covid-19 vaccines

The Willfully Unvaccinated Are the Newest Republican Martyrs

An anti-vaccine protester holds a sign outside of Houston Methodist Hospital on June 26. Photo: Mark Felix/AFP /AFP via Getty Images

Everywhere and in every time, conservative politics has been fueled at least in part by the resentment of pushy have-nots by comfortable haves. But what has given Trump-era U.S. Republicanism its signature savage edge has been its success in convincing yesterday’s haves that they are in fact becoming objects of discrimination — yea, persecution — themselves. Not only are they innocent of the injustices that hostile minorities accuse them of — they are the real victims. It’s a powerfully Copernican change in perspective that pays off handsomely in an energized conservative electorate that is both self-righteous and needy.

From that point of view, it’s important and impressive that Republicans have succeeded in convincing so many white people that discrimination against them is the primary example of racism in contemporary society. Similarly, for years now conservative gabbers have argued that those who identify with America’s predominant Christian religious persuasion are in fact being persecuted by secularists. That argument used to take the form of the rather ridiculous “War on Christmas” meme in which “Happy Holidays” greetings were like the rack and the stake — an offense to religious sensibilities so painful as to be unendurable. More recently, legal and political advances by LGBTQ folks have been turned into a deadly threat to the very existence of Christianity in the fevered minds of many believers, requiring a new zone of “religious liberty,” where bigotry is protected and valued, that conservative judges are eager to recognize and expand.

We are now experiencing a third major redefinition of victimization in the surge of Republican-sponsored laws aimed at succoring the willfully unvaccinated, as Axios reports:

State Republican lawmakers around the country are pushing bills — at least one of which [in Montana] has become law — that would give unvaccinated people the same protections as those surrounding race, gender and religion. … These bills would tie the hands of private businesses that want to protect their employees and customers. But they also show how deep into the political psyche resistance to coronavirus vaccine requirements has become, and how vaccination status has rapidly become a marker of identity.

Think about the rhetorical jujitsu this approach involves. Public-health experts have treated the “vaccine hesitant” as a threat to themselves and to others, insofar as the unvaccinated may infect each other while reducing the odds of the kind of “herd immunity” that could wipe out COVID-19 altogether. But Republican lawmakers are beginning to treat the unvaccinated as courageous defenders of personal liberty, and those who would coerce them to take those shots in the arm as tyrants.

Obviously the full politicization of vaccine hesitancy increases its power, while inhibiting or even banning public and private efforts to push and pull the unvaccinated across the line. As my colleague Sarah Jones has noted, it’s a deeply cynical Republican ploy that could devastate many lives as it hardens into partisan orthodoxy. But it’s typical of this new self-pity party that reflexively turns its constituents toward perceived self-defense measures that actually make life more dangerous for all.

The Willfully Unvaccinated Are the Newest Republican Martyrs