What used to be the conservative movement in this country is becoming a death cult. The measure of its power is less in ballots cast than in how many people die needlessly in service of this twisted worldview.

This reality was on view over the weekend in Dallas at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where attendees cheered when Alex Berenson, who has made himself a Fox News folk hero for spreading misinformation about covid-19 vaccines, crowed about the fact that fewer Americans were getting their shots than public health officials had hoped.

“It’s horrifying,” Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday. “I mean, they are cheering about someone saying that it’s a good thing for people not to try and save their lives. … Everybody starts screaming and clapping. I just don’t get that. I mean, and I don’t think that anybody who is thinking clearly can get that. What is that all about?”

I’ll tell you, even if the good doctor won’t. The cheers are all about “owning” Fauci, President Biden, liberals in general, scientists in particular, mask-wearers, fancy-pants “elites” and everyone else urging people to get vaccinated. The inevitable result will be that we end up mourning people who didn’t need to die. And the worst-case possibility is that covid-19 roars back — along with the restrictions and isolations Americans thought we’d left behind.

Here’s the situation: Forty-two states saw an increase in covid-19 cases over the past two weeks, as the more-transmissible delta variant becomes the dominant strain of the virus in this country. Hospitalizations are rising as well. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that 99.5 percent of people who died of covid-19 in recent months were unvaccinated. There is a more-than-ample supply of vaccine doses, yet vaccination rates are falling. And just 48 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated — more than has been achieved by most other countries, but not enough to quash the pandemic once and for all.

There should be nothing political about this deadly disease, which has claimed more than 600,000 lives in the United States and caused death and disruption around the globe. Yet for demagogues such as Berenson who seek power or profit — or both — everything is political.

Fox News has openly encouraged skepticism about vaccination — even though the network’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, received his first vaccine dose way back in December. Prime-time hosts Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham have been relentless in encouraging viewers to distrust the vaccines, and both had conniption fits about a Biden administration idea to have health workers and volunteers go door-to-door to encourage people to get vaccinated.

“This is creepy stuff,” said Ingraham, as if we were talking about storm troopers knocking down doors instead of nurses providing a basic service. Biden is trying to “force people to take medicine they don’t want or need,” said Carlson, who refuses to disclose whether he has done the sensible thing and been vaccinated himself.

Under many circumstances, those who choose to gamble with their lives have the right to do so. But refusing to get vaccinated isn’t like skydiving or shooting heroin: It’s a threat to the rest of us as well.

As should be evident by now, the coronavirus respects neither geographical borders nor political affiliation. If infection rates are rising in red states, they will impact blue states, too.

More ominously, the greater the number of unvaccinated potential targets for the virus, the more opportunity covid-19 will have to produce new variant strains. We are fortunate that the Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are effective against all the variants seen to date — though they may be slightly less effective against the delta variant than against the others. Fauci, Walensky and other experts live in fear that a new strain may emerge that evades the vaccines entirely, putting all of us once again in jeopardy.

“I’m perplexed by the reluctance of some to get vaccinated, totally perplexed,” the most powerful Republican in Washington, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), said last week in a grotesque display of faux concern. The hesitancy, and the misinformation that drives it, is coming from inside the house — and the House.

McConnell and other GOP leaders need to forcefully explain to their constituents that, by refusing to get vaccinated, they’re owning no one except themselves. The measure of devotion to a belief might be how much a worshiper is willing to sacrifice to it, but offering up one’s loved ones, one’s livelihood and even one’s own health to a god this stupid is deranged.

Pick any other issue as a culture war battleground. The only clash covid-19 cares about is the one fought between microbes and human cells.

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