The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A vile new Trump-GOP claim about vaccines suggests trouble ahead

(Evan Vucci/AP)

It was only a matter of time until Donald Trump converted the debate over covid-19 vaccines into an occasion for his supporters to show their loyalty to him — and even worse, to the “big lie” that his 2020 loss was illegitimate.

“People are refusing to take the Vaccine because they don’t trust his Administration,” the former president said in a statement Sunday, referring to President Biden. “They don’t trust the Election results, and they certainly don’t trust the Fake News.”

There you have it: Trump is telling his supporters that they are correct not to trust the federal government on vaccines, because this sentiment should flow naturally from their suspicion that the election was stolen from him. Expressing the former has been magically transformed into a way to show fealty to the latter.

This suggests the anti-vaccine mania on the right may only get worse, at exactly the moment that we need it to get better. This vile new Trump claim hints at how this is likely to happen, with the complicity of even relatively responsible Republicans.

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We’re seeing a new surge in coronavirus cases due to the delta variant and the lag in vaccinations, with new cases overwhelmingly concentrated among the unvaccinated. Both trends — surging cases and lagging vaccinations — are unfolding primarily in red states.

It’s bad enough that Trump has now recast the question of whether to trust the federal government on vaccines as a proxy for whether the election was stolen from him. What makes this worse is that other Republicans are playing a version of this game.

Consider Sen. Bill Cassidy’s appearance on “Fox News Sunday.” Asked about his state’s woeful vaccination rate, the Louisiana Republican declared that Americans “don’t trust government” on vaccines because of the “partisan comments coming out of the White House regarding the next Jim Crow laws.”

“He’s depicting himself as an uber partisan,” Cassidy continued of Biden, as if this is supposed to explain red-state distrust of the administration on vaccines.

This has attracted plenty of ridicule, but the truly pernicious nature of it has gone under-appreciated. Cassidy, to be clear, is urging people to get vaccinated, which is good. But he is not telling red-state Americans that they should trust the federal government when it comes to vaccines, i.e., that they have eminently reasonable grounds to trust it.

Instead, Cassidy recasts this distrust of the feds on the vaccine as a way to register anger at Democrats for calling out GOP efforts to restrict voting that are targeted at African Americans. That’s a version of Trump’s game, minus the explicit endorsement of the “big lie.”

There is also a vaguely extortive quality to this: If you want us to help you vaccinate our own populations, you’d better stop calling out our voter suppression efforts for what they are.

Republican and right-wing efforts to encourage vaccine “skepticism” among GOP voters are unfolding on a spectrum. At the extreme end, GOP members of Congress rail at “needle Nazis” and suggest federal vaccine outreach is a slippery slope to confiscation of guns and Bibles.

Meanwhile, as Eric Boehlert notes, Fox News is spreading so much vaccine disinformation that it’s hard to see this as anything but deliberate sabotage of our covid response. And Matt Gertz details a whole constellation of other right-wing media outlets doing the same.

Yet top Republicans are doing little to discourage all this. As the New York Times puts it, these efforts have “elevated falsehoods and doubts about vaccinations” with “very little resistance from party leaders.”

As my Post colleague James Downie puts it, this passivity from GOP leaders leads inevitably to the conclusion that at best, “they see this toll as acceptable.”

It’s in this context that we should understand the ugly new line from Trump and Cassidy. Cassidy is saying, in effect: Trusting the feds on vaccines is tantamount to endorsing Democrats’ claims that GOP voting restrictions are racist.

Trump is making this worse: Trusting the feds on vaccines is tantamount to endorsing the idea that I legitimately lost the election. How long until aspiring GOP primary candidates start running with their own versions of this nonsense?

This linkage is telling in another sense. Again and again, Republicans could have taken what Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg calls “off ramps” from ongoing GOP radicalization.

Republicans fed Trump’s lie about the outcome for many weeks after the election. They responded to their 2020 losses with an unprecedented wave of voter suppression and anti-majoritarian tactics. They’ve drifted away from condemning Trump’s role in the insurrection and are now actively downplaying the violence itself and even rewriting its history. They’ve refused to support a serious Jan. 6 accounting.

Now they’re either largely tolerating or actively encouraging deepening vaccine derangement among their own voters. Given that Trump has now entangled this with the GOP’s turn away from democracy, how many Republicans do you think will step up to condemn it?