In this March 9, 2020, photo, President Donald Trump speaks in the briefing room of the White House in Washington about the coronavirus outbreak as Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Surgeon General Jerome Adams and Vice President Mike Pence, listen. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)
Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP
Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP

The Jolt: A ‘wartime president’ refers to a pandemic source as ‘the China virus’

The importance of framing an argument goes back at least 2,500 years.

The Analects of Confucius contain this line from the philosopher of legend: “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.”

In short, semantics aren’t the icing on the cake. They’re the cake itself. We’ve seen two examples of interesting wordplay come out of the White House in recent days. On Wednesday, from the Associated Press:

Describing himself as a “wartime president” fighting an invisible enemy, President Donald Trump invoked rarely used emergency powers to marshal critical medical supplies against the coronavirus pandemic. Trump also signed an aid package — which the Senate approved earlier Wednesday — that will guarantee sick leave to workers who fall ill…

“It's a war," he said. "I view it as a, in a sense, a wartime president. It's a very tough situation.”

Abraham Lincoln was a wartime president, and was re-elected in 1864. Woodrow Wilson became a wartime president in his second term, re-elected as the shadow of a European conflagration stretched across the Atlantic. Then there is FDR, who was re-elected again and again, during the Depression and World War II.

Politically, a crisis can serve as a national unifier. There is value in putting oneself at the head of a rescue effort – so long as the public doesn’t see you as part of the problem. We often forget the example of Lyndon Johnson, whose escalation of the Vietnam War forced him to give up any bid for re-election in 1968.

Then there is President Trump’s use of the phrase “China virus” or “foreign virus” when referring to the coronavirus. Trump defended himself on Wednesday, saying that “it’s not racist at all” because “it comes from China.”

A handful of Georgia Republicans are following his lead. U.S. Rep. Doug Collins has said Trump was “100% correct” in calling it by that name, and U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler has posited that there were increasingly “serious questions” about how China handled the outbreak.

But no one has latched onto the phrase quite like Mark Gonsalves, a Republican running in the jumbled Seventh District congressional race. He’s launched several social media posts calling the disease the “Wuhan Coronavirus” and said the U.S. should rethink its relationship with the country.

Since Newt Gingrich’s reign as U.S. House speaker in the 1990s, Republicans have been masters of wordplay – so these things aren’t to be ignored. It was called “Obamacare” for a reason.

One suspects that use of the phrase “China virus” has two purposes. First, it reinforces the idea that the current pandemic has been caused by something outside our borders, and thus beyond Trump’s control. That it might be xenophobic carries no weight within the president’s base of support.

But the phrase also fills an important vacuum. Re-election would become much more difficult for the president if the words “Trump virus” ever caught on.

***

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp is holding up state Sen. Brandon Beach as an example of poor pandemic behavior.

The Alpharetta Republican submitted to a test for the coronavirus on Saturday, yet still showed up at the state Capitol on Monday -- displaying symptoms of the disease. Beach revealed the positive nature of the test last night.

This morning, the governor told 680 The Fan (WCNN) that Beach’s behavior should be a lesson. 

“This is a good example why people need to do what we’re asking them to do. The biggest thing is social distance yourself,” he said. “If you are sick, do not – do not – go out. Stay home until you can figure out what’s going on. Don’t go to the doctor. Don’t show up at the emergency room. Don’t show up at work.”

The state’s entire legislative branch has been asked to self-quarantine. Kemp, though, will not be isolating himself. 

“I’m not going to test. I’m not going to self-quarantine. I had severely limited my interactions with people,” the governor said. “We have a pretty rigid regimen of us working at the Capitol and going to our homes at night. We are limiting where we’re going.”

He said his arms-length behavior extended to Monday’s extraordinary special session. 

On Monday, when the whole Legislature was in the building, we basically had our office locked, I came in the building through the bottom, went straight to my office, I never interacted with any legislators,” Kemp said. “I was asked to come speak to the caucus meetings, I told them that was a bad idea. We ended up doing that by phone calls on Sunday night and Monday morning.”

