covid-19 vaccine

What If Republicans Were Anti-Lockdown, Anti-Mask, and Pro-Vaxx?

Donald Trump celebrates the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines on December 8, 2020, and takes credit for it as a product of his Operation Warp Speed. Photo: Oliver Contreras/SIPA USA/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In the same hearing where Rand Paul called Dr. Anthony Fauci a liar and Fauci reciprocated the charge amid an argument over lab research in Wuhan, there was a more civil — if similarly weird — exchange between Fauci and another Republican senator, Tommy Tuberville of Alabama. As reported, Tubs had an idea for boosting the vaccination rate back home:

Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville suggested Tuesday that the Biden administration ought to give credit to its predecessor for rolling out the COVID-19 vaccination program if it wants to increase vaccination rates among Americans …

“I think people need a unifying message from all of us, because in my state of Alabama, we don’t have everyone taking a vaccine, and we’re having outbreaks as we speak,” Tuberville told Fauci. “You know, a lot of people voted for Donald Trump — a lot of people in the South, a lot of people in my state voted for [Trump], and we have to have a unified message. We can’t be blaming this or that.”

Fauci agreed with Tuberville that the Trump administration deserves credit for the implementation of the COVID-19 vaccine.

He said politics has no place in the fight against the coronavirus.

I’ve made fun of Tuberville a lot for his slack-jawed approach to public policy, and at first it may seem hilarious that he figures Alabamans will run to get a shot in the arm if they think it will honor the 45th president. But he may have a point. Self-identified Republicans may be resisting vaccination in part because they perceive it as something the Biden administration wants to happen, or falsely believe it will be imposed upon them by Big Government. If vaccination seems Trumpy instead, rates could go up significantly in deep-red territory.

While the opposition to masking requirements and business, school, and church lockdowns was almost certain to be opposed by rank-and-file Republicans on anti-government or pro-business and pro-“religious liberty” grounds, the same people did not necessarily have to join the previously fringe anti-vaxxer movement at the risk of their own and everyone else’s health. For a good while during the earlier stages of the pandemic, Trump treated the advent of vaccines — for which he took total credit via his administration’s “Operation Warp Speed” for developing and deploying them — as an alternative to the more intrusive measures Democrats and some Republicans supported to slow down or stop the spread of COVID-19.

But as we now know, the effective vaccines now so abundantly available did not arrive in time to save Trump’s presidency. The first emergency approval of the Pfizer vaccine by the FDA occurred on December 11, 2020; Moderna got a green light a week later. When Biden took office, just over 2 million Americans were fully vaccinated. Then the project, and its increasingly powerful effects, became increasingly identified with the man Trump could not acknowledge as his legitimate vanquisher.

Does Trump actually deserve more credit than he has been given for vaccines? The Washington Post weighed the evidence on the eve of the FDA emergency use authorizations and found the record ambivalent:

[T]he lightning-fast development of two leading coronavirus vaccines happened both because of and despite Trump — perhaps the most anti-science president in modern history, who has previously flirted with anti-vaccine views and savaged those who cited scientific evidence to press for basic public-health measures in response to the pandemic.

The lifelong businessman who refused to wear a mask himself was able to understand vaccines as something else entirely: a deliverable that he could make happen with money. Unlike a mask, a vaccine represented a display of American technological prowess, an appealing solution that didn’t require painful steps like closing small businesses. For the president, it exerted an increasingly strong pull as the election approached.

When Trump was forced out of office, nothing the federal government then did that his successor did not oppose was worth his support, and the impulse spread to the MAGA folk who already had some points of commonality with the preexisting anti-vaxx movement (which despite its crunchy-granola, alternative-medicine image always included a robust number of conservative Evangelical homeschoolers and anti-government libertarians and militia-types). Yes, Trump himself (along with other Republican pols) got himself vaccinated, and occasionally urged others to do likewise. Lately there has been an upsurge of conservative opinion leaders supporting COVID-19 vaccination (though sometimes opposing measures, sometimes imaginary, to compel shots in arms).

But it could do wonders for vaccination rates, herd immunity, and efforts to head off a sickening lurch back into lockdowns and other restrictive measures if it became de rigueur — or at least nontoxic — for Trump supporters to protect themselves and the rest of us.

Personally, I am more inclined to blame Trump for the deaths attributable to his initially dismissive reaction and consistently erratic approach to COVID-19 than to give him any credit for getting something important right. But if it saves lives to make his fans open to vaccination by making it a MAGA-approved activity, it’s worth the risk of marginally improving the former president’s odds of returning to office and throwing me and other elements of the “fake media” in jail for disrespecting him. In the longer run it will be helpful to detach the Republican Party and the conservative movement from the idea that science is to be strictly avoided.

What If the GOP Was Anti-Lockdown and Pro-Vaxx?