If you follow stories about COVID-19 (and who doesn’t?), you have heard the pandemic rendered in terms of war. China declared a grassroots people’s war on COVID-19 in mid-February, mandating the use of high-tech surveillance measures to track the movements of the public. On March 3, South Korean President Moon Jae-in declared war on the novel coronavirus. He called for a general emergency response, including emergency quarantine measures. It is a war on an unseen enemy—an epic battle that like other wars is hellacious. It sickens and kills but also infects people with fear, hatred, and prejudice. This “China” virus, as the American President insists on calling it, conjures up the mid-19th century specter of an unclean, uncivilized “yellow peril.”
The language of war has been adopted by prominent health officials to try to rally the people of the United States to do their part to mitigate the spread of this deadly virus. At stake are millions of lives, an economic meltdown, and political dysfunction. The crisis in its multiple dimensions is a dystopic vision come true. Yes, the world is at “war” against a virus, but we must remember that war in this sense is a metaphor, not a label to be taken literally. We cannot defeat this novel coronavirus with cannons, bombs, or other military weaponry.
If we take literally that this health crisis is a war, the language of war will overtake our sensibility as a democratic people living in a global community that is at risk of suffering a common fate. The virus itself will cease to be the real enemy. It will become instead a shorthand, xenophobic term for the foreign threat to our people, our homeland, our country.
I have spent decades studying the rhetoric of war as it has been practiced throughout the history of the United States. There is a recurring pattern in our country’s call to arms. That pattern is to decivilize and dehumanize the designated enemy. There is no more basic way of doing this than to associate THEM-THE-ENEMY with disease and to speak of THEM-THE-ENEMY as a virus, as a deadly force of nature. And once they are reduced to a deadly virus—a sickness, an infection, a bug—it follows all the more easily to label THEM as beasts, predators, barbarians, criminals, crazies, fanatics, and ultimately as forces of evil. Dehumanize, decivilize, demonize.
Mustering the rhetoric of war to fight a pandemic is dangerous. We should have learned already that fighting wars on drugs, poverty, and crime does not produce positive results. Yet, here we go again.
Donald Trump, who at first called the stock-market-busting COVID-19 “fake news,” now speaks of fighting a war on a virus that has gone viral in a literal rather than digital, metaphorical sense. But his war is on the “China virus.” That’s the source of the threat to the country, he explains, in his rationale for using such a racially loaded label.
Trump speaks of himself as “a wartime president.” True to the man’s instincts, this is a war to insure his re-election. Steve Bannon, to whom politics reduces to war, is delighted to declare his former boss a wartime president akin to Winston Churchill. Declaring a national emergency is like mustering the national will to defeat Hitler. Regardless of how many will die and whether or not the economy craters, Trump is the heroic leader who stands strong against the foreign foe — not the virus itself, but the evil foreign enemy reduced to the image of a deadly virus.
Where might this rhetoric lead politically? Trump is inclined, we already know, to declare national emergencies when he cannot get his way democratically. In February 2019, he caused a constitutional crisis by declaring a national emergency in order to get money to build his promised wall on the Mexican border, money that Congress had refused him. He called it a “national security crisis,” an “invasion” of criminals. Critics called his action a “power grab.”
On Friday, March 13 of this year, Trump declared another national emergency, this time to “unleash the full power of the federal government” against the virus. Democrats, Trump claimed, were hampering his ability to fight the pandemic. Besides freeing up funds for the fight, what might the language of national emergency next entail, now that we are fighting the “China virus”?
The next turn in Trump’s wartime presidency might be foreshadowed in a recent move made by another leader with authoritarian inclinations. On March 23, the Guardian reported that Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister, had advanced a bill in parliament that would allow him to rule by decree, with no time limit specified. The bill, should it pass, would build on the state of emergency already declared in Hungary to fight the coronavirus pandemic. It would allow for people to be jailed for spreading “fake news.” Orbán’s decade-long rule has been marked by an erosion of the rule of law and democratic norms. He “has governed over the past few years on a staunchly nationalist, anti-migration platform, and has already drawn a link between migration and the virus.”
Consider Orbán’s case a cautionary tale of the dark place toward which our president’s war rhetoric inclines.