Local Politics: The new Republican Red Scare

When Lt. Gov. Jon Husted tweeted about “the Wuhan Virus,” he was slavishly repeating a party talking point with zero concern for the racist violence these words continue to inspire

Craig Calcaterra
Ohio Lt. Gov. Jon Husted

On March 26, Lt. Gov. Jon Husted tweeted out an article about former CDC Director Robert Redfield in which Redfield claimed, without evidence, that he believes the coronavirus originated in a lab in Wuhan, China. Actually, there isn't merely a lack of evidence for such a claim; it's one public health experts have cast as extremely unlikely. Yet Husted shared it, writing, "So it appears it was the Wuhan Virus after all?"

Husted immediately came under fire for his comments but refused to apologize, telling a TV reporter that he "did nothing wrong" and that he "didn't offend anyone." This is a demonstrably false claim given that many have told him that he did, in fact, offend them. In light of all of that it'd be pretty easy to cast Husted's tweet and his defensiveness as racially insensitive. And that it was. But there is something additional animating Husted: slavish and unthinking devotion to Republican talking points.  

Last summer the National Republican Senatorial Committee sent out a memo instructing GOP campaigns to not just blame the coronavirus pandemic on China, but to cast China as an enemy in any number of other ways: economically, militarily, you name it. “China is not an ally, and they’re not just a rival — they are an adversary and the Chinese Communist Party is our enemy,” read one of the talking points in the memo. The memo also instructed candidates to tell voters “my opponent is soft on China,” which is something of a Red Scare-era catch-all, suggesting that the specifics of the charge matter less than being sure that everyone knows that China is the bad guy.

The memo anticipated that some of this might sound, you know, racist, so it advised campaigns to deflect accusations of racism by arguing that "no one is blaming Chinese Americans. This is the fault of the Chinese Communist Party." Compare that with what Husted said in talking to the TV reporter last week: "I did nothing wrong and I clearly stated what this was about. It's about holding the Chinese government accountable for the virus." You can almost picture him reading that off of a flash card supplied to him by the GOP central committee.

Which is to say that Husted didn't tweet the "Wuhan Virus" stuff because he's been attempting to get to the bottom of the initial transmission of COVID-19 and finally, albeit mistakenly, felt like some clarity had been brought to the matter. He did it because the article he tweeted gave him an opening, however tiny, to bash China, which he was more or less ordered to do by the party he serves. A party that sees attacking China as a winning political strategy. A party that is either oblivious to the notion that doing so carries with it racial baggage and risks inciting racist violence or doesn't particularly care about such things.

Perhaps it should care, however, in light of the violence against Asian Americans that has intensified throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

A recent shooting rampage in Atlanta left eight dead, six of whom were Asian women. An Asian man in Washington, D.C. was punched in the face. In New York, an attacker repeatedly kicked a 65-year-old Asian woman in the stomach and head, shouting, "You don’t belong here." These are just a few of the nearly 3,800 instances of anti-Asian hate reported to the nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate organization in the past year, representing a significant uptick from years prior. 

I suspect Husted doesn't think he offended anyone because, in his mind, he's not racist, and in his heart, he doesn't wish harm upon anyone. But in blindly serving a party that views scapegoating China as good politics, at a time when the consequences of such scapegoating are manifest, it really doesn't matter what he thinks.