***

Even in Washington, the combination of the coronavirus and large, deliberative bodies is causing worries. From Vanity Fair:

Capitol Hill is inherently susceptible to contagion, by its nature a viral hotbed. “We are the worst-case scenario. We have 535 people, disproportionately older, who almost on a weekly basis fly to 435 districts and 50 states all around every nook and cranny of the country, shaking hands relentlessly, meeting with hundreds, if not thousands, of people in the course of a week,” said Minnesota congressman Dean Phillips, whose office shifted to teleworking at the start of last week. “And then we bring it all back to one room where we’re all together.”

***

As of Wednesday noon, the number of coronavirus cases in Georgia stood at 197. The Savannah Morning News reports there will be at least one more, the first to appear in Glynn County. 

***

Just about every political event in Georgia has been canceled -- with one exception.

The Georgia GOP county conventions will go on as scheduled on Saturday, but with a caveat. Georgia GOP chair David Shafer wrote to activists that “we would prefer you NOT attend.”

Instead, he wrote, if they wish to be elected as a delegate they should send an email to a county chairman. Here’s more from Shafer on the unusual development: 

We have asked County Chairmen to conduct the pro forma conventions with one or two other healthy persons from their Executive Committee or officer team. They will call themselves to order, approve a delegate slate and then adjourn. No speeches. No other business.

These pro forma conventions will preserve our ability to participate in the National Convention when the spread of coronavirus is halted.

The most repeated advice of the Good Book is this: Fear Not. What we do know about coronavirus is encouraging. In China and Korea, rates of infections appear to have plateaued - as happens with virtually every new virus. Following the advice of our public health authorities and using common sense will help us reach that plateau more quickly.

***

Over at Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz writes that the rise of the coronavirus -- and the economic downturn it is almost sure to cause -- have come at the worst possible moment for President Donald Trump. A taste:

[M]any economic forecasters are now predicting that the U.S. will experience a major downturn in economic growth in the current quarter that could continue for at least the next two quarters. Some forecasters are predicting a major recession with the economy shrinking by 5% or more in the second quarter of 2020. That’s significant because, in many election forecasting models, including my own “time for change” model, economic growth in the second quarter is a key predictor of the election results…

So it’s possible that even if the economy recovers later in the year, the most electorally-salient perceptions will nonetheless be formed in the spring and summer.

***

Both of Georgia’s U.S. senators voted for the multi-billion dollar coronavirus stimulus package on Wednesday, but not before supporting a controversial amendment that could have derailed the measure.

U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler joined a majority of Republican members in supporting the amendment to remove provisions mandating paid leave for employees diagnosed with coronavirus and replace it with a new unemployment insurance program. However, paid sick leave was an initiative that House Democrats insisted on including in the measure, and removing that provision would have inserted a new fight and delayed its passage.

Ultimately, Senate Republicans did not have the 60 votes needed for the amendment to pass. With the language unchanged, the stimulus package, H.R. 6201, passed overwhelmingly in a 90-8 vote. President Donald Trump quickly signed it into law.

Loeffler and Perdue still aren’t leaving Washington yet. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said members won’t be dismissed until a third coronavirus bill is drafted that, among other things, could include cash payments to American families.

***

U.S. Reps. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, and Austin Scott, R-Tifton, are asking the U.S. Department of State to re-assess measures implemented during the coronavirus pandemic that could impact Georgia farmers by limiting access to foreign labor.

The U.S. Embassy in Mexico announced that as of Wednesday it will no longer process visas in order to protect the health of its staff and visitors. But the indefinite suspension is a burden on the H-2 program for temporary agriculture workers ahead of the spring planting season.

Collins and Scott wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, saying farmers across America have complained to them about how the change in policy will affect their ability to tend to their crops.

“The harvesting and planting period for a number of crops in Georgia is set to commence in the coming weeks,” the duo wrote. “If the coronavirus outbreak forces a lapse in the near-term processing of H-2 agricultural guest workers, crops may die in the field, diminishing our domestic supply and potentially increasing our reliance on imports.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

X