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Foreign Policy

Malevolent Echoes of the “Corona Big Book”

May 17, 2020

“Don’t defend Trump…attack China” urges an internal memo distributed to US Republicans running for election. “Push for sanctions on China for its role in spreading this pandemic.” This is the advice of the “Corona Big Book” — the brainchild of Brett O’Donnell, a Machiavellian strategic advisor to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton. Released on April 17, 2020, poisonous memes of the memo have been in circulation for several weeks now.

Reverberations and echoes of the toxic details can be heard on Fox News, Sunday talk shows, Senator Cotton’s press releases, State Department policy pronouncements, and in presidential tweets. It’s a shameless political line, manufactured by an election strategist and reiterated and reified by Republicans seeking to extend their power. 

It is telling that even Trump’s most sycophantic defenders can hardly keep up with his twists and turns, let alone logically defend his inane tweets and twaddle, policy flip-flops, and toxic narcissism. 

Enter Mike Pompeo, a provincial senator, former spy chief turned diplomat, who openly admits that “lying, cheating, and stealing” are integral tools of statecraft. His tenure as Secretary of State offers a masterclass in the art of poor diplomacy, and he has shown himself to be a master of prevarication, deception, and undoing diplomatic alliances. 

Pompeo oversaw a stealthy kinetic attack on Iran’s Qasem Suleimani in early January, a successful assassination by his ruthless reckoning. Recently, Pompeo’s heated rhetoric about the arrest of American mercenaries off the coast of South America suggests he had a hand in similarly diabolical plans for Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro, but the mission failed. 

The good news is that Pompeo doesn’t always have the ear of the president. China-bashing is a bug, not a feature of Trump’s foreign policy, which has been trade-obsessed but relatively pragmatic. 

It’s true that Trump’s most recent rhetoric echoes the talking points of the “Corona Big Book”, but when it comes to China, he is all over the map. 

The bad news is that both Democrats and Republicans have seized on China as an imagined enemy to rile up and unify their base, and that does not bode well for US-China relations in this election year. Especially since both Biden and Trump are being urged by advisors to stigmatize China as an alien land inimical to US voter interests. 

Still, Trump’s short attention span, his favoring of emotion over intellect, and his high comfort level with ideological inconsistency might yet spare US-China relations the damage of the ideology-driven decoupling that his own China “experts” are gunning for. 

Michael Pillsbury, Peter Navarro, and Matt Pottinger, left to their own devices, would unilaterally initiate a new Cold War to punish and isolate China, which could easily heat up into something unmanageable dangerous and unstable, not to mention economically ruinous. 

Aware that relentlessly bashing China has distinct racial overtones, especially when coming from a cabal of wealthy and powerful white men, Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger was trotted out to give a short video presentation in Chinese about the May 4 tradition. Given his previous experience in China as a journalist, he does a competent job of reading Romanized mandarin for the camera, but he is no expert in history. 

On the sidelines, there is Trump whisperer Steve Bannon, who also spent some time in China, a mysterious Rasputin-like figure who delights in fomenting conflict and chaos. Bannon has recently paired up with anti-Beijing tycoon on-the-run, Guo Wengui to make anti-China trouble. Bannon was an early advocate of the conspiratorial idea that Covid-19, which he calls the “CCP Virus,” is war by other means. 

Another fount of support for a harsh policy on China is right-wing political cult Falun Gong, which publishes the Epoch Times with the semi-clandestine support of the US government. The cult promotes a pro-Trump political line that is in almost total alignment with Pompeo’s crusade against China, except, perhaps, for its eccentric opposition to interracial dating and homosexuality

Trump’s recent rash of intemperate comments about China, including his provocative use of the derogatory term “China virus” and his verbal digs blaming China for letting it “out” of the lab, are not constructive. They have a flighty, flavor-of-the-month quality to them. 

Even Pompeo’s comments in support of the President’s off-the-cuff verbal wanderings ring false, whether he be contradicting himself in TV interviews, saying it was from a lab but not from a lab, man-made but not man-made, or simply hinting that the US has “enormous evidence” without offering a shred of it. To bolster this hollow claim, he has resorted to punching below the belt, spuriously claiming that “China has a history of infecting the world and they have a history of running substandard laboratories.” 

Trump, on the other hand, has no consistent standards, and that is not an entirely bad thing in this context. He readily embraces autocratic leaders as “friends” and has been known to wax poetic about harmless trivia, such as the beauty of a piece of chocolate cake he had for dessert while entertaining Xi Jinping at Mar-A-Lago. 

It’s not normal for a president to talk like that, of course, but the childish meanderings of his easily-distracted mind, his refusal to read intelligence reports, and his innate inability to be consistent tends to thwart the carefully-laid schemes and campaigns of his “brain trust.” 

One hopes that China’s America-watchers are wise enough to recognize the execrable election-year sloganeering and posturing for what it is—a sordid spectacle designed for domestic consumption—and one hopes that China’s leadership is wise and circumspect enough not to over-react to such cheap provocations. 

The Corona memo points to a classic propaganda technique, attacking a stigmatized population as a distraction. To US propagandists, the trumped-up attack on a foreign foe is a chunk of red meat tossed to rabid red-capped nationalists in red states. They are being played for the nefarious purposes of helping morally bankrupt Republican politicians not to lose the upcoming election.

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