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Opinion Why we shouldn’t be surprised that many Republicans are refusing the vaccine

Nurse practitioner Tabe Mase gives Joe Biden his first dose of the coronavirus vaccine in December 2020. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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Is Fox News going to get its viewers killed?

Fox surely isn’t doing that deliberately — after all, if all those White retirees weren’t around to tune in, who’d watch ads for My Pillow? But Fox, from its location at the center of the conservative media universe, is playing a vital role in promoting fear about coronavirus vaccines, and they’re getting lots of help.

While many of the preoccupations of the conservative culture war are just ridiculous — nobody is going to be hurt by the 500th segment about Dr. Seuss and “cancel culture” — this one could have real life-or-death consequences.

After spending a year telling its viewers that the pandemic was overblown and simple public health measures were a dire threat to their freedom, the network shifted to attacking the vaccines once President Biden took office. They regularly air anti-vaxxers claiming the vaccines are worthless or worse, and one host after another questions whether people should be taking them, despite the evidence that they’re extraordinarily effective.

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No one has led this charge more than the network’s biggest star, Tucker Carlson, who has attacked the vaccines again and again, usually by claiming that there are vital questions about safety and efficacy that not only haven’t been asked but that you are not allowed to ask, when the information he claims is being hidden is in fact widely available.

The context of recent events and the psychological makeup of the people targeted by this misinformation make it particularly dangerous. While there is a long tradition of conspiracy theorizing on the right (and on the left, too, but more so on the right), the Trump years turbocharged it, culminating with the rise of QAnon, the election conspiracy theories and the Jan. 6 insurrection. When you tell conservatives that a secretive cabal of elites is lying to them, they don’t need much persuading.

Almost everything else about this situation pushes conservatives in the direction of vaccine refusal. For years, they’ve been told by their leaders to distrust both the government and scientists, who supposedly want to foist abhorrent ideas such as evolution on them. Then they were told for a year that the pandemic was no big deal.

Now they see liberals scolding them for not wanting to receive a vaccine. A Democratic president is begging them to do it. They’re being asked to do something not only to protect themselves but to help others in a communal effort, something to which they have an ideological aversion; if you see wearing a mask at the grocery store as a horrifying imposition on your “freedom,” you won’t like being told to get a shot or two so we can reach herd immunity more quickly.

Many of the Republican leaders they look to, furthermore, are either silent or reinforce their fears and doubts about the vaccines. Former president Donald Trump, who could do more than any Republican allay those doubts, was secretly vaccinated in January. Later, Trump did say, “Everyone should go get your shot,” but other than that he has been quiet. Others spread ill-informed ideas about immunity or proudly say they don’t want it (though a few Republicans have encouraged vaccination).

Combine all these factors and you have the situation we now see. Poll after poll shows significant numbers of Republicans saying they won’t ever get vaccinated: 36 percent in a Monmouth University poll, 28 percent in a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 33 percent in a CBS News poll, 41 percent in an NPR/Marist poll.

There’s one more piece of the puzzle we can’t ignore: The sooner the pandemic is over, the more it will help Biden politically.

I suppose one can understand how conservatives would be a bit resentful at the political implications of all this. The vaccine push started under Trump, and despite his catastrophic mishandling of the pandemic, he did one thing right by throwing billions of dollars at pharmaceutical companies to accelerate vaccine development. Then Biden comes into office and winds up with most of the credit.

We could argue about how much credit Biden has earned — his administration is certainly handling vaccine distribution with more competence, and the gross political manipulation of scientific agencies has ceased — but that’s just the nature of presidential politics. The person in the Oval Office gets credit when things go right and blame when they go wrong.

So it’s not that Republican politicians or Fox News hosts would say, “I hope this pandemic lasts longer and more Americans die so it will hurt Biden, and that’s why I’m discouraging people from getting vaccinated.” But nor can they pretend the idea never occurred to them.

And for media outlets whose business model is built on conflict and dark conspiracies, “You should get vaccinated; it’ll be great when this is over” just isn’t the kind of hot message they’re looking for.

For now, many more people want the vaccines than there are doses available. But at some point that will no longer be true, and we’ll have to convince those who are resistant. There are people who are hesitant now who could be convinced otherwise; not every conservative is simply imbibing misinformation and making their mind up for good. And resistance might fade with time.

But a huge challenge looms in front of us. And large numbers of influential people are doing everything they can to make it harder.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Biden is right. America doesn’t need Trump’s advice on vaccines.

Jessica Cohen and Joseph G. Allen: How to make sure people still get tested, even as the risk of covid-19 falls

Richard Glover: Australia is a covid-19 success story. Here are 10 reasons why.

The Post’s View: What we learned from a dreadful pandemic year

Helaine Olen: Joe Biden’s covid-19 relief bill is an extraordinary achievement