The history of epidemics is littered with scapegoats.

This shouldn't come as a shock. If the open society of free trade, free ideas, and free movement is made possible, encouraged, and sustained by peace and prosperity, the suspicion and fear bred by a potentially fatal viral outbreak inspires doors of all kinds to slam shut. As it is in a time of war, distinctions between friend and enemy, insider and outsider, come to the fore. Formerly permeable borders seal up. Open minds begin to close. We hunker down — in our homes, but also in our nations and our prejudices, hoping to protect ourselves from the contagion that comes from … out there.

This is one reason why the horribly deadly influenza pandemic of 1918 came to be called the Spanish flu — not because it really originated in Spain, or had anything distinctively Spanish about it, but because labeling it as such enabled countries around the world to cast their blame against a country that had remained neutral during the carnage of The Great War. The search for a scapegoat for which we can blame our suffering has often intertwined and conspired with legitimate public health measures to give us, among other examples, the Asian flu of 1957 to 1958, the Hong Kong flu of 1968 to 1969, and, more recently, MERS, which is an acronym for the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome-related coronavirus.

It should therefore surprise no one at all that the self-styled nationalist administration of President Trump, along with its cheering section online and on right-wing cable and radio, has leaned into dubbing the COVID-19 pandemic the "Chinese virus."

It's unsurprising because even in the best of times, Trump thinks in terms of "America first" and views the international arena as a zero-sum competition between rivals and adversaries. It's unsurprising because Trump has long treated China as America's most formidable geopolitical opponent, so blaming Beijing for the virus that's threatening American lives and crippling the world economy reinforces the administration's outlook. And it's unsurprising because (despite what Communist Party propaganda would have you believe) the virus did in fact originate in China, and it spread farther and wider than it might have in part because of how the government of Chinese President Xi Jinping initially responded to the outbreak.

But there is one additional, very important reason why Trump is pushing the "Chinese virus" line: because it's the perfect way to provoke his progressive critics, generate an angry, overwrought response, and thereby ensure that the president and the press are fighting about political correctness instead of the administration's many potentially fatal fumbles in responding to the novel coronavirus.

Trump knows he has nothing at all to lose, and potentially much to gain, by referring constantly to the pandemic in terms that inspire the left to hurl accusations of racism. His own supporters and plenty of other Americans will be very comfortable following the long-established habit of labeling pandemics by their place of origin and find the insistence that this practice must immediately end an expression of moral wokeness run amuck. If the use of the phrase stands out at all to the electorate at large, these voters are more likely to see it as an expression of the president laudably siding with us against them at a time of national anxiety and peril.

The "racism" charge, meanwhile, will sound to many like a broken record — the repetition of the same accusation left-leaning critics have lodged against Trump from the beginning of his presidency. This impression will be reinforced by the fact that none of the blame directed at China by the administration and its apologists really concerns race. Is it potentially xenophobic? Sure. Bigoted against Chinese culture, including its diet? In many cases, yes. But racism? Hardly. The repetition of the epithet will only serve to confirm the widely shared conviction that liberals are obsessed with race and far too inclined to use it as a bludgeon to pummel their ideological adversaries.

It would be one thing if such accusations were limited to opinion journalism. It's quite another to have them shaping the agenda and priorities of reporters, as they did during a White House press briefing on Wednesday and Thursday, when several questions raised and lingered on the issue. The coronavirus has much of the world in various stages of lockdown, schools are closed, the number of confirmed cases and deaths are spiking, the U.S. stock market and global economy are in free fall, layoffs have started in multiple industries, Congress is preparing numerous bills in response to the crisis — and journalists are maximally agitated about what word the president uses to describe the pandemic? That's a stunning example of journalistic misjudgment.

If you were a president who'd dithered about the virus for more than two months, who actively downplayed the threat until a little over a week ago, and who oversaw the federal government's failure to ramp up testing in the U.S. — a failure that has left us groping around in the dark for weeks and from which we are only now beginning to emerge — wouldn't you be thrilled by getting to wage a battle in the culture war instead of having to defend your own dismal record during the opening weeks of the most monumental event in decades?

President Trump is an abysmal manager and wholly unfit to be sitting in the Oval Office, least of all during a genuine emergency. But he has one pre-eminent political skill and that is provoking his political enemies. Progressives who rise to the bait at this point should be embarrassed by their own incontinence. They're letting themselves get played.

It's totally fair to point out the problems with and potential dangers of naming COVID-19 after its country of origin. But the issue needs to be seen as what it is — a distraction from about a dozen more pressing problems and potential dangers facing the United States and the world at the present moment. Those who treat it as more significant than that have been tricked by the president's most tried and tested head fake.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me dozens of times in a single presidential term, shame on no one but myself.