of facts and reason, faith does not supersede empirical reality and science. One cannot pray away the coronavirus or other fact-based challenges and problems. To believe such a thing is to believe in magic.

Forced by the circumstances, the Trump regime has now — several months too late — accepted that the coronavirus is real and that it poses a great threat to the American people. But instead of mobilizing properly against the threat, Trump and his followers have instead chosen to attack the Democrats as somehow responsible for a public health crisis.

None of this would be happening if Donald Trump were not president of the United States. The virus might be here, of course, but what we face now would not be nearly as bad.

And how did Donald Trump become president of the United States? Racist white voters. 

Political scientists and other researchers have repeatedly demonstrated that Donald Trump's voters were motivated both by racial resentment and more overt "old-fashioned racism." Those are also key factors in Donald Trump's enduring support.

Public opinion and other research has shown that many of Donald Trump's white followers are driven by fear of the "browning of America" and a perception that the country's changing racial demographics will somehow take away the disproportionate power and unearned advantages enjoyed by white Americans. There is no empirical evidence to support such a conclusion.

Other research has shown that Trump's voters and supporters are motivated by what is known as "social dominance behavior" and a fear of losing their superior group status in America. Other work has demonstrated that many white Americans – especially Trump voters – support authoritarianism over democracy if their racial group is no longer dominant in America.

Nativism and racial resentment have been shown to heavily influence the white right-wing Christians who remain almost uniform in their support of Donald Trump.

Ultimately, Donald Trump leads a political cult tied together in a knot of collective narcissism, strengthened by the twin beasts of white supremacy and white identity politics.

Donald Trump is obsessed by a racist vendetta against Barack Obama, the United States' first black president. This obsession drove Trump and his agents to end disease prevention and other programs put in place by the Obama administration. These programs, which included pandemic prevention efforts, would have helped to prevent the coronavirus from spreading around the world and potentially killing millions of people.

Predictably, Donald Trump is now blaming the coronavirus on Obama and the Democrats.

Donald Trump and his agents are using xenophobia, nativism, bigotry, and racism to distract the American people from his administration's failure to respond to the coronavirus crisis. For example, the Trump regime has called the novel coronavirus "the Chinese virus" and the "foreign flu." CBS News' Weijia Jiang reported on Tuesday that White House officials described the coronavirus as the "kung-flu" in her presence. In reality, the novel coronavirus has no nationality. It is a global pandemic that has impacted at least 145 countries.

Trump's use of racial resentment, fear-mongering and bigotry keeps his base of angry white voters tethered to him because they share the same values and beliefs.

White racism has been used as a weapon to further the destruction of the federal government, and therefore to cripple its ability to respond to disasters and other crises.

From Reconstruction to the post-civil rights era and now to the Age of Trump, the very idea of government has been slurred by conservatives because it is viewed as primarily helping nonwhite people — especially African-Americans — to the disadvantage of white people. Stereotypes about "big government" or the "nanny state" are allied to stereotypes about "welfare queens" and other "lazy" or "shiftless" black people who are "living off" the taxpayers, understood to be white people.

Historian, philosopher and activist W.E.B. Du Bois incisively described such a phenomenon almost a hundred years ago in his seminal 1935 work "Black Reconstruction in America":

It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent upon their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness. Their vote selected public officials, and while this had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown them. White schoolhouses were the best in the community, and conspicuously placed, and they cost anywhere from twice to ten times as much per capita as the colored schools. The newspapers specialized on news that flattered the poor whites and almost utterly ignored the Negro except in crime and ridicule.

At present white people in red state America benefit disproportionately from government benefits (historically this has long been true of white Americans as a group). At present, white people are also the largest single group of Americans living in poverty. 

Writing at the Washington Post, Tracy Jan explains how the "white working class" benefits from government assistance:

Working-class whites are the biggest beneficiaries of federal poverty-reduction programs, even though blacks and Hispanics have substantially higher rates of poverty, according to a new study to be released Thursday by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Government assistance and tax credits lifted 6.2 million working-class whites out of poverty in 2014, more than any other racial or ethnic demographic. Half of all working-age adults without college degrees lifted out of poverty by safety-net programs are white; nearly a quarter are black and a fifth are Hispanic.

