Nope. Instead, the most visible edge of Republican political rhetoric — and the galaxy of media and voices that undergird it — has instead become a battle to see who can be the most feverish. The tug-of-war between the staid establishment and the angry fringe began to shift to the latter during the tea party era before Donald Trump arrived and gave the rope an impressive tug. Trump’s contribution to the political conversation was centrally that there were political rewards to be earned from stoking the fury of the base, and that is a lesson that everyone from Ohio Senate candidates to Fox News contributors internalized. Right-wing politics and media often just devolve into a who’s-madder contest, with the maddest person getting the treasure chest of attention/votes/viewership that got everyone worked up in the first place.
So we arrive at the latest bout, President Biden’s announcement that he would use executive authority to mandate that businesses with at least 100 employees have their employees vaccinated against the coronavirus or implement a weekly testing regimen. As Biden pointedly noted, “some of the biggest companies are already requiring this: United Airlines, Disney, Tyson Foods — and even Fox News.” In short order, “even Fox News” was trending on Twitter.
The Fox News hosts subject to their employer’s mandate might need to be tested anew, however, given the signs of fever they demonstrated in response to Biden’s order. Host Jesse Watters, filling in for Tucker Carlson, stated that Biden was “threatening the unvaccinated more than he’s threatening the Taliban,” while the on-screen text announced that Biden had “declare[d] war on millions of Americans.” Sean Hannity denounced Biden’s “vilification of nearly half of America” to his viewers.
Those comments, though, were battling to be heard in the cacophony of similar complaints, from Senate candidate J.D. Vance calling for “mass civil disobedience” to the rhetorical question to Biden from Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.): “Are you people trying to start a full on revolt?” As “even Fox News” was trending, so was “dictator.”
Biden’s announcement was, in fact, exceptional. There is certainly a debate to be had over how best to tamp down new coronavirus infections, given the availability of unused vaccines. But this is a debate we’ve been having for months, and thousands of people are dying of covid-19 every week. The pandemic continues to hurt the economy and, by extension, as Biden is no doubt aware, the president’s political position.
The vaccinated are frustrated at the obstinate unvaccinated, a group that often is motivated by the sincere and understandable belief that people should not be forced to undergo a medical treatment — but which has also been exposed to months of rhetoric seeking to undermine Biden by equating opposition to vaccines with all-American, Founding-Fathers-approved individual freedom.
What’s lost in the hyperactive shouting match currently underway is that the rule instantiated by Biden doesn’t actually force people to be vaccinated and will affect a far smaller percentage of the population than news reports have indicated. Again, what was established is a burdensome either-or situation, but there is an “or”: Get tested weekly. It also applies only to those who work for businesses with 100 or more employees — and, of course, is no burden at all for those who have been vaccinated.
Which is most American adults. More than three-quarters of adults have received at least one dose of a vaccine, according to the most recent federal numbers. Nearly two-thirds are fully vaccinated. Biden reduced the obstacles to vaccination by ensuring that workers could have time off to get a shot and, if needed, deal with the short-term side effects. Even most Republicans have already gotten vaccinated, according to July data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, although most also said in Washington Post-ABC News polling that doing so is a personal choice and not a collective societal responsibility.
This, at its heart, is the tension. About a fifth of Republicans say they refuse to get vaccinated and reject efforts to cajole them to do so. A substantial portion of that group clearly overlaps with the segment of the party that is most vocal and most energetic about displaying its views, meaning that their voices constitute an outsize portion of the conversation and prompt a disproportionate amount of attention from right-wing media and politicians.
It is also true that pressuring those who aren’t vaccinated to get a shot means disproportionately pressuring Republicans. The Kaiser Family Foundation polling from July found that Republicans make up most of the pool of the unvaccinated — and an even larger percentage of those who refuse to get vaccinated out-of-hand (as opposed to simply being wary of the vaccines).
This is the bind. For health, economic and political reasons (likely in that order), Biden wants more Americans to be vaccinated. Most of those who aren’t are Republicans, meaning that most of the arms his new order will twist are attached to members of the opposing party. This affords an opportunity to those who want to gin up fury against Biden and Democrats, one that they wasted no time in exploiting.
What makes the moment particularly painful for Biden is that, as president, he is forced to adopt the unpopular position that is quietly endorsed by individuals and groups who now get to stand demurely in his shadow. A lot of employers wanted some sort of mandate like this so they didn’t have to battle their employees; Biden’s announcement lets them redirect frustration at him instead of them. The same holds for Republican officials who understand the need to increase vaccinations: They can see Biden take the arrows as they stay quiet — or even rail against him for their own political utility.
During the Vietnam War, John Lennon and Yoko Ono launched a campaign of opposition to the conflict centered on the phrase “War is over! (If you want it.)” The idea, obviously, was that concentrated public opposition to the war could bring it to an end, which, in broad strokes, is what actually happened.
In the current moment, the mantra is flipped. War is starting, if you want it. If we accept the idea that the moment is building to an unresolvable tension of historic proportions, then we will have that tension. If everyone agrees that they want what the voices seeking cable-news viewers or improved poll numbers want, then we can bring about any conflict we seek. Or we can choose not to do that.
What we should not do, though, is assume that this feverish pattern will, by itself, break.