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2020 AdWatch Report: GOP Turns Towards Racialized Fear-Mongering on China to Deflect from Trump’s Inadequate COVID-19 Response

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Last month we highlighted the fact that as the Trump Administration’s failed and inadequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic became clear, Trump and his allies would inevitably turn to their divide and distract playbook. Looking to divert attention from these shortcomings, Trump and his allies began to blame China for the problems America is facing due to the pandemic. Still in the early stages in this xenophobic pivot, we initially saw Trump and about a dozen candidates and PACs use COVID-19 in their ads to stir up racist fears. A month later, as Trump continues to fail in bringing the solutions the American people need during the COVID-19 pandemic, it should come as no surprise that Trump and the GOP have doubled down on this new dog-whistle of a message.   

We have been tracking these ads through our 2020AdWatch.com project and have seen a consistent uptick in the number of ads and the campaigns willing to use this messaging. Below, we have highlighted some of the most egregious offenders. 

The ads directly and solely blame China for the outbreak of COVID-19 and demand some form of accountability or punishment. Ignoring any legitimate policy or health concerns surrounding relations with China, the ads only seek to distract from the Trump Administration’s bungled response and stoke racial divisions. Often preferring the fog-horn to the dog-whistle, the Trump campaign put out an ad last month with particularly extreme messaging, signaling that Asian-Americans are connected to the global COVID-19 pandemic and should be treated with distrust. The newer ads put all the blame about the lack of medical equipment, job losses, and even the tens of thousands of deaths of Americans from COVID solely on China. Some ads even insist on explicitly referring to the virus in ways the World Health Organization specifically warned against “to avoid stigmatization.” 

As millions of Americans suffer from the virus and its downstream effects, the tragic results of blasting racial dog-whistles is likely to extend beyond campaign rhetoric. The FBI already warned local law enforcement agencies that “hate crime incidents against Asian-Americans likely will surge across the United States,” as people falsely associate them with the spread of COVID-19. The tragic reality is that Asian-Americans are suffering on average around one hundred attacks every single day, a number that may increase as a result of these multi-million dollar ads which further promote hateful rhetoric. 

And while the distinct style of this dog-whistle might be new, the sound is distinctly familiar. Trump and his allies have been running on versions of “blame the other” for the last four years, falsly claiming that non-white communities “take our jobs,” “make us unsafe,” and “are a drain on our healthcare system.” Before COVID-19, the focus was on migrants coming from the southern border. A number of ads falsely claimed that undocumented immigrants made Americans unsafe or that immigrants were getting government benefits at the expense of American citizens. Now the target has slightly shifted to the west, but the fear-mongering is strikingly similar. Some of the new ads even try to tie the two xenophobic messages together, further demonstrating that dog-whistle racism will be the message no matter what twists and turns come before November. 

A quick warning: we quote anti-immigrant messaging in order to describe the ads — language that many may find offensive.  You can read more about our 2020AdWatch.com project here.

The President

In late April the Trump campaign started running hundreds of Facebook ads juxtaposing the COVID-19 outbreak with the Chinese flag. Their team was apparently testing the message of “holding China accountable” and warned against Chinese government propaganda. This message appears to have not been aggressive enough as they launched a new massive campaign this month which employed even more offensive language. 

“In May alone, the Trump campaign has spent or reserved about $7 million on television airtime in local markets, fueling negative ads that repeat xenophobic tropes regarding the Chinese origin of the coronavirus,” wrote Nick Corasaniti and Maggie Haberman for The New York Times. One ad begins by using the xenophobic dog-whistle, calling COVID-19 the “Chinese coronavirus” and then goes on to criticize Biden for warning against a racist response to the virus.   

In another of these TV ads, Trump explicitly states his effort to divert blame for COVID-19 solely on China. The narrator of the ad states, “one nation deserves the blame, China,” as animated COVID-19 viruses appear over an outline of the country. Later in the ad, the narrator also says Biden stood by “letting them steal our jobs” as it depicts factory workers of Asian heritage. 

In another video ad, running in both English and Spanish, Biden’s criticism of Trump’s COVID-19 response is depicted as being hysterical, falsely associating Biden’s past criticisms regarding international relations with Trump’s limited measure of banning travel from China. This ad too asserts that “For 40 years Biden has been wrong on China, supporting trade deals that destroy American jobs.” 

