The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Coronavirus posturing is the new Trumpism

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) speaks to reporters before a bill signing Nov. 18 in Brandon, Fla. (Chris O'Meara/AP)
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Two things are true. Most Republicans are vaccinated against the coronavirus. Also, most of those who aren’t vaccinated against the coronavirus are Republican.

In fact, research from the Kaiser Family Foundation indicates that there is no better predictor of a person’s vaccination status than partisanship. In October, the unvaccinated were three times as likely to be Republican (or Republican-leaning independent) as they were to be Democrats or Democratic leaners. Over the year, that ratio has grown: In April, the unvaccinated were slightly more likely to be Republican; now, they’re much more likely to be.

This is because the pool of unvaccinated necessarily only grows smaller and because, again according to Kaiser Family Foundation data, Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to indicate that they don’t plan to get vaccinated against the virus. So while most Republicans have reported getting at least one dose of a vaccine, nearly a quarter in September said they simply wouldn’t.

In October, about half of vaccinated Republicans said the threat of the virus was exaggerated, as did 9 in 10 unvaccinated Republicans. It’s that group, really, that drives much of the political conversation at the moment — those Republicans who, nearly a year after the vaccine first became available, still loudly object to vaccination, just as many of them also rejected wearing masks and downplayed the threat the virus posed.

Those latter views are downstream from former president Donald Trump, whose unsuccessful 2020 reelection strategy was predicated in part on waving away the coronavirus pandemic even as deaths mounted. By now, though, the partisan response to the pandemic has moved beyond Trump himself. Trump would love to take credit for how vaccines have tamped down the worst effects of the virus, but much of his base — a particularly vocal part of it — has embraced vaccine resistance. So Trump himself, always attuned to the whims of his supporters, has moderated his own enthusiasm in favor of the “what about my freedoms?” crowd.

So we’ve reached a somewhat ironic point. Views of the pandemic response on the right are leveraging the same impulses that first brought Trump to power. Trump pledged to stick it to the elites and to reject social prohibitions such as “political correctness.” Now, vaccine opponents on the right are sticking it to elites like Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s top infectious-disease expert, and President Biden by thumbing their noses at vaccines and mask-wearing while they embrace a do-what-I-want ethos. Vaccine opposition is the new Trumpism.

The person who has most obviously grasped that evolution is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). Earlier this month, Florida hosted the “Patriot Awards,” a sort of jingoistic People’s Choice-style event presented by the streaming network Fox Nation. DeSantis had a chance to kick things off with a welcoming address. His remarks centered on rhetoric that ties that loud opposition to the coronavirus response to a more palatable Republican politics.

“We worked very hard over the last year and a half standing up to bureaucrats, standing up to corporate media to keep Florida open,” DeSantis said. “We protected people’s right to earn a living and businesses’ right to be open. Kids’ right to be in school. We were not going to let Florida descend into a Faucian dystopia” — applause and cheers — “where people’s freedoms were curtailed and their livelihoods were destroyed. We choose freedom over Fauci-ism.”

This, too, is a holdover from Trump’s rhetoric. Asked about it Sunday during an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Fauci said that “of course” he was being made a scapegoat for the government’s coronavirus response. “You have to be asleep not to figure that one out,” he told host Margaret Brennan.

“Anybody who’s looking at this carefully realizes that there’s a distinct anti-science flavor to this,” Fauci said. “So if they get up and criticize science, nobody’s going to know what they’re talking about. But if they get up and really aim their bullets at Tony Fauci, well, people could recognize, there’s a person there.”

This is generally right, but it downplays the willingness to reject science — at least in the context of the recommendations being made by scientific experts that are most unpopular on the right. When Fox News hosts deride the newly detected variant of the virus as a political ploy by Democrats to bolster restrictions, that’s certainly more a rejection of science than it is of Fauci. But it’s really about reinforcing the broader narrative DeSantis was getting at: that the left is using the pandemic as an instrument of control for — some reason — and that it was incumbent upon the right to reject this effort because of American liberty. It’s a narrative that transforms apathy and solipsism into heroism, so it’s doing pretty well.

Meanwhile, a Fox News opinion columnist is using the “highly contagious” new variant as a way to attack Biden’s leadership, because that’s the flip side to all of this: More unvaccinated people means more coronavirus means more impetus to control the virus’s spread means more pushback against Biden and Democrats. Views of Biden’s handling of the pandemic sank over the summer as a fourth wave of cases spread — a wave that was centered in places that voted more heavily for Trump in 2020 and, by extension, that tended to have lower rates of vaccination.

Since shortly after the pandemic first emerged, month after month it has been places that strongly preferred Trump in 2020 that have seen the most coronavirus-related deaths, relative to population. In recent months, those deaths have occurred disproportionately in Florida.

During his Patriot Awards speech, DeSantis hyped a piece of legislation he planned to sign the next day: a ban on vaccine mandates for private-sector employers unless they included an opt-out mechanism. He chose to sign the legislation in the Florida city of Brandon, an unsubtle nod to an anti-Biden rallying cry that is popular with Republicans.

The National Academy for State Health Policy has collected data on similar vaccine rules by state. Almost universally, it is Trump states that have implemented rules aiming to limit vaccine mandates at the state and local levels. (The exceptions are states Biden won narrowly that have Republican legislatures.) This is the endpoint of Republican rhetoric on the pandemic: efforts to prevent anyone from being mandated to get a vaccine even if they work in an environment where they might be at increased risk of infecting other people.

As Axios reported Monday, a number of states have gone further, offering to extend unemployment benefits to those who quit their jobs in opposition to vaccine mandates. In his Patriot Awards speech, DeSantis hyped the bonus that Florida would pay to law enforcement personnel who moved to his state, right after he lamented that they were subject to such rules in other places. In other words, there’s an effort not only to reject mandates but to bolster that opposition economically.

Again, this is often cast not as a petulant rejection of what those eggheads sitting on their pedestals in Washington want but, instead, as an effort to protect individual freedoms. The Republican Party has, once again, taken the fervent and thunderous complaints of a relatively small part of its fringe and shined up the more widely appealing elements for broad consumption. DeSantis has mastered this two-step, and it shows in 2024 presidential primary polling. But the party has had six years of practice in recasting the furies of its fringe into something that can be sold to its less excitable members.

There is a downside to this, of course. The vast majority of those now dying of the coronavirus were unvaccinated, a group that’s disproportionately Republican. Florida has now seen more than 61,000 coronavirus deaths, about 284 for every 100,000 residents. New York, by comparison, has seen 56,645 deaths, 280 per 100,000 residents. One year ago, before the vaccines, New York’s per capita toll was nearly twice Florida’s.

But the base wants what it wants.

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