Jason Watts, a local Republican official in Michigan, committed the cardinal sin: He dared to criticize Donald Trump. When he went to defend himself against the inevitable blowback at a meeting with the former president’s loyalists, very few were wearing masks.

Then Watts tested positive for the coronavirus.

In so many ways, this story captures our times. But not in a told-you-so kind of manner. Instead, it points to how difficult it may prove to move past the wounds that Trump has inflicted on this nation, and how the eager complicity of many Republicans continues to make them all the worse.

Watts recounted his travails to MLive and the Chicago Tribune, and the story is just starting to go national.

The trouble for Watts, a local GOP committee treasurer, started when he told the New York Times that he had never voted for Trump. Watts lamented the GOP’s lockstep loyalty to Trump, because “this undertone of hatred, this fealty at all costs, it’s going to damage us.”

The punishment was swift. As Watts recounts, he was summoned to a meeting with other Republicans who were considering ousting him, and he says there was no Zoom option. MLive picks up the story:

As he walked in wearing two cloth masks, he said he noted other people were not wearing masks.
“I felt like I was going into a den of virus,” he said of the setting.

Watts caught the coronavirus, and he’s now recuperating in a hospital. Here’s the lesson Watts took from the event:

“A mask shouldn’t have a political party,” Watts said. “A vaccine shouldn’t have a political party, but we’ve conjured these things to have these connotations. People are getting sick. And to put these connotations on these things does nobody any good.”

Watts believes he caught the coronavirus there, and a local health official says the event is on authorities’ radar. Another GOP official told the Chicago Tribune that at least four others present became infected, flatly declaring this is partly because most attendees “are not believers in the vaccine.”

Indeed, even if it turns out Watts didn’t catch the coronavirus at the meeting, his anger at Trump’s degradations captures something essential.

Watts’s diagnosis of a widespread “fealty” to Trump “at all costs,” and his belief that rebuffing masks and vaccines has become a tribal marker of that fealty, are dead on, and pinpoint factors that may continue poisoning our virus response. Indeed, a new Quinnipiac poll finds 45 percent of Republicans don’t plan to get vaccinated.

In his first public appearance since leaving office, former president Donald Trump further cemented his dominance over the Republican Party. (Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

Trump’s lingering poison

It’s hard to say how much of this represents Trump’s lingering poison. Though he ultimately got vaccinated, he spent a year casting the virus as largely an invention of hostile liberal elites, attacking government experts as enemies of virtuous Trump voters and lockdowns as efforts to crush their economic aspirations, and ridiculing mask-wearing as weakness.

To be sure, other factors contribute to the problem. Soaring cases in Michigan are partly due to the Democratic governor’s retreat and the administration’s refusal to surge vaccines to the state. Assuaging fears of vaccination in communities of color has preoccupied experts. And some fear the decision to pause use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine could be fueling more hesitancy.

But the continuing pull of the Trump vortex is clearly a major culprit. The Post’s Dan Diamond recently interviewed numerous GOP voters about their reluctance, and found that some “echo Trump’s repeated contention that the coronavirus threat is overblown and simply don’t trust the government’s involvement.”

As Diamond reported, experts fear continued reluctance “could complicate the push to reach herd immunity.” And an Associated Press analysis finds vaccination rates in red states are lagging behind those in blue states, though demand still outstrips supply, a good sign.

Still, Trump told Republican voters for a year that any belief in the coronavirus as a severe public health threat — one that called forth a need to rely on scientific expertise and engage in organized self-sacrifice — constituted an act of disloyalty that would lend aid and comfort to his enemies, and even to their enemies.

How many Republican elites have forcefully and unambiguously repudiated this message?

The devolution of Trump’s GOP

All this has revealed something interesting about the ideological strains animating the Trump-era GOP. The new voters Trump brought into the GOP coalition, it’s often said, are more “populist” and open to government action on behalf of the common good than more conventional small-government Republicans are.

And indeed, for months the attacks on public health measures and downplaying of the virus did display a “populist” impulse. The story was that liberal and Democratic elites, fully aware that lockdowns would not harm the cosmopolitan laptop class, were deliberately denying working-class heartlanders the opportunity to return to church, local social events and virtuous hands-on work.

But what’s surprising is how easily this “populism” melded with a much more conventional and ideologically rigid anti-statism, congealing in college-dorm-level notions of individual liberty and the mass shunning of collective action in response to a major public health crisis, contributing to extraordinarily terrible consequences.

As Will Wilkinson aptly puts it, this ideology has devolved to the point where “tens of millions of Republicans feel entitled to behave as if there were no pandemic,” something that has hardened into a “foundational principle.”

And for untold numbers of voters, it’s backslid to little more than a marker of tribal loyalty to the disgraced failure who did so much to make it all possible. We can only hope the damage will be limited going forward. But as Watts suggests in his lament, it’s hard to be optimistic.

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