Why are US politicians afraid of Chinese garlic?

Fear is Washington’s go-to tool for the centralisation of power, so it gets evoked at every opportunity

Florida Senator Rick Scott was recently ridiculed online after saying that Chinese imports of garlic to the US are a “national security threat.” It may sound funny, but it is in fact common for American politicians to make such claims about any and all things coming from China – no matter how ridiculous.

There have been numerous examples, including a balloon, fridges, coffee machines, cranes, electric cars, subway cars, students, Confucius Institutes, Huawei, and TikTok. The list goes on and on. Rather than being something bizarre, it is in fact the norm for American senators amongst others to do this. In one way or another, everything from China is linked back in a malign way to a Communist Party conspiracy and there is no room for normality.

To understand why this is, one must recognise that American politics operates fundamentally on the medium of fear. The US is a massive federalist democracy with over 300 million people, living across very diverse regions and with polarised worldviews. The constitution entrenches this structure. Once upon a time, the states held more power and autonomy than they have today. However, the civil war and its consequences produced a political trajectory which leaned towards the centralisation of executive power by various means.

This trend continued into the 20th century and the significant influences upon it were World Wars I and II, as well as the Great Depression. When facing such challenges, how do you keep your country together? Not only by legal centralisation, as per the expansion of federal authority brought about in Roosevelt’s New Deal, but also through the evocation of fear to maintain unity and conformity in a nation which has always been, and especially today, bitterly divided. Thus, starting with World War II and the expansion of radio and television technology, the US began to intensify its propaganda apparatus to be able to solidify support for its foreign policies.

Therefore, from the Cold War onwards, the weaponisation of fear became the primary American tool to legitimise its foreign policy objectives and enforce unity even amidst contentious debates at home. The first notable expression of this was the McCarthyist era and the Red Scare. American officials learnt to weaponise, exaggerate and use irrational fear to enforce loyalty to the state by creating wild conspiracy theories of infiltration and subversion. They also used this to close down the political debate and stifle dissent, with the degree of paranoia weaponised to prevent criticism, often by accusing the critic of being compromised by the adversary or inauthentic in some way.

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The weaponisation of fear in this sense is deployed to manufacture consent for aggressive policies and scare the public into supporting them. For example, the most famous modern instance of fear weaponisation was the bogus claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction to justify the invasion of Iraq. The current US foreign policy priority is Beijing, and Washington subsequently returns to using anti-Communist paranoia to discredit anything Chinese that arrives in America. Washington’s grievances with Beijing are economic and trade related, and as a result American politicians use the language of “national security threats” to evoke fear over various Chinese products they dislike. Usually this is done by linking the product in question to spying in some absurdist way, though in the case of garlic, Senator Scott at least chose a more plausible avenue of attack, speaking about trade rules enforcement and “a severe public health concern” stemming from China’s allegedly unsanitary “growth practices.”

Whatever the specific accusation, the end goal of such fearmongering is to forcibly exclude the target product from the American market and then to convince allies to do the same. This is most notable in the treatment of Huawei’s participation in Western 5G networks. Huawei was accused, without any substantial evidence, of being a security risk and spying on behalf of China. Per the American way, the accusation is repeated again and again, and then the establishment media serve a function of parroting that claim uncritically by conveying it as unbiased “concerns” without touching upon the true motive. It turns public opinion against the target and secures the desired foreign policy outcomes.

Calling garlic, of all things, a “national security threat” has been deservedly laughed at, therefore revealing the limitations of such hysteria-inducing tactics. Scott’s obvious real motive was to push for eliminating Chinese agricultural goods to protect American producers. To some extent, successive presidential administrations have been doing the same, though their usual angle was “forced labour” as they attempted to weaponise human rights against goods like tomatoes or cotton from Xinjiang.

However, the sheer nonsense of Scott’s comments only serve to show how paranoia in US politics is deliberately opportunistic and rarely ever based on facts. The US sees fear as a very powerful weapon and tool of persuasion to push conformity and unity in an otherwise bitterly divided political order with a constitutionally limited central authority. And it works.

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