The dark forces behind the Republicans' anti-vax agenda

Leaders, followers and propagandists are not simply being hesitant or anti-establishment

An anti-vaccine protester dressed up as Joe Biden holds a sign outside Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas last month. AFP
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Does former US president Donald Trump really want his voters to die? Can Fox News really want its viewers to perish in large numbers from the coronavirus? These sound like ridiculous questions. But under current circumstances in the US, they have become unavoidable.

As the world struggles with Covid-19, the US is in what should be the most enviable position: a large country, geographically and demographically, that has, rapidly, been able to make effective vaccinations available to all adults.

Yet, the US won't reach herd immunity, largely because a substantial percentage of the population is refusing to accept these free and easily available vaccinations. The main reason is that much of the right-wing echo-sphere is working overtime to create doubts, sow fear and in every possible way reduce participation.

But why?

That this is co-ordinated and systematic is clear. Pandemic misinformation and, yes, disinformation have a long history on the American right, going back to Mr Trump's notorious news conferences where he insisted the virus under total control and would soon vanish, touted various ineffective remedies, and suggested the introduction of light and even bleach into the body.

Yet, when he was in office, Mr Trump and his allies trumpeted the development of the vaccines as his greatest accomplishment. With Joe Biden in the White House, that's thrown out of the window.

Now, Mr Trump is casting a shadow on people’s judgement, unwilling, except on one lone occasion, to urge people to become vaccinated and declining to admit how extremely ill he was with the virus or that he and his entire family were early beneficiaries of the vaccine.

It's even worse on Fox News. Its owner, Rupert Murdoch, received the inoculation as early as December. Yet, Fox's most potent programming is working overtime to convince Americans not to get vaccinated under any circumstances.

The hypocrisy is breathtaking.

Its most fervent anti-vaccine propagandist, Tucker Carlson, refuses to discuss whether or not he is vaccinated. If the answer were no, he would surely want to say so. Yet, he continues to fulminate against the vaccines and all efforts to get Americans vaccinated, and provides an exceptionally high-level platform for the worst kind of anti-vaccine propagandists.

Fox's other major primetime star, Laura Ingram, was all in favour of the vaccine when she was touting it as Mr Trump's major accomplishment. But since his defeat, she has become passionately opposed to any efforts to vaccinate Americans.

It should come as no surprise that almost all of the currently reported US hospitalisations and deaths from the pandemic are occurring among unvaccinated persons, and that outbreaks are generally concentrated in states that are heavily conservative and Republican, with high numbers of unvaccinated citizens.

Indeed, the Republican Arkansas state legislature has just banned all public and private entities, including hospitals, from requiring their workers to have Covid-19 vaccines. Why would anyone ever encourage their followers to take such risks, or prohibit any requirements that they don’t, even in hospitals?

Obviously, this is partly just anti-Democratic Party and anti-Biden. For many, including Mr Trump, as long as he was president the vaccine was a great accomplishment. Now, it's a mortal peril. It also feeds into a familiar set of resentments, against expertise, science and government, with alienated, resentful, less-educated and anti-establishment sentiments all being heavily stoked.

In the end, the 'noble cause' embodied by the Great Leader demands your death, if it comes to that

It certainly plays into anti-government and libertarian impulses, as well as small-government and anti-authority ideals. But none of that is really enough to explain this incredible phenomenon. The answer certainly lies deeper in the individual and collective human psyche.

With some of the leading protagonists vaccinated – and this is, at heart, understood by the targets of this strange propaganda – then something else is definitely afoot.

It has all the hallmarks of an authoritarian cult. In the final analysis, the tribe and the noble cause, embodied by the so-called Great Leader, demand sacrifice. If need be human sacrifices. If need be, yours.

The process here is easier because only a small percentage of coronavirus victims will actually die. And mitigation, including masking and distancing, was already heavily stigmatised by some Republicans during the Trump presidency.

It's obvious that nationalism of this variety is all about aggression turned outward, against the other: the minority, the immigrant, the foreigner, or the outsider. The inevitable corollary is that aggression often flips back and turns inward, and violence against others can become expressed in violence against the self.

Suicide bombers of Al Qaeda and ISIS are the most obvious examples. But the inclination to turn aggression inward, as a central feature of affirming in-group cohesion, is constant in human history. Self-sacrifice is the most powerful myth of commitment, patriotism and nobility.

The dying Castro dictatorship in Cuba, for instance, is known for its slogan "Patria o Muerte!” – homeland or death. The message underlying such all-or-nothing nihilism is, die for me.

Authoritarian systems inevitably demand the highest sacrifice. They fetishise authority, submission and death – whether, ideally, for the other, or, if need be, from the self.

In the end, the "noble cause" embodied by the Great Leader demands your death, if it comes to that. And it must be given willingly, as proof of its essential validity. That's true any time a political movement acquires fundamentalist overtones on left or right, religious or secular.

Does Mr Trump want his supporters to die? Does Mr Carlson want his viewers to die? Or do they need them to be willing to die? What could they be doing other than asking for that? Many of their adherents enthusiastically want to be willing to die for them, in the so-called Great Cause.

One of the most revealing recent reports is of an ardent Trump supporter, a former marine called "Randall", who, though extremely ill, refused a test for the virus lest it might make his leader "look bad".

That’s the ideal follower of this cult, someone willing to die to keep the fantasy alive.

Published: July 19, 2021, 5:00 AM