Kaiser Wilhelm II did not originate the term “Yellow Peril,” but after his “Hun speech” of 1900, he became forever synonymous with it. The German monarch was addressing soldiers who were shipping off to China to help put down the Boxer Rebellion, and what he said was so crass—even for the notoriously half-witted, insecure, and capricious heir—that the Prussian foreign office’s official transcript of the speech omitted its most “diplomatically embarrassing” paragraph. “Just as a thousand years ago the Huns under their King Attila made a name for themselves, one that even today makes them seem mighty in history and legend,” the kaiser had said, “may the name German be affirmed by you in such a way in China that no Chinese will ever again dare to look cross-eyed at a German.”
One hundred and twenty years later, partisans of Donald Trump—like the kaiser, a “bad-tempered, distractable doofus” who inherited an increasingly precipitous empire—are turning to Yellow Peril rhetoric to rally support for their regime as it faces an existential crisis. The coronavirus pandemic has rapidly emerged as the excuse everyone has been looking for to start a conflict with China—a trend that’s disturbingly spreading beyond Republican politics.
The strategy, such as it is, began early, with Trump congratulating himself for a late-January ban on travel to the United States from China—long after the virus had already arrived stateside, probably from Europe—and his subsequent insistence on calling the contagion “the Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus,” a telling emphasis on the crisis’s origins over any White House actions against its spread. But in recent weeks, Republican Party hawks have taken the racist football and run with it.
Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, another folksy war addict cut from nineteenth-century Prussian cloth, has pivoted from his perennial demands for a U.S.-Iran confrontation to issue new demands for a U.S.-China confrontation, citing what he calls Beijing’s “malign, deliberate actions to send the virus around the world.” He was referring to the theory, increasingly popular on the right, that a government-run laboratory in Wuhan developed the deadly virus as a biological warfare agent. There is no evidence that the virus was released from a lab there, intentionally or otherwise. But Cotton’s rampage continued this week, when he proposed a law to bar Chinese students from obtaining visas to study science in America. “If Chinese students want to come here and study Shakespeare and the Federalist Papers, that’s what they need to learn from America,” Cotton said Sunday, apparently forgetting that Stratford-upon-Avon is not in the United States. “They don’t need to learn quantum computing and artificial intelligence from America.”