On May 11, four days after Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale wrote that their “Death Star” was up and running, the campaign launched a huge swath of new ads. While their creative differed from ad to ad, their copy was the same throughout stating that: 

Joe Biden’s proven track record of FAILURE: He has NEVER viewed China as a threat to American interests. He wants to provide illegal immigrants with TAXPAYER funded health care. He wants to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits.

The Trump campaign ran over 6,000 Facebook ads, spending nearly $2 million dollars across their three main pages with this message from May 11 to May 17. Many of the videos and graphics in the ads ran similar attacks on Biden for being too soft on China or his  criticism of Trump’s COVID-19 response. Other ads criticized Biden for “supporting efforts to grant amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants” and supporting “no deportations for his first 100 days”. As the Trump campaign juxaposes the newer racial dog-whistle around China and the racial dog-whistle around undocumented immigrants, they inextricably link these two messages together into one xenophobic attack. This broadens the face of the “dangerous other” that Trump hopes will divide and distract voters as his failures in responding effectively to COVID-19 continue.         

The Senate

  • Unsuprisingly, long-time anti-immigrant zealot Kris Kobach, who is running in the GOP primary for Senate in Kansas, has continued to use the xenophobic dog-whistles. Running a wildly racist ad, Kobach explicitly makes the absurd claim that Trump’s wall is the solution to ending the spread of COVID-19. In the ad, Kobach all but blames the spread of the virus on undocumented Chinese migrants. The ad says “Kobach alerted us that 12,000 Chinese snuck across our border last year. No testing. No screening. We must hold China accountable and build President Trump’s wall.” 
  • Running in the GOP Senate primary in Tennessee, Bill Hagerty has kept up the steady drumbeat of racist dog-whistle Facebook ads. Hagerty also cut a TV ad with similar messaging. The ad says “China covered up the Wuhan virus, putting all of America at risk.”    
  • Looking to hold on to her appointed Arizona Senate seat, Martha McSally released a TV ad where she says “China is to blame for this pandemic and the death of thousands of Americans” as the ad cuts from images of Xi Jinping to bodies being buried in an unmarked mass grave.  
  • Republican Mark Ronchetti, who is running in the Senate party primary in New Mexico, dropped an ad that calls for a “crackdown on China” and a border wall. 
  • A report by Saara Navab at ACRONYM also found that “between March 1st and May 15th, 17 Republican senators spent a combined $89,636 on Facebook ads mentioning China.” 

