The right-wing backlash against the coronavirus vaccines has forced Republican politicians to make an agonizing choice. On the one hand, public health and public opinion both militate strongly in favor of vaccination. On the other hand, a vocal segment of their own base demands resistance.
Most have tried to navigate the fine line between these competing pressures by formally endorsing the vaccine as a personal choice while loudly standing up for the rights of vaccine refusers. Ron DeSantis, the party’s leading choice to lead it should Donald Trump decide not to run, exemplifies the careful balance. On Monday, DeSantis announced tough new measures to punish any city or county in Florida that requires its public employees to receive a vaccine, with a $5,000 fine per infraction.
At his press conference, DeSantis stood beside a man who claimed the vaccine “changes your RNA,” a completely false anti-vaxx talking point. You could tell DeSantis knew this immediately. As soon as the line was uttered, he looked down at the ground, then nervously thrust his left hand into his pocket. His careful work to frame the issue entirely as a matter of rights was suddenly going up in flames:
After this uncomfortable moment, DeSantis still had a choice. He had a turn to speak afterward, and could have explicitly denounced the dangerous, paranoid nonsense that had just been circulated with his imprimatur. But to do so would have been to alienate a crucial constituency. The DeSantis game is to bring along anti-vaxxers without explicitly attaching himself to their most toxic beliefs. They could babble about RNA and Bill Gates all they wished offstage; onstage, the message would be relentlessly focused on the abstract issue of people’s rights.
The forces that brought DeSantis and his party to this pitiable position were roughly twofold. First, the Republican Party has developed a growing skepticism of scientific authority over time. Fifty years ago, Republicans actually trusted scientists more than Democrats did, but the conservative movement’s attacks on science (especially the varieties of science that implied the need for regulation of pollution or consumer goods) hardened into an institutionalized skepticism; the first COVID skeptics out of the gate were disproportionately drawn from climate-science skeptics.
Second, Trump’s panicked response to the coronavirus was to deny it altogether. Once Trump decided the pandemic was a hoax designed to sabotage his reelection, his followers embraced that view, from which it naturally followed that every measure putatively aimed at containing the “pandemic” was described as unnecessary or harmful.
Republican Party elites found anti-vaxx sentiment embarrassing and unhelpful. Most of them have endorsed the vaccine as a choice, with varying levels of enthusiasm. Yet they have found themselves stuck with an anti-vaxx core too large to risk alienating. This has set off the same kind of finely parsed calculation that they employed to respond to various Trumpian outrages.
Their answer has always been to find a way to avoid defending the indefensible and instead change the question to the excesses of the other side. Was Trump’s recorded confession of sexual assault morally acceptable? Who knows? But they did know that Hillary Clinton’s socialist schemes weren’t. Was it okay for Trump to strong-arm a foreign government into ginning up a scandal against his opponent? That didn’t matter — the real issue was the unfairness of the impeachment proceedings, held in a basement, and so forth.
DeSantis had perfected the art of anti-anti-anti-vaxx politics. He had given the jab his official endorsement, yet day after day he sent signals that he would defend the rights of anti-vaxxers. If necessary, DeSantis would trample traditional conservative principles to do so. Conservative Republicans normally respect freedom of contract, but DeSantis used his power to prohibit cruise lines from requiring their passengers be vaccinated. Conservative Republicans also don’t generally treat government employment as a sacrosanct right, but here he was insisting, “We are gonna stand for the men and women who are serving us. We are gonna protect Florida jobs.” Nor do they generally approve of state authority overriding local control of schools, unless that authority is being used to prohibit mask requirements.
The gambit works in theory, as long as everybody can stay on message. The problem with the theory is that hardly anybody actually cares about the abstract principles that DeSantis is claiming to defend. The idea that bodily autonomy trumps personal responsibility, property rights, and local control is a hierarchy of values invented for this circumstance. (“My body, my choice” is not a notable Republican slogan.) The real point is to signal political solidarity with anti-vaxxers, to show that he believes their views are deserving of respect.
The trouble is that his message that anti-vaxxers have a legitimate point of view has the effect of legitimizing their message. What’s more, getting the anti-vaxxers to stick to the approved talking points is tricky, given the notorious difficulty kooks have with message discipline. Putting a kook in front of a microphone and asking him not to share with the world the evidence of the dubious conspiracy he’s uncovered is to demand an unrealistic level of impulse control.
Once a political party’s percentage of kooks has risen above a certain threshold, it’s no longer practical to kick them out. They must instead be placated. It is a constant process of papering over distinctions to avoid an internal schism that would enrage the kooks. The Republican Party didn’t set out to position itself with vaccine skeptics. But they have found themselves, once again, standing shoulder to shoulder with the absurd, looking down at their feet and pretending it isn’t happening.