One of the changes Donald Trump wrought on the Republican Party was to make vaccine skeptics an important constituency. Fox News personalities fuel vaccine skepticism on a near-nightly basis, while Republican politicians treat anti-vaxxers like an oppressed minority requiring special protections. Several Republican governors are discarding their normal stinginess with unemployment benefits to extend coverage to workers who quit rather than get vaccinated, reports Axios, in order “to build loyalty with unvaccinated Americans while undermining Biden administration mandates.”
The tricky part of this change is that vaccine skeptics are a minority of the public, and the party has to cater to them without exposing itself to a backlash from the pro-vaccine majority.
You can see elements of this tension running through the rhetoric of the mainstream conservative movement, which studiously ignores the right’s alliance with anti-vaxxers while blaming the Biden administration for the result. A new Wall Street Journal editorial provides a laboratory-perfect sample of the party line.
“Covid deaths this year have now surpassed the toll in 2020 with 350,000 since Inauguration Day,” report the editors. “It would seem that Mr. Biden has done no better than Donald Trump in defeating Covid despite the benefit of vaccines, better therapies, and more clinical experience.” It would seem that way if you ignore the fact that the pandemic did not kill any Americans until the third month of 2020, whereas it had already permeated the entire country by the beginning of 2021.
The Journal’s version of the story imagines Trump as a heroic champion of mass vaccination that was undermined by Joe Biden’s incompetence: “Because of the Trump Administration’s preparation, the U.S. led most of the world in vaccinations this spring. Yet Mr. Biden had no plan to deal with the large numbers of vaccine holdouts, other than to deride them.”
Biden did in fact have a plan to deal with vaccine holdouts. It involved persuasion (such as publicly getting the vaccine himself, something Trump refused to do), cash payments, and then the eventual imposition of mandates. Republicans have undermined all these steps — not just the mandates but also refusing Biden’s plan to pay $100 to get the jab. Even such modest measures as Sesame Street characters encouraging children to get vaccinated have drawn complaints from the likes of Ted Cruz.
The Journal implicitly concedes that, yes, conservatives may be reluctant to take the vaccine, but so are Democrats. And anyway, it’s Biden’s fault:
Mr. Biden blamed GOP governors and unvaccinated conservatives. Yet blacks and young people have also shown reluctance to get vaccinated, and they don’t tend to be Republican. See Nicki Minaj and Kyrie Irving. Meantime, Mr. Biden’s vaccine mandates have further polarized the country.
It is true that not everybody who has questioned the vaccine is a Republican. But almost every politician who questions the vaccine is. It is also true that Republicans are dramatically less likely than Democrats to get a shot:
It is especially daft to insist that the coronavirus-vaccine mandate has polarized the country when vaccine mandates have been standard for generations. What has made this vaccine mandate polarizing is the fact that Republicans decided to polarize it.
Despite devoting an editorial to lamenting Biden’s alleged failure to have a plan to handle the pandemic, the Journal doesn’t even gesture in the direction of what said plan should look like. This is surely because any elements of such a plan would inevitably alienate Republican constituencies.
The United States is blessed with a large native pharmaceutical industry that provides first-rate access to vaccine innovation and production. But the country is cursed with a uniquely pathological major right-of-center political party that controls the largest news network, which enables vaccine-skeptical messaging on a mass scale.
The solution to this problem is obvious: Sane, pro-vaccine Republicans could take on anti-vaxxers and make their poisonous beliefs unwelcome in the party. But whatever faint courage the Republican mainstream might have had after decades of accepting and celebrating the likes of McCarthy, Buchanan, Limbaugh, and Palin was killed off for good by Trump. Now the only course of action these Republicans can even imagine is to pretend their anti-vaxx wing doesn’t exist while laying the consequences of their allies’ actions at Biden’s feet.