The House

  • Looking to win a GOP primary and fill a solidly Republican seat in TN-01, Diana Harshbarger has cut three different xenophobic TV ads. In one from late April, Harshbarger called COVID the “Wuhan pandemic” and said “Trump is right, let’s put America first by holding China accountable, controlling the border.” Her second ad all but says immigrants are the root cause of the virus, saying “borders are critical to stopping disease.” The ad then shows migrants breaking through the border wall and cuts to clips of Trump’s announcement of “temporarily suspending immigration to the United States.” The ad ends by saying “we’ll get through this crisis if we learn one important lesson, borders matter.” Harshbarger’s most recent ad begins by complaining that the “Chinese virus robbed us of March Madness,” while the image on the screen calls it the “Wuhan virus.” The ad continues with Harshbarger accusing Democrats of wanting an “open border.”
  • Competing in the FL-19 GOP primary, Casey Askar launched a TV ad picking up the racialized dog-whistles around China and COVID-19 where he states that “China released the Wuhan pandemic to the world” and then links the issue to the southern border, claiming “Trump is right, we must control our border” while showing images of the wall.
  • Republican Jim Bognet, who is running in the PA-08 GOP primary, is currently running a radio ad saying “the Chinese Communists sent us coronavirus.” The ad continues with anti-Chinese rhetoric saying “We have scores to settle” and “We’ll make China pay for the lies they told, the jobs they stole, and the lives we’ve lost.” He ends the ad by saying that he will stand with Trump to “finish the wall, ban sanctuary cities, and send illegals back.” Bognet also cut two TV ads using similar messaging. In one ad Bognet says China “Sent us the Wuhan Flu. Illegal immigrants took our jobs, spread crime, and sent taxpayers the bill.” In the other ad, a narrator touts that Bognet is “pro-Trump, pro-wall, and anti-China.” 
  • Republican Carl Brizzi, who is looking to win a GOP primary in the lean-Republican battleground of IN-05, launched a TV ad jumping on the ‘blame China’ messaging but took it a step further by saying that China “infiltrated our southern border.” His ad ends with “Trump and I will hold the Chinese government accountable and we’ll build the wall and break our dependency with China.”  
  • Immediately following Democrat Kate Bolz’s victory in the Democratic primary election in NE-01, Republican incumbent Jeff Fortenberry dropped an ad using China fear-mongering to attack Bolz. The ad begins by claiming that “China unleashed a global pandemic” and ends by calling Bolz “Naive. Dangerous. Wrong.”
  • Republican Kathaleen Wall, who is in a GOP primary runoff election in TX-22, went from the fog-horn racism of her previous ad back to the dog-whistle in a new TV ad that showed images of Xi Jinping while the narrator states “We will make China pay.”
  • Republican Genevieve Collins who is challenging Democratic Rep. Colin Allred for the TX-32 seat this November is out with an ad blaming China for “hundreds of thousands of deaths.”  
  • The GOP-allied “Defending Main Street PAC” cut a TV ad supporting Republican Cliff Bentz in the GOP primary for OR-02. The ad focuses on China and COVID-19, saying “coronavirus proves we need a tough line with China.” 
  • Looking for the opportunity for a rematch with Democatic Rep. Xochitl Torres Small in November, Yvette Herrell is competing in the NM-02 GOP primary. Herrell put out an ad where Republican Rep. Jim Jordan says Yvette will “secure our border, hold China accountable”.  
  • And in addition to the candidates and Members of Congress mentioned in the above list,  Randy Feenstra (IA-04), Josh Winegarner (TX-13), Joe Wilson (SC-02), Ted Budd (NC-13), Rusty Crowe (TN-01), Adam Kinzinger (IL-16), Ross Spano (FL-15), John Clark (TN-01), all have run Facebook ads using some form of the China dog-whistle. 

Super PACs

In our last report we predicted that the “America First Action PAC,” a pro-Trump super PAC, would spend their $10 million budget on ads blowing racial dog-whistles. Unfortunately, we were correct in our assumption. Days later, the group dropped three attack ads all hitting Biden on China and fear-mongering around COVID-19. One ad superimposes the Chinese flag on top of an animated virus. Another ad has an image with someone who appears to have Asian heritage in full PPE with text that reads “China putting us in danger with COVID-19.” The third ad says “America now, more than ever, must stop China. And to stop China you have to stop Biden.”   

Two weeks later on May 1, the same PAC dropped another set of attacks, repeating the xenophobic dog-whistle messaging about the Chinese origins of COVID-19. One ad begins with an animation of the globe, depicting COVID-19 infecting the world from the Wuhan province.  Another ad says “China is killing our jobs. And now, China is killing our people.” This ad continues the attacks on Biden for allegedly not supporting the travel restrictions and losing jobs to China. They cut another set of ads with similar dog-whistle attacks on Biden on May 15.

What to Expect Going Forward

Over the last two months, we have watched Trump and the GOP throw millions of dollars at new ads, using dog-whistle politics to stoke fears, divide voters, and deflect from Trump’s failures. There will continue to be slight variations on the message from ad to ad, but this will be the GOP’s message up-and-down the ticket until November.

They are apparently betting that the COVID-19 pandemic will make voters more responsive to racist messages and attempts at division. However, recent history has shown that these messages don’t lead to victory. The GOP divide-and-distract strategy using similar anti-immigrant messaging backfired in 2017, 2018, and 2019

Voters have rejected the divide and distract strategy in the recent past, but the past is not always a perfect predictor of the future. We know powerful interests are set on using racial divisions for their own gain, but how we respond to this million-dollar megaphone is up to us. Xenophobic division is not a plan for testing, keeping people employed, or protecting the American people. Americans must reject the poison pill of xenophobic division and come together if we are to find the solutions we need to recover from this pandemic.