the national interest

A New Variant of COVID Denialism Has Emerged

Anti-vaxxers in Swampscott, Massachusetts. Photo: M. Scott Brauer/Redux

In the middle of August, as the Delta variant began driving coronavirus caseloads back to levels Americans believed they would never see again, Missouri senator Josh Hawley introduced an amendment to the Senate budget resolution addressing what he sensed to be one of his party’s most urgent priorities. Hawley called for restricting federal funding to K–12 schools that mandate COVID-19 vaccines for students, mandate students wear masks, or do not resume in-person instruction. As school districts around the country scramble to figure out how to reopen, Hawley’s plan for public education is to demand in-person schooling while banning any efforts to make it safe. (Hopefully, nobody will tell Hawley about ventilation lest he ban that too.)

Hawley is merely following a partywide stampede into a new form of COVID denialism, and Republican officeholders are jostling with one another to stake out the wildest stance. Seven Republican-led states have banned schools from requiring masks in the classroom. Ted Cruz and fellow Republican senator Kevin Cramer have two new bills banning mask and vaccine mandates. Texas governor Greg Abbott and Florida governor Ron DeSantis have banned mask and vaccine mandates, and DeSantis even tried to prevent cruise lines from requiring passengers to be vaccinated.

It’s worth recalling that in the early days of the pandemic, Republican COVID denialism began as a largely reflexive partisan instinct. President Trump was too upset by the emergence of a pandemic, at a moment when he believed he had seized a decisive campaign advantage, to admit that he was facing a serious crisis that required action. And so he began insisting the virus would disappear quickly, or that it could easily be cured by hydroxychloroquine, or that people should simply tough it out and not let it dominate their lives.

The Republicans’ original premise for these beliefs was that Democrats were hyping up the pandemic as a pretext to shut down the economy and thereby to harm his chances of reelection. If Joe Biden won the election, Cruz sagely predicted a year ago, “I guarantee you the week after the election, suddenly all those Democratic governors, all those Democratic mayors, will say, ‘Everything’s magically better. Go back to work. Go back to school. Suddenly the problems are solved.’ ” And since COVID was an exaggerated threat concocted to advance a nefarious Democratic agenda, it followed that the measures public-health authorities were recommending against it, including masks and vaccines, were also unnecessary.

That entire conspiracy theory has collapsed. And yet the beliefs it spawned — that masks and vaccines were unnecessary — have remained in place. As the Delta variant spreads, in no small part owing to right-wing resistance to vaccination, Republican COVID denialism has mutated into an altered form. It is now organized around sanctifying and protecting the absurd and false mythology that Republicans spread under Trump.

Until COVID came along, not even doctrinaire libertarians opposed government vaccine mandates. For decades, institutions like the military and schools have routinely required a long list of vaccines. HuffPost’s Jonathan Cohn cites the works of libertarian writers such as Jessica Flanigan (“A Defense of Compulsory Vaccination,” 2013), Jason Brennan (“A Libertarian Case for Mandatory Vaccination,” 2018), and Ilya Somin, all of whom supported vaccine mandates before COVID existed.

But even if you were such a libertarian extremist that you opposed vaccine requirements, there’s no conceivable justification for banning private business from requiring vaccinations. When Cruz insists, “No one should force anyone to take the vaccine — including the federal government or an employer,” he is trampling on property rights and freedom of association, principles a small-government conservative like Cruz usually defends fanatically. Suppose, for instance, you want to enjoy a cruise with the peace of mind that everybody onboard has gotten a vaccine, and a cruise line wants to sell you that experience. A traditional conservative or libertarian would describe that as a capitalist act between consenting adults. DeSantis believes the heavy hand of government should step in and make that contract illegal.

Let’s not pretend Republicans would care about rights for anti-vaxxers if their ranks didn’t include disproportionate numbers of Republicans. Only the identity-politics aspect of the anti-vaxx, anti-mask crusade has driven Republicans to turn against their customary reverence for freedom of contract. DeSantis hinted at the logic in unusually revealing terms two weeks ago. “I’m sick of the judgmental stuff. Nobody’s trying to get ill here,” he lectured reporters. “Let’s not indulge that somehow it’s their fault for not [getting vaccinated].”

Of course nobody wants to get sick. Nobody wants to die in a car crash or go to prison, either, but some people drive drunk or commit felonies anyway, and generally people like DeSantis judge their behavior. The idea DeSantis is expressing in his plea for withholding judgment is that the feelings of people who believed Trump’s lies deserve special protection. Since Trump left office, so much of the Republican energy has been organized around protecting his followers from any social, political, or legal consequences. What principle grants somebody the extraordinary right to walk onto another person’s property and spread a deadly virus? The principle that they should pay no price for having followed their president.

DeSantis’s Florida represents a test case of the Republican political theory. By flouting precautionary measures, DeSantis has successfully branded the state as an outpost of mask-free, very vaccine-optional living. He has benefited as well from being the object of factually shaky attacks — a 60 Minutes segment depicted his decision to distribute vaccines through the Publix drugstore as corrupt, state employee Rebekah Jones accused him of falsifying COVID deaths, and when neither charge panned out, Republicans flocked to him as another victim of the liberal-media conspiracy. National Review published two articles demanding the national media apologize to DeSantis, whose martyrdom thrust him to the top of the list of potential nominees if Trump decides not to run.

But Florida has become the kind of national petri dish of disease DeSantis’s critics have long feared. By mid-August, according to some estimates, the state’s COVID hospitalization rate soared to levels higher than New York had at the peak of its outbreak.

DeSantis and his fellow Republicans are not telling people not to get vaccinated or wear a mask indoors. Instead, they quietly urge people to get the vaccine while loudly demanding freedom for those who refuse, treating the choice to opt out of vaccines and go anywhere you wish while potentially carrying a deadly transmissible disease as a fundamental right. DeSantis has simultaneously said “These vaccines are saving lives” while selling merchandise plastered with the slogan DON’T FAUCI MY FLORIDA.

It is tempting to assume this reflects a devious strategy. But 70 percent of adults in the U.S. have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and, according to one survey, more than 60 percent of parents of school-age kids think unvaccinated students and staff should have to wear masks. There is no clever plan here — just politicians so desperate to cater to the pathologies of their base that they chase one another to adopt the most politically toxic and socially hazardous position available. Donald Trump’s heirs have tested the political marketplace and arrived at a morbid conclusion: His supporters would rather die than admit they were wrong.

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A New Variant of COVID Denialism Has Emerged