The result does not simply reflect the fact that there are more white people in the country. The percentage of otherwise poor whites lifted from poverty by government safety-net programs is higher, at 44 percent, compared to 35 percent of otherwise poor minorities, the study concluded….

"There is a perception out there that the safety net is only for minorities. While it's very important to minorities because they have higher poverty rates and face barriers that lead to lower earnings, it's also quite important to whites, particularly the white working class," said Isaac Shapiro, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and one of the report's authors.

Social scientists and public health experts have repeatedly shown that racism negatively impacts America's health care system as a whole.

Such outcomes are a function of interpersonal racism as well as institutional and systemic racism. In his book "Dying of Whiteness", Dr. Jonathan Metzl demonstrates how white Americans consistently reject government policies that would improve their collective well-being, including access to Medicare via the Affordable Care Act, reductions in gun violence, treatment of chronic illness and substance abuse, and increased funding for public schools. 

This self-harm is driven by racial animosity towards black and brown people (e.g. the idea that "undeserving" poor people are receiving assistance), hatred of Barack Obama and a love of Donald Trump. In the most extreme cases, Metzl encountered poor and working-class white people who said they would rather die than accept help from "Obamacare" and other programs they deride as "government help."

White male privilege sustains Donald Trump. He was elected because of it. Trump has repeatedly shown that he is not remotely competent to be president. His catastrophic response to the coronavirus pandemic, his obvious corruption and criminality, his disdain for the rule of law and the Constitution, his authoritarian tendencies, his dalliances with hostile foreign nations and, of course, his racism are all reasons for Trump to be removed from office. Yet he remains in power, and may well be re-elected, because all too often being white and male comes with unearned assumptions of inherent authority, competence and expertise.

As seen with the coronavirus epidemic and many other examples, white male privilege is literally making America sick. A simple thought experiment: if Donald Trump was not a white man (and a Republican) he would have been impeached several years ago. No woman would have been allowed to be so incompetent and to remain president. A black or brown woman certainly would not have been allowed to stay in office if she displayed even one-tenth of Trump's incompetence and malfeasance.

These dynamics were clearly present in the 2016 presidential election: Political scientists and other researchers have demonstrated that "hostile sexism" and racism, combined with foreign interference, enabled Donald Trump's unlikely victory over Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College.

The coronavirus and the Trump regime are just one among many examples of the ways racism hurts white Americans, as well as black and brown Americans.

Racism is one key reason why America has such a paltry social safety net and lacks a robust sense of community and a sense of shared responsibility for common problems, relative to other developed nations. 

America's broken health care system, our failing public schools, our rotting infrastructure and our massive wealth and income inequalities are in many ways a function of white racial animus. Such outcomes reveal how easy it is for white elites to distract poor and working-class white people (and many in the middle class) from recognizing that it would be in their best interests to cooperate with black and brown Americans to solve common problems.

Mass incarceration and the surveillance state have been justified and expanded because of white America's easily manipulated, fantastical and hysterical fears of "black crime" and other threats from nonwhite people. After the coronavirus pandemic and other systemic shocks, the surveillance state and its related technologies of control will inevitably become focused on poor and working-class white people as well.

The racialization of crime is not new: This has been a feature of American society from the era of white on black chattel slavery through to the present. The system of mass incarceration that resulted has siphoned off many hundreds of billions of dollars in resources that could have been spent improving the country by making higher education more affordable, increasing access to health care, protecting the environment, fixing the country's infrastructure and cutting taxes for working- and middle-class Americans.

To this point, the coronavirus has been an opportunity for the worst of America's character to assert itself. But it also offers an opportunity to reevaluate the state of the country and in doing so demand the types of robust social, economic, political and cultural changes that will strengthen our democracy, reinforce and expand the social safety net, rebuild our infrastructure and make America more free and prosperous.

Racism and white supremacy are roadblocks to creating that better America. That was true before the nation's founding. It remains true in the Age of Trump and the pandemic he has made possible.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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