When Chris Wallace grilled the Republican governor of Nebraska over his opposition to vaccine mandates on Sunday, the Fox News anchor did a fine job of exposing the incoherence of one GOP lawmaker’s positioning on the issue.

But this moment is bigger than that. Wallace also helped expose a larger scam that Republicans have been running in the vaccine debate for some time now. Indeed, they’ve employed a similar scam on electoral outcomes, too. So all this should be understood as a larger mode of political conduct that deserves broad scrutiny in its own right as a big story about this moment.

Call it a reverse confidence game. In it, the swindler convinces his marks that they must not have confidence in the matter at issue (the federal vaccine program, electoral outcomes). He simultaneously treats that lack of confidence as an inevitable fact of life and as justification for the political project that follows (opposing vaccine mandates, unleashing voter suppression).

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts’s exchange with Wallace illustrates this two-step. Discussing President Biden’s new vaccine mandate proposals, Wallace noted that many other vaccines are already mandated, then asked what’s different about coronavirus vaccine mandates.

Ricketts claimed that with those other vaccines, “a long history” built up trust among parents. By contrast, in the case of the coronavirus, parents “don’t know who to trust,” because federal health officials have supposedly “flip flopped” on vaccines and masks:

Catch the sleight of hand there? Ricketts treats it as a natural fact of life that people lack confidence in federal officials overseeing national vaccination efforts, then uses that as justification for opposing vaccine mandates. But Ricketts himself essentially endorses the idea that people have good reason to lack confidence in the feds on vaccines.

After Ricketts insisted the only way to rebuild trust is to refrain from vaccine mandates, Wallace noted that the covid vaccine now has full federal approval and that polio vaccines were mandated at the outset.

But the critical point here is that Republicans such as Ricketts are themselves actively undermining people’s trust in vaccines, while piously citing that mistrust as the basis for opposing mandates.

Importantly, Republicans have played this game for months. Though a good number have urged vaccines, in some cases they simultaneously try to tacitly discourage confidence about them out of the other side of their mouths.

Lawmakers and health officials on Sept. 12 responded to President Biden’s sweeping new vaccine mandates to contain the coronavirus pandemic. (The Washington Post)

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), for instance, has opposed vaccine mandates on the grounds that Biden’s now-notorious comments about “door to door” vaccine outreach were understandably “alarming” to people, meaning mandates will alarm them only further. Hawley doesn’t tell his supporters that this “alarm” about Biden’s comments is utterly baseless. He validates it.

Similarly, Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) has declared that “every time” Biden officials speak about covid-19, “10,000 more people say I’m never going to take the vaccine.” Here again, Marshall validates distrust: If people don’t trust vaccines, that’s understandable, because the feds aren’t to be trusted!

Beyond this, of course, other Republicans and their media allies have gone to great lengths to undermine confidence in vaccines. We’ve seen ridiculous lies about administration “needle Nazis” and about vaccines as a slippery slope to Bible confiscation, as well as an aggressive campaign to spread vaccine disinformation by right-wing media personalities.

How often do Republican lawmakers call this sort of thing out, let alone tell their supporters they should disregard it?

None of this means the Biden administration is blameless for this distrust. Far from it: Many mistakes and inconsistencies marred public communication about the response; Biden did jump the gun in declaring covid defeated, likely undermining confidence; and the administration was too slow in leaning into the need for vaccine mandates.

Nonetheless, the point stands. Republicans could reasonably criticize the government’s mistakes but clarify that there are now grounds for confidence in the federal vaccine program. Instead, they regularly seek to exacerbate distrust themselves; validate the distrust that the deception from their own ranks has produced; and then magically convert this into justification for further opposition to all vaccine mandates.

We’ve seen the same on election outcomes. Many Republicans have employed the canard that voters “lack confidence” in the 2020 outcome, and in elections more generally, to justify escalated voter suppression everywhere.

Some have even used this to justify sham post-election “audits" and to justify efforts to subvert Biden’s electoral college votes in Congress. Of course, these things are themselves designed to further undermine that very “confidence” in our electoral system.

In the case of vaccines, all this is exacerbated by media coverage that mostly focuses on the failure of good-faith (if sometimes insufficiently pointed) efforts by Biden and Democrats to overcome all this distrust. The coverage neglects the active bad-faith efforts by Republicans and their media allies to harden that same distrust.

Does this mean Republicans are engaged in a fully organized, party-wide effort to sabotage our national covid response?

That may be the wrong question. The reality is a nuanced one: At best, Republicans are demonstrably seeking to undermine confidence in vaccines (and masks) in ways that lack any serious or discernible public interest rationale and go far beyond mere standard-issue GOP suspicion of government mandates, for plainly instrumental purposes.

This deserves scrutiny on its own, as a form of deceptive bad-faith conduct in public service that is itself a big contributor to our crises. It shouldn’t be merely accepted as a background condition of our politics that’s natural and inevitable, one whose consequences it is only upon Democrats to overcome.