"If we are at war, who is the enemy?" asks Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor for The Washington Post in a smart piece that examines the question of who constitutes a target for a self-declared "wartime president."
While it is obvious that the enemy, in this case, is a tiny, sticky, invisible microbe that stubbornly gloms onto surfaces or leaps through the air to weaponize subway cars or shared gym equipment or a touch to the face.
But the enmity that this foe manages to wage is leaking out in anger in other directions, including the news media who reflect what he says.
Until a couple of days ago, Donald Trump has been insistent on calling coronavirus the "Chinese virus," angering and threatening Asian-Americans or visiting Chinese who increasingly report harassment or even attack. Or maybe it is elderly patients who have diabetes or other respiratory diseases whose vulnerability is forcing massive idleness through the country. Maybe the enemy are the rich investors who are enriching themselves by short-selling in the financial markets or a few senators who decided to sell off stock at a time when they knew of the pandemic potential before the rest of us.
This week, the FBI said that racist extremist groups, including neo-Nazis and other white supremacists, are encouraging members who contract coronavirus disease to spread the contagion to cops and Jews "through fluids and personal contact," as reported by ABC News.
That human need to find someone to blame, someone to scapegoat, seems inescapable.
The consequences of scapegoating
Trump finally acknowledged this week that his words may have consequences on perceived "enemies."
John Glionna, a former newspaper colleague, has written about rude experiences that his Beijing-born wife has undergone lately. He notes a string of recent attacks on Chinese restaurants in San Jose, a man who spit in the face of an Asian woman on the streets of San Francisco, an assault on an Asian woman wearing a face mask in New York City, a shouter on a Los Angeles subway who shouted that the Chinese are responsible for every disease. More than one congressman has said publicly that Chinese culture has been a breeding ground for illness that moves elsewhere.
The New York Times put a story about such attacks on the front page.
As The Post's Hiatt noted, in declaring himself a wartime president, Trump put himself into a group that through history has mobilized people not only by rallying them to a common defense but also by uniting them in a shared hostility.
Trump, always a leader in blaming others, has turned almost instinctively to a familiar target, lashing out at the media, and the Chinese, for not providing as much notice as they might have.
When asked about it, Trump proudly takes no responsibility for any ill effect that may fall out of his aggressive words – as has happened repeatedly through his campaign rallies and other appearances.
Trump's earlier insistence that this disease spread was a "hoax" has slowed acceptance in many Trump-leaning parts of the country to the actual dangers we face. Trump's most recent attacks on the Chinese are being picked up by conservative politicians, including Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who "are eagerly taking his cue, seeing this as an opportunity to stoke a new Cold War and promote economic 'decoupling.'"
Obviously, the U.S.-China relationship is far more complex than would be represented in a single blame sentence over virus spread.
A new Civil War
I tend to agree with Hiatt who says that the biggest danger is that we will turn it into a new kind of civil war. The disease is pitting young against old, the healthy against sick, those who want to save jobs against those who want to save companies – as if any of these things is distinguishable.
The Trump campaign is making clear who is the enemy, threatening legal action against television stations in key battleground states if they continue airing an ad cut by the liberal super PAC Priorities USA alleging that the president called the coronavirus a "hoax." (Actually, Trump called Democratic efforts to misuse the crisis as a "hoax.") Alex Cannon, legal counsel for Trump's reelection campaign, wrote to TV stations in Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, demanding they "cease and desist" from airing the ad if they want to "avoid costly and time-consuming litigation."
You might think we should have our hands full enough with challenges to test and treat disease, with massive job losses and education interruptions, and just staying home without going nuts. Beyond the obvious are more common issues with loneliness and stress, even while we declare hoarders of toilet paper as public enemies.
The real enemy may be a loss of empathy and patience.
It looks as if we'll be in this condition for a good while. And while it is tempting to find someone to blame, maybe the bigger challenge is to figure out how to add a bit of service to others in our lives, even over the internet, even from our protected homes.