The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Right-wing anti-vaccine hysteria is increasing. We’ll all pay the price.

An anti-vaccination activist protests outside Madison Square Garden in New York. (Roy Rochlin/Getty Images)

The past few years have made clear that Republican officeholders live in constant fear of their party’s base. They fear its undying devotion to Donald Trump, its eagerness to purge apostates and its thirst for physical violence. So even more than their Democratic colleagues, they carefully monitor what their constituents are hearing and believing, to determine what right-wing parade they might need to join.

When it comes to vaccines against covid-19 — the one thing that can finally deliver us from the pandemic if we only push a little harder for a little longer and achieve true herd immunity — GOP lawmakers have until now taken a variety of positions.

The extremist nutballs — which the party elects with regularity — have been full-on anti-vaccine. Many others have said that people should get vaccinated but are quick to add that it’s a matter of personal choice. And some Republican governors have implored their citizens to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

But the always-complex dynamic between the elite and the masses may be shifting. As the Biden administration begins a new vaccine push, cynical provocateurs on the right see personal profit (political or economic) in promoting anti-vaccine hysteria. And the louder it gets, the more incentive the politicians will have to join in.

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This week, President Biden gave a speech underscoring his commitment to getting more Americans vaccinated. “We need to go to community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood, and oftentimes, door to door — literally knocking on doors — to get help to the remaining people,” he said.

This occasioned a full-scale freakout across conservative media, especially Fox News, with hosts railing against “vaccine pushers” assaulting you in your home. “People are up in arms about this,” said one host — or at least they will be, if we tell them to get up in arms about it.

The reaction from the party’s lunatic fringe was predictable — Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) decried the coming of “medical brown shirts,” while Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) warned that “Biden has deployed his Needle Nazis” to her district.

But on Fox, anti-vaccine hysteria has reached a fever pitch:

  • Charlie Kirk of the right-wing youth group Turning Point USA — whose co-founder died of coronavirus-related complications last year — went on Tucker Carlson’s show to promote the group’s campaign against colleges that will require students to be vaccinated to return to campus in the fall. “It’s almost this apartheid-style open-air hostage situation, like oh you can have your freedom back if you get the jab,” he said. “That’s exactly right,” Carlson responded. Carlson had earlier called vaccine requirements “medical Jim Crow.”
  • In addition to its anti-vax hosts, the network also hosts one guest after another to rail against the vaccines. “No one under age 30 should receive any one of these vaccines,” an anti-covid-vaccine doctor told Laura Ingraham on Wednesday evening’s program.
  • In another segment on the same episode called “Power Grabs and Needle Jabs,” Ingraham said, “Despite everything the experts either got wrong or lied about, they still think that parents should trust them and inject their kids with an experimental drug to prevent a disease almost none of those kids will ever get sick from.”

And of course, Carlson — the most popular cable news host in the country — has been on an anti-vaccine holy war for months.

Think about the position that puts Republican politicians in. There probably isn’t a GOP officeholder in the United States who doesn’t keep tabs on Fox to see what their constituents are hearing, and now they know those constituents are being told over and over that vaccines are dangerous, if not deadly, and a dire threat to freedom. Worst of all, getting vaccinated means doing what Biden wants you to do.

That will give every Republican official an incentive to toy with vaccine conspiracy theories, or at the very least perform some faux-outrage about how oppressed you are if your government pleads with you to voluntarily get a lifesaving vaccine and makes getting it as easy as possible.

The result will be a further cycle of politicization, and a hardening of attitudes among those Republicans who haven’t yet been vaccinated.

Part of what’s so frustrating is that there is one person who could have averted this rolling disaster — and still could — but he won’t do it. That person is, of course, Donald Trump.

And he would even have been able to do it in a way that satisfied his boundless need for adulation. Amidst his catastrophic mishandling of the pandemic, one thing for which he deserves credit is that he essentially opened up a firehose of money to drug companies to develop vaccines.

So he could easily say, “I gave you these incredible vaccines. Me, all me. Call them the Trump Vaccines. Everybody get your Trump Vaccine, because I solved the pandemic.” Had he done that, his devoted followers would have stampeded to vaccination centers. But he didn’t.

Instead, he occasionally and grudgingly says something positive about vaccination, but refuses to put his considerable weight behind it. Instead of leading his followers, Trump is following them.

So is the rest of the Republican Party elite — except for those who are actively promoting anti-vaccine derangement. All of which means that the day we’re finally free of the pandemic recedes further and further into the future, while people are still dying.