An Anti-China Message Didn’t Work for Democrats in 2018 — and It Won’t Work for Biden Now

Joe Biden is going after the wrong Trump voters. There's a better way.

Photo illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept, Getty Images

Just days after slamming Donald Trump’s “casual racism and regular xenophobia,” Joe Biden’s presidential campaign released an ad over the weekend accusing the president of having “rolled over for the Chinese.” Not only, the ad darkly alleges, has “Trump praised the Chinese 15 times;” moreover, “The travel ban he brags about? Trump let in 40,000 travelers from China into America after he signed it — not exactly airtight.”

Biden’s anti-China framing is not only morally reprehensible, it’s also bad politics and bad public policy.

Biden’s anti-China framing is not only morally reprehensible, it’s also bad politics and bad public policy. What’s more, it doesn’t need to be this way: Biden could be winning over the voters he’s trying to get by pushing policies that provide actual answers for the problems people face amid the coronavirus crisis.

Let’s start briefly with why it’s morally wrong. Biden’s anti-China message is coming at a time when Fox News is reporting as fact that conspiracy theory that the virus “escaped from a lab in Wuhan”; anti-public health neo-tea partiers are shouting at nurses, “Go to China if you want communism!”; and racist attacks against Asian Americans are surging.

Just as bad, exacerbating tensions with China is folly. Millions of lives around the globe depend on an unprecedented level of international solidarity and specifically robust U.S.-China cooperation to fight the novel coronavirus. Picking a fight with Trump over who can mount the most aggressive opposition to “the Chinese” poses a massive public health risk.

Those dangers might even be understandable, in a callous realpolitik way, except Biden’s strategy doesn’t even have the merit of being politically expedient. In fact, another Democrat tried this tack in a national 2018 race and his efforts fell flat: The Democrat, now-former Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly, won only nine of Indiana’s 92 counties — and lost the race to a Republican challenger by 6 percentage points, or 150,000 votes.

Watching Biden try to outflank Trump with xenophobic nationalism immediately brought me back to 2018, when I was doing political work in Indiana. One of the quintet of Midwest states that had voted for both Barack Obama and then Trump, Indiana was primed for anti-Chinese suspicion and resentment. The state had suffered under the combined effects of industrial firms repositioning their production centers to China and the agricultural calamity resulting from the late U.S.-China trade war. Like Biden now, Donnelly aimed to exploit those feelings, branding his challenger Mike Braun, a businessman who’d had dealings with Chinese firms, “China Mike.”

Though Donnelly lost the race, his losing strategy lives on, thanks in part to the One Country Project, the dark-money group he co-founded with his fellow loser incumbent, North Dakota’s former Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. Their group purportedly aims to help Democrats connect with the rural voters among whom they had both lost.

There’s a major problem, however, with the Donnelly-Biden strategy: They’re going for the wrong Trump voters. A 2017 Democracy Fund study, “The Five Types of Trump Voters,” found that, grouped by their highest priority issues, 20 percent of Trump voters are “American Preservationists,” whose politics are dominated by “a nativist and ethnocultural conception of American identity.” These are the voters who could be motivated by scapegoating “the Chinese” — but they’re already spoken for.

As Ethan Paul wrote for the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, “Biden is not adept enough to out-nationalist America’s foremost nationalist, and would only empower Trump to further inflame anti-Asian racism.”

The 2018 congressional races did not only offer warnings to Democrats, they also offered a way forward: If the Democrats want to peel off any Trump voters, they should ignore the manifestly unflippable “American Preservationists” and instead look to what Democracy Fund study called “Anti-Elites.” These are the 19 percent of Trump supporters who responded to his promises to “drain the swamp” and so forth. Those are the only Trump supporters with bipartisan voting potential, as we learned from the way Donnelly, Heitkamp, and Missouri’s Sen. Claire McCaskill lost their incumbent races.

The 2018 congressional races did not only offer warnings to Democrats. They also offered a way forward.

The same year, anti-elite economic populism, the approach favored by Ohio’s Sherrod Brown and Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin, both of whom won reelection, fared well in the Obama-Trump Midwest. Poll after poll shows Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, two economic populist ideas par excellence, are very broadly popular. Indeed Biden’s erstwhile rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, the politician most closely associated with both, consistently outpolled Trump among independents by a greater margin than his competitors for the Democratic nomination.

Full-throated support for these policies requires Sanders’s willingness to make enemies of the powerful corporate interests that benefit from the current system: health insurance and pharmaceutical companies, and the fossil fuel and corporate agriculture industries.

On the other hand, there is distressingly little to suggest that Biden will reverse his decadeslong record of friendly relations with the wealthy class and corporate lobbyists and start running in opposition to the elites. Rather, over his long political career, Biden has repeatedly taken the course he embarks on now, staking out positions to the right of the Republicans — on issues from social security to criminal punishment.

Make no mistake, though: The Trump government, guilty in this case of massively lethal criminal negligence, is absolutely capable of successfully deflecting responsibility by leaning on racist scapegoating. Choosing a messaging strategy that reinforces Trump’s dominant frame puts Biden at a massive narrative disadvantage.

Meanwhile, masses of people can clearly see that, on a planetary level, we are all in this together; for any of us to be safe, we have to all pool our resources to take on our common challenges. Instead, we are faced with a national election lacking a candidate vying for our vote.

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