The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s message on vaccines isn’t as powerful as Trumpism’s message

President Donald Trump speaks in December 2020 during an Operation Warp Speed vaccine summit. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Jerome Adams, who served as surgeon general during Donald Trump’s presidency, rose to his former boss’s defense Tuesday morning.

“Every person who asks me (or anyone else) if Trump should do more to encourage vaccinations (while failing to ask what more could Biden do),” Adams wrote on Twitter, “is feeding the narrative that Trump is this God like figure who controls our fortunes, & is still more powerful than the current President.”

“Continuing to accept/ feed the narrative that there’s nothing more [President Biden] can do in ‘red’ states,” he continued, “and that only Trump can convince people and change our trajectory is a) false and b) elevates Trump > Biden.”

Adams has a point, but perhaps not the one he intended. It is, in fact, not useful to assume that Trump could significantly compel his vaccine-resistant supporters to get a shot. But it is also not fair to assume that Biden could, or that Trump bears no responsibility for the views of his supporters.

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On Monday, the world learned that Trump had received a booster dose to supplement his original vaccination. It’s good both for his personal health — especially given how dire his infection last year was — and good in the message it sends to the public. Trump not only said that he’d gotten vaccinated but made a case for others to do so.

“Take credit for it. What we’ve done is historic,” he said to his supporters. “Don’t let them take it away. Don’t take it away from ourselves. You’re playing right into their hands when you sort of, like, oh, the vaccine.”

In other words, Trump argues that the vaccine was a signature accomplishment of his administration and that embracing vaccination boosts his legacy — and, by extension, his supporters. It’s a different angle of rhetoric and an obviously self-serving one, but if it gets people vaccinated, who can complain?

The problem is that even a direct, robust call from Trump for his base to get vaccinated probably wouldn’t change many minds.

In March, the Kaiser Family Foundation polled on that question. If Trump said to get vaccinated, would you do so? Among Republicans who didn’t intend to get a dose, only about 1 in 5 said that Trump’s endorsement would make them more likely to do so. In a similar experiment conducted by YouGov that same month, there was no movement among those who said they weren’t going to be vaccinated once presented with news of Trump’s own vaccination.

By now, America’s unvaccinated population is heavily inflected by party. There are three times as many unvaccinated Republicans as Democrats, and even among those who’ve already been vaccinated, Republicans are less likely to say they’ll get a booster dose.

Why? Certainly in part because of Trump’s broader approach to the pandemic. Soon after calling for broad restrictions aimed at containing the virus in spring 2020, Trump backtracked, worried about the effects on the economy and his own reelection chances. He began openly disparaging containment measures like masks and undermining government officials who were advocating for more caution. He repeatedly pledged that a silver bullet was imminent, one that would make the pandemic simply vanish. At times, the vaccines were slotted into that role.

All of this piggybacked on his existing appeal to his base. When he ran in 2015, it was as an outsider to the system, the swamp, someone who would tell the truth about things — “truths” that were essentially just rebranded rhetoric from conservative media and often detached from reality. Trump recognized and elevated a deep skepticism about experts and systems to end-run the Republican Party and win the presidency. He then used that same energy last year as he tried to get America to shrug at the coronavirus. This was always the heart of Trumpism, and it worked to keep his base enthusiastic and loyal.

Trump’s presidency fueled what we recognize as Trumpism: a sense of robust self-confidence, rejection of inconveniences as personal or legal slights and an acceptance of what one wants to hear over what’s demonstrably true. This undercurrent predated Trump but he helped make it central to right-wing politics. So, despite Adams’s suggestion, he does bear some responsibility for the hesitancy that’s now so common.

Adams is also wrong that Biden, as president, has some power over the hesitant that Trump doesn’t. There’s a correlation between vaccinations and politics, even among those most at risk from dying of covid-19. The Trumpist view of the vaccines has carried the day. Even when Trump was making his comments about booster doses and encouraging vaccination — as a political statement, mind you! — the crowd was skeptical, as it had been primed to be.

Again, Adams is right that Trump doesn’t have power to get his base vaccinated. And that’s in part because the structures that were empowered by Trumpism over the past five years are still powered by it. Consider “Fox & Friends,” Fox News’s flagship morning show. On Tuesday morning, the show covered Trump’s comments, with co-host Carly Shimkus offering her approval.

And then she pivoted to Biden’s upcoming speech about the pandemic.

“He’s going to be encouraging vaccinations, and that’s fine. That’s what the president is going to do,” she said. “But if you look at the reality of the situation, if somebody isn’t vaccinated right now, and they look at their two friends who, between the three of them, have had six shots against covid and they still got it because of omicron? Realistically, that person isn’t going to get vaccinated.”

“Exactly,” co-host and Trump ally Brian Kilmeade replied.

This, as The Post’s Aaron Blake has written, is a common way of rationalizing vaccine hesitancy: noting that people still get infected. Never mind that the vaccines demonstrably lower the risk of hospitalization and death, not to mention infection. The point is less using this argument as a reason to oppose vaccination, the point is generally that people oppose vaccination and look for arguments to bolster that position. And that even in the face of Trump explicitly calling for vaccinations, the instinct to leverage Trumpism was more powerful than the instinct to support Trump.

The Kaiser Family Foundation released polling Tuesday morning that showed that even the emergence of the omicron variant wasn’t compelling many people to get shots. What’s more, only 3 percent said that they were not getting vaccinated because you might still get an infection. Half of those who haven’t been vaccinated simply told the pollsters that nothing would convince them to get a shot.

Trump is, in fact, not a Godlike figure who controls our fortunes. He is a politician who recognized the political utility of amplifying doubt and misinformation among a sympathetic group of voters. For others, doing so is still useful, driving attention and money their way. That’s the obstacle to vaccination for millions of Americans at this point: not Trump’s own apathy but, instead, the instinct he tried to corral.