Many high-profile Republicans have fought the pandemic by encouraging vaccinations. But few of them have been willing to take the next step: to combat the misinformation epidemic that plagues the very effort they support.
And they have done so in altogether familiar ways.
At an event Monday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) appeared with a man who promoted a conspiracy theory common among anti-vaxxers. “The vaccine changes your RNA,” claimed the man, an employee of a utility company. “So for me, that’s a problem.”
DeSantis stood right next to him, staring at him as he said this. But when pressed on why he, as an advocate for vaccination, didn’t weigh in, DeSantis claimed he didn’t hear the man’s statement.
“Honestly, I don’t even remember him saying that, so it’s not anything I’ve said,” DeSantis told Politico’s Marc Caputo. DeSantis didn’t submit to a follow-up question.
The response was similar to what Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in July. McConnell, who like DeSantis has encouraged vaccinations, said he was perplexed by the resistance to the shots. A reporter pushed back.
“Respectfully, though, it isn’t all that perplexing,” the reporter said. “There are Republicans who are casting doubt on the vaccine.” The reporter pointed to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who has engaged in what The Washington Post’s Fact Checker has labeled a “campaign of vaccine misinformation.”
“I’ve already answered the question about how I feel about this,” McConnell responded. “I can only speak for myself, and I just did a few minutes ago.”
The GOP’s ability to do more about such things is indisputable. Its political will is clearly another matter entirely.
And it’s not just turning a blind eye to what Johnson is up to. It’s ignoring the rampant and consistent vaccine misinformation on prime-time Fox News shows, including Tucker Carlson’s. Republican state legislators have repeatedly provided forums to fringe figures who promote not just criticism of vaccine mandates, but full-fledged anti-vaccine conspiracy theories — with no evident pushback from the broader party. Even medical doctors in the GOP caucus have declined to repudiate vaccine misinformation from the likes of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), while expressing much-stronger views on her suspension from Twitter over it. Claims that the vaccination effort is akin to Nazi-era policies also have been deemed unworthy of repudiation.
The question is why, and the answer seems rather evident, given all the history here.
Hot Air’s Allahpundit had some great thoughts on this — in a piece keying off Carlson promoting Nicki Minaj’s … well, prurient claim about vaccine side effects:
It’s the pandemic equivalent of GOP pols feeling obliged to humor Trump’s “rigged election” claims to some greater or lesser extent. Not one in a hundred Republican officials actually believes the election was stolen, I’d conservatively estimate. But the share of the base that believes it is even larger than the share that’s resisting vaccination. It’s a populist litmus test, one that an ambitious politician dare not fail lest he call into question his “one of us” cred. So just as all (well, most) GOP governors and members of Congress have to pay lip service to “irregularities” last November to reassure MAGA fans that their election suspicions warrant respect, Tucker and DeSantis have to show varying degrees of respect for the choice made by the unvaccinated to endanger themselves and those around them. They’re not anti-vax, but they’ll defend your honor against pro-vaxxers of various stripes.
The New York Times’s Jane Coaston made a similar point about ivermectin, the drug that has proved quite popular on right-ring media and among certain segments of the GOP base, despite precious little evidence of its actual effectiveness against the coronavirus.
“This deference to — or fear of — an audience can lead people to make inane arguments, in which they have little to no stake, that may hurt us all,” Coaston wrote. “These arguments aren’t intended to further public knowledge. Instead, they are just a fan service.”
The dilemma for the GOP is in how much to humor such things in the name of fan service, and, over the years, Republicans have erred increasingly on the side of humoring plenty of it.
On many of these things, Republicans do in fact have a stake — a stake in not alienating the most passionate portions of the GOP base. That doesn’t mean they have to push ivermectin or a stolen election or vaccine conspiracy theories themselves, but it does mean they have to avoid being the fly in the conspiratorial ointment by saying anything to question those who do.
Correcting the record is a recipe for torpedoing your career, and it’s just easier to pretend it doesn’t exist and to say the right things yourself. So that’s what they have done. Plus, some brave souls tried to do it early in the Trump era; it did little to convince their base, and they wound up marginalizing themselves.
But like it was for the proverbial boiled frog, the temperature has been gradually but persistently turned up, and the stakes for everyone else have increased, as well. We faced an attack on the U.S. Capitol because Trump supporters came to believe the things he and his allies were saying, which Republicans didn’t necessarily echo but didn’t really dispute either. We have a large portion of the population refusing to get vaccinated because it believes claims like the one from the man who was next to DeSantis at that event, or perhaps because it believes ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine can save them from the coronavirus instead.
Even if you accept that DeSantis somehow didn’t process the comment from the man he was standing right next to and looking at, there’s nothing stopping the governor from correcting the record shortly afterward, when the whole thing blows up. Instead, he just emphasized it wasn’t his message.
No politician wants to spend their time swatting down all the crazy things posted by their most extreme supporters on Internet message boards. But at some point, it’s perhaps worth recognizing that these things have reached more of a dangerous, critical mass — particularly when a man feels comfortable casually saying this kind of thing next to a high-profile governor, and when one’s elected colleagues carelessly-if-not-maliciously seed needless vaccine skepticism.
Republicans perhaps didn’t recognize that critical mass forming ahead of Jan. 6. But you’d think that if there were a time in which they might, hundreds of thousands of deaths — the vast majority of which now involve unvaccinated people — might do the trick.
Alas, the most important lessons learned in recent years appear to be the ones about self-preservation and not rocking the boat.