Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images
the national interest

The Republican Party’s Anti-Vaxx Wing Is Too Big to Fail

Too late to purge the kooks.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

When an ideological extreme faction with unpopular views emerges, it becomes a threat to the party that hosts it. At first, the party’s incentive is to banish the extremists, lest their toxic ideas taint the party’s brand with the broader electorate. But if the radical faction’s growth is not arrested, the calculus changes, and barring the doors can no longer work. It forms a large enough part of the base that the party can’t afford to alienate its members. The crank wing becomes too big to fail.

I believe the anti-vaccine movement is reaching that point in the Republican Party. The movement’s position is akin to the tea party in 2009, or the birther movement a few years later — perhaps (this is a rough estimate) smaller than the former but larger than the latter. The cause has too many adherents, who supply too much energy, for the party to risk alienating.

American opinion on vaccines has begun to separate itself from the rest of the democratic world. Twenty percent of Americans say they are unwilling to take a COVID vaccine, a rate matched globally only by Russia. Among fellow democracies, the next-highest rate of vaccine refusal is 7 percent, or one-third as high. That 20 percent is not uniformly Republican, but partisanship accounts for an increasing share of vaccine refusal. That fifth of the population is not close to a majority, but it is large enough to hold a respected place in one of the two parties.

One indication of the anti-vaxx movement’s rise is through the explosive growth of anti-vaccination media personalities like Joe Rogan and Alex Berenson, who have forced established conservative pundits to co-opt their appeal. The Fox News prime-time lineup is creeping farther and farther right on vaccines. Sean Hannity recently declared, “Now that we know that whether you’re vaccinated or boosted and had natural immunity you’re still going to get it, why is he still calling it a ‘pandemic of the vaccinated’?” Laura Ingraham claimed “vaccines aren’t stopping the spread from people from getting sick, so when can we end this ‘mandates work’ charade?”

Tucker Carlson, going farther still, gave Berenson a platform to allege, without challenge, “The mRNA COVID vaccines need to be withdrawn from the market … They are a dangerous and ineffective product at this point.”

Politicians have responded to this upsurge in anti-vaccine activism somewhat more cautiously. Senator Ron Johnson has held hearings that have cast doubt on vaccines (or, as the Federalist described them in a fawning story, “so-called vaccines.”) Republicans in three states are moving to end school mandates for other, non-COVID vaccines that have been in place for decades.

Florida governor Ron DeSantis has held rallies with anti-vaxxers, appointed an anti-vaxxer as his state’s top health official, and recently suspended a county health official for the crime of scolding his staff on email for having a vaccination rate under 50 percent, a truly harrowing figure for a health agency.

This week, DeSantis opened a new offense by attacking the FDA for withdrawing approval for two monoclonal antibody treatments that worked against earlier versions of COVID, but were ineffective against the Omicron variant. Studies showing the ineffectiveness of these treatments can be found here, here, and here. The decision is supported by the American Medical Association and even the companies that manufacture those treatments.

But the decision offends vaccine skeptics. Having decided prevention is unnecessary, they have seized on treatments as a magic bullet against the pandemic. DeSantis in particular has promoted treatments as an alternative to vaccination. Their demonstrated ineffectiveness against the new variant undermines his stance, and so he went on the attack against the FDA.

DeSantis asserted, falsely, the agency lacks “a shred of evidence” for its decision. His staff fanned out to spread unhinged tweets charging Biden with “canceling *proven* life-saving treatment for the sick and elderly so Fauci-Pfizer can get a few extra points in the stock market” and accusing the FDA of trying to kill Republicans.

Public-health officials have certainly made plenty of mistakes during the pandemic. But you don’t need to have a “Thank You, Dr. Fauci” sign in your yard to understand that the skepticism they are displaying toward public-health officials lies well beyond the scope of reason.

The most telling gauge of the anti-vaxx movement’s progress is the waning resistance from the party mainstream. Republicans have tried to channel anti-vaccine activism into narrower resistance to government mandates of the vaccine. This has the advantage of appealing to a broader share of the public (depending on the exact framing, between one-third and one-half of Americans oppose mandates, much larger than the one-fifth that opposes vaccines themselves.) It also comfortably locates the issue within the traditional bounds of individual liberty and restricted government power, without requiring any uncomfortable defense of pseudoscientific gibberish.

In my newsletter last week, I wrote about how conservatives were using this tactic to wish out of existence DeSantis’s embrace of the anti-vaccination movement:

If you ask DeSantis’s pro-vaccine supporters about his position, they’ll call DeSantis “a vocal proponent of the COVID vaccines” (which was true, but no longer is) or frame his position as merely opposing government mandates while noting that Florida’s vaccine uptake is high (a fact derived from highly flawed data that seems to count out-of-state tourists). National Review editor Rich Lowry, in a column touting DeSantis as the party’s future, gushes that “he has emerged as the party’s exemplar on the pandemic, with his strenuous opposition to lockdowns and mandates.” Can’t use the V-word, even though it’s a central element of his strategy.

As if on cue, National Review writer Dan McLaughlin wrote a column a few days later following the pattern I described step by step:

Trump went after unnamed “gutless” politicians who refused to disclose their vaccine status in interviews. This was broadly taken as an attack on DeSantis, who publicly disclosed getting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine last April, as part of his vigorous advocacy of the vaccine in Florida, but who has refused to say whether he has received a booster. The latter reticence is part of a broader pattern of DeSantis’s siding with the rights of the unvaccinated to resist various mandates. It has been a careful high-wire act on the part of DeSantis to keep Florida highly vaccinated — its vaccination rates remain the best of any state in its region — while also winning the favor of unvaccinated voters who appreciate his staunch opposition to mandates.

Insisting DeSantis is pro-vaccine because he endorsed it last year? Check. Pretending his opposition to vaccines is limited to mandates, while ignoring his open embrace of anti-vaccine nuts? Check. Leaning heavily on the bad data about Florida’s supposedly high vaccination rate? Check.

If the goal is to elect a Republican at any cost, it may work. The flaw is that it surrenders any leverage the party elite has against the anti-vaxxers. Their only tool is increasingly comic levels of denial, like western communists in the 1930s who didn’t want to hear about purges or prison camps in their socialist paradise.

Conservatives have a founding myth centered on William F. Buckley supposedly purging the John Birch society from the movement. (In fact his main goal was to keep the Birchers in the tent while nudging aside the group’s embarrassing president.) As the conservative movement gained full control over the Republican Party, the party lost whatever ability it had to sift crackpots from its ranks.

It may be true that DeSantis’s only chance to seize the nomination from Trump and his cadre of election truthers is to build his power base among anti-vaccine activists. What this tells us is that the choice before the party is not whether to hand over power to kooks, but which kooks should rule.

The Republican Party’s Anti-Vaxx Wing Is Too Big to Fail