President Trump’s first use of the phrase “kung flu” — during a campaign rally in Tulsa last weekend — drew broad political backlash as a racist slur against Asian Americans.
Within three days, however, it was also something else: a rallying cry for his supporters.
Trump’s appearance before a crowd of several thousand enthusiastic young people at the Dream City Church in Phoenix on Tuesday showed how his casual use of a demeaning phrase — one that even some White House aides rejected three months ago — has swiftly morphed into a staple of his reelection message amid tumbling poll numbers.
The president hadn’t even used the words in Phoenix before audience members, presumably primed from having heard his riff on the “many names” of the coronavirus at the Tulsa rally, beat him to the punchline and began shouting out “kung flu” — prompting Trump, with a grin, to repeat it.
“Kung flu — yeah,” Trump said, eliciting cheers. “Kung flu.”
The episode laid bare how, despite attempts from White House aides to justify Trump’s rhetoric as a way to pin the blame for the coronavirus pandemic on China, where it originated, the president appears more interested in juicing his conservative base.
“The fact that he got the crowd so riled up was just chilling,” said Chris Lu, a Chinese American who served as cabinet secretary in the Obama White House. “In that really primal desire to get a rise out of the crowd and get that affirmation he wants, he went to this place that has such bad consequences for Asian Americans broadly and for Asian American kids in particular. It’s a joke to him but not to us.”
Lu was among a number of prominent Asian Americans, including actor George Takei, former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who denounced the president’s language as racist on social media.
The president’s weaponized language around the pandemic this week marked a clear escalation of his previous use of “Chinese virus” and “Wuhan virus” to demonize the Chinese. Those terms also drew condemnation from Democrats as offensive and xenophobic, prompting Trump in late March to publicly express support for Asian Americans and state that “the spreading of the virus is not their fault in any way.”