When President Biden announced vigorous new rules, designed to vastly increase the number of Americans inoculated against COVID-19, he warned the nation’s vaccine deniers: “We’ve been patient. But our patience is wearing thin. And your refusal has cost all of us.”
Biden spoke for a whole lot of Americans when he said that. Those of us who played by the rules, who cared about each other, who promptly got our shots — we’re now being penalized because a hard core of resisters rejects science, embraces tribalism and places their own obsession with personal choice above the common good.
Voluntary compliance with vaccinations is a far better course than mandates, and for months, Biden tried coaxing and cajoling. But that effort stalled just as the delta variant caused a surge of new infections — almost entirely among the unvaccinated. The economic recovery slowed, the national mood slumped, and confidence in Biden’s handling of the pandemic slipped.
He needed a jolt. Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, compared the president’s decision to instituting a draft during wartime.
“To date, we have relied on a volunteer army,” Schaffner told The New York Times. “But particularly with the delta variant, the enemy has been reinforced, and now a volunteer army is not sufficient. We need to institute a draft.”
The president’s mounting frustration was totally justified. Vaccine mandates were approved by the Supreme Court in 1905 in a case involving smallpox, and since then, requiring inoculations against a wide range of infectious diseases has been routine public health policy.
A good example is Mississippi, which insists that schoolchildren be immunized against nine different maladies. Yet the state’s governor, Tate Reeves, echoed the reaction of many Republicans, calling Biden’s edicts “terrifying” and writing on Twitter: “This is still America, and we still believe in freedom from tyrants.”
What changed? Why did sane and settled public policy suddenly become terrifying and tyrannical? One answer is the triumph of Trumpism, a mendacious mentality that continues to dominate Republican thinking in at least four ways.
The first element of Trumpism applied to the vaccine is the Big Lie, a profound untruth repeated endlessly: Vaccines are dangerous! Then, the folks who perpetuate the Big Lie turn around and say, “See? All these people embrace this idea, so we have to respect them.”
This is the exact same pattern Trumpists have followed on the issue of voter fraud. They keep saying, falsely, that elections are rigged, and then they justify restrictions on voting rights because the public doubts the integrity of elections. They are arsonists calling the fire department to douse the flames they have ignited.
The second visible dimension of Trumpism here is the war on facts, on science, on any professional who insists there is an independent reality that can be described and documented. Vaccine deniers are card-carrying members in the Trumpist cult of “alternative facts.”
That’s why so many Republicans hate Dr. Anthony Fauci, the infectious disease expert who refuses to bow to their illusions and intimidations. When Gov. Ron DeSantis markets “Don’t Fauci My Florida” T-shirts, he’s just copycatting Trump’s red MAGA hats.
The third manifestation of Trumpism among anti-vaxxers is their total focus on themselves, on their own prejudices and preferences, and not on the rights or reactions of others. Trump lost his reelection at least in part because he based every decision on COVID through one lens: how it affected his reelection prospects. Never once has he evinced sympathy for the way the pandemic impacts others.
So when Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana declares in a tweet that “vaccine mandates are un-American!”, he makes the same mistake. Like Trump, he fails to understand that in this country we always balance individual choice against common benefits. One person’s right to go unvaccinated must be limited by their risk of spreading infection.
Trumpism infects anti-vaxxers in a fourth way: their intense devotion to tribalism and partisanship, and their complete refusal to believe a Democratic president can ever do anything positive. Reeves of Mississippi admits the vaccines are “lifesaving,” yet automatically rejects White House efforts to boost immunization rates.
No wonder the latest Marist poll finds that 37% of Republicans refuse to get injected, compared to 5% of Democrats. And while 82% of Democrats support mandates, that drops to 19% among the GOP faithful.
But the Trumpists are wrong. Mandates are necessary. The national interest — and our deepest values as Americans — demand them.
Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University.