I’m happy about the GOP vaccine-pivot. I will never forgive how long it took

By Joe Berkowitz

July 22, 2021
The sudden pivot to pro-vaccine messaging on the right came in hot on Monday morning. Fox & Friends host Steve Doocy first urged viewers to get vaccinated; then some of the network’s lower-profile anchors did so throughout the day; and even Sean Hannity, one of the most lethal COVID-19 misinformation-pushers of 2020, added his vocals to the pro-vax choir that night. And it wasn’t just pundits swiftly changing their tune; rabid pro-Trump lawmakers Steve Scalise, Ron DeSantis, and Chuck Grassley all had a similar about-face that day as well.

A lot of people sure seemed to have gotten the “You have meddled with the primal forces of nature” speech from Network all at once. Taken together, the abrupt push had the feel of a libelous story being broadly retracted, not unlike when conservative news outlets had to air corrections last December on “reporting” about rigged voting machines, after the manufacturers threatened legal action. By Wednesday night, President Biden had publicly acknowledged Fox News’ flip-flop, and press secretary Jen Psaki announced that the White House had been in touch with the network concerning its vaccine messaging.

If so many top conservative voices promoting vaccination felt a little unusual, it’s because, up until now, most of those voices have been silent on the topic at best, and opposing it at worst. The hasty speed of the change begs the question: What the hell took so long?

The dream of a hot vaxxed summer quietly faded away sometime last month with the surge of the delta variant, which is now responsible for 83% of sequenced cases in the U.S. Face masks now seem to be coming back on in some states, almost as quickly as they were flung off. Around the same time the delta variant began wreaking havoc, Media Matters for America conducted a study on Fox News’ vaccination commentary. The outlet found that, between June 28 and July 11, 57% of the network’s segments on vaccines “either undermined or downplayed immunization efforts,” and 37% of them suggested “vaccines are unnecessary or dangerous.” All this despite the fact that Fox Corp. reportedly implemented vaccine passports in its offices to keep staff safe.

To be clear, vaccine hesitancy exists on both sides of the political spectrum but is heavily favored among conservatives. Things didn’t just shake out that way, either. Considering how much conservative media, and the politicians who echo it, have promoted skepticism about Biden’s vaccination efforts, well, the dots connect themselves. It was a sustainable thread of right-wing attack, as long as enough people were getting vaxxed to keep things humming toward a post-pandemic America. Now that vaccination rates have begun to plateau and COVID cases and deaths have started rising again, the dynamic has changed. Conservative pundits and politicians this week broke kayfabe and finally began to promote vaccination . . . not so coincidentally, on the same day the stock market plunged over fears of a near-future lockdown.

If the tardiness itself is morbidly embarrassing, the petty excuses Republicans have used to account for it are all the more so. Senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, for instance, has blamed vaccine hesitancy on Donald Trump not getting enough credit for his contribution to the vaccine’s development. His colleague, Senator Roger Marshall of Kansas, instead bafflingly suggested that Conservatives refuse to get vaccinated because they are so turned off by Dr. Anthony Fauci and Jen Psaki. Meanwhile, Trump himself echoed these sentiments last Sunday, saying that people are skipping vaccinations because they “don’t trust [Biden’]s Administration, they don’t trust the Election results, and they certainly don’t trust the Fake News, which is refusing to tell the Truth.” Never mind that Trump was suggesting as much, rather than, say, unequivocally urging all Americans to get vaccinated, something he could do every single day but chooses not to.

The default GOP position on vaccination for much of the year seemed to be a desire to see Biden fail—as though his failure would only bring about a political cost and not the potential for hundreds of thousands of lives lost and untold economic calamity. Just a couple weeks ago, in fact, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a mention of Biden falling short of his vaccination goals got a spirited round of applause. This isn’t merely rooting against one’s political foe; it’s cheering on the mass death of one’s fellow countrymen. It’s disgusting.

The problem stems from Republicans treating every phase of the pandemic, from masks and lockdowns to the vaccination effort, like just another cultural wedge issue. The loony left must be stopped . . . from trying to survive the pandemic. Every single topic that arises, no matter how important, appears to require automatically finding a reason to oppose it along party lines. The reflexive opposition to vaccination, though, has of course been far more cataclysmic than, say, the reaction to Mr. Potato Head not quite altering his gender identity.

Some anti-vaccine positioning—the speculation about Bill Gates inserting microchips, for instance, or the vaccine itself being super dangerous—belong to the fringier element. The mainstream Republican argument, however, boils down to the idea that vaccines are unnecessary for everybody, and that refusing them is a badass anti-authoritarian choice that is the right of every American. Tucker Carlson has called the vaccine push “medical Jim Crow” in one of the many Fox News segments describing immunization efforts as coercive or examples of government overreach, framing them with a false binary between “personal choice” and “medical freedom.”

This positioning was already fairly popular on the right, but once Biden somewhat clumsily described the next phase of his outreach effort as going “door-to-door,” it exploded. Even though Biden was only referring to efforts to spread awareness of vaccines, not administering them in people’s houses, the Republican outrage machine cranked into hyperdrive with nefarious conspiracy theories.

Although the Biden administration had been hesitant to call out politicians and pundits over their anti-vaccine rhetoric all year, perhaps for fear of seeming too partisan, continuing that course as the delta variant plowed through unvaccinated population centers became untenable. Biden instead made an “altar call,” whatever that means, apparently resulting in the pro-vaccine push among prominent Republicans this week. (It was either that or the stock market news.)

This uptick is a welcome change of pace, but in order for it to succeed, it needs to be sustained and go even broader. Carlson, Fox News’ most high-profile star, has stayed the vaccine-skeptic course thus far, as have GOP politicians, such as Ohio representative Jim Jordan and Oklahoma Senator James Lankford. Hopefully, however, the remaining voices pushing this narrative will open more people’s eyes to the bad faith that has been propelling it all along. Perhaps then they will demand an accounting for why it took so long for politicians and pundits to portray vaccination in a non-evil light, even with so many people dying each day.

Just as the GOP can’t keep treating vaccination like just another wedge issue, Dems shouldn’t treat their doing so like another wedge issue, either. They shouldn’t sweep under the rug the mass mortal harm that prominent vaccine skeptics have done, for the sake of bipartisanship.

I certainly hope this pivot continues and that Republicans convince their constituents that vaccination is actually patriotic.

I will never forgive how long it took to get there.

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