I almost didn’t write this post, given that it’s only been less than three months since the last time I wrote about this topic. You might recall that in September I described how Republicans and conservatives were losing their minds over President Joseph Biden’s federal vaccine mandate. You might recall that at the time I referenced Amber Ruffin’s regular segment on her weekly show that, “How did we get here?” I have, of course, been been explaining for several years now how the Republican Party has been increasingly embracing not just opposition to vaccine mandates, but actual antivaccine misinformation, as no longer fringe but part of the mainstream of the party. As I usually do, I pointed out that it wasn’t that long ago that the prevailing stereotype promoted by the press of antivaxxers was that they are crunchy, hippy-dippy lefties who are antivaccine because they love the “natural” and hate capitalistic profit-driven big pharma. Although there is certainly that element to parts of the antivaccine movement, I also described how that stereotype was never really accurate, given that there has long also been a right wing/libertarian component to the antivaccine movement aligned with the “health freedom” movement, a movement that I like to characterize as demanding the “freedom” from pesky laws preventing quacks from defrauding people. Basically, antivaccine conspiracy theories have long been embraced by people across the political spectrum; it’s just that the reasons vary depending on whether you’re on the right or the left.
Then I saw this article earlier this week in NPR based on a segment from All Things Considered entitled Inside the growing alliance between anti-vaccine activists and pro-Trump Republicans by Geoff Brumfiel. The story itself documents what I’ve been describing for several years now, how increasingly antivaxxers have turned opposition to government mandates into new recruits for the antivaccine movement. As I like to say on Twitter, come for the freedom (or should I say “freedumb”?), stay for the antivax pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. Indeed, in 2015 I noted how antivax arguments disguised as “anti-mandate” appeals to “freedom” and “parental rights” had infiltrated the Republican debates, with an outright antivaxxer like Rand Paul competing with Donald Trump and others to see who could be more in favor of an
antivaccine “anti-mandate” version of “freedumb,” as formerly vocal supporters of vaccine mandates remained silent, and by 2018 I was openly arguing that the Republican Party had become the antivaccine party as I noted how my local GOP office had hosted an antivaccine “vaccine choice” roundtable, It was a sentiment I revisit from time to time, including now.
Although there is much that is very good in the story, the overall framing is one that I see all too often (and that annoys me), namely that it’s “unexpected” that the right would ally with antivaxxers. It’s not unexpected. It never was unexpected. But the mainstream media have long labored under this delusion even though it hasn’t been even remotely true for at least several years, if not much more than a decade.
NPR reported on a recent antivaccine quack event that at which Eric Trump spoke, noting:
In October, a conference filled with anti-vaccine activists in Nashville, Tenn., received a high-profile political guest: former President Donald Trump’s son Eric Trump.
While portions of the younger Trump’s half-hour address were typical political platitudes, some of his biggest applause lines came when he attacked COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
“Do you want to get a vaccine or do you not? Do you want to be left alone or not?” said Trump to a roaring audience.
I was immediately reminded of antivaccine activist Del Bigtree when he came through Michigan just before the 2016 election. Let’s quote him right here (as I did then), just so that you can see the similarities, particularly given that he features in the NPR story:
If we do not fight now, then there will be nothing left to fight for. And I think that is where everyone in this room, I pray you realize how important you are in this historic moment. We will never be stronger than we are right now. We will never be healthier than we are right now. Our children are looking like this, a generation of children, as we’ve said on The Doctors television show this is the first generation of children that will not live to be as old as their parents. Are we going to stand…are we going to sit down and take it? Or are we going to stand up and say: This is a historic moment, that my forefathers, those from Jefferson all the way to Martin Luther King, the moments where people stood up and something inside of them said I’m going to stand for freedom and I’m going to stand for it now. That is in our DNA. It is pumping through me, and I pray that you feel it pumping through you, because we must look back. Our grandchildren will look back and thank us for having stood up one more time and been the generation that said, “We the People of the United States of America stood for freedom, stand for freedom. We will die for freedom today.
You can go back to this post if you want to see the original video to compare to that of Eric Trump.
Then NPR’s take became a bit puzzling to those of us who have been following the antivaccine movement for a long time:
Still, Trump’s emphasis was very different from those of many of the other speakers at the event, put on by longtime anti-vaccine activists Ty and Charlene Bollinger.
The day before Trump’s speech, a homeopathic doctor named Edward Group stood on the same stage and suggested to the audience they should drink their urine as an alternative to getting vaccinated against COVID-19. Another speaker, Carrie Madej, said the vaccines contained microscopic technology designed to put “another kind of nervous system inside you.” The true purpose of the vaccines, she claimed, was to turn humans into cyborgs.
It’s the sort of fringe views that kept political figures away from this conference in the past. But as America heads into midterm elections next year, the political right and the anti-vaccine movement are drawing ever-closer together. It’s an alliance that promises to give both sides more power, but the cost is potentially thousands of American lives.
Has Brumfiel been paying attention? Invocations of “freedom” have long been a key part of the rhetoric of the antivaccine movement going back to when I first started paying attention a couple of decades ago and far before that and have existed side-by-side with the pseudoscience, quackery, and conspiracy theories like the ones promoted by the Bollinger’s and Dr. Madej, who started portraying COVID-19 vaccines as “trans humanism” before there were even approved COVID-19 vaccines. The two go together. Again, come for the freedom, stay for the pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. (Yes, I will repeat this as often as I deem appropriate.) While it’s true that there are a disturbing number of antivaxxers on the left, right here, right now, as 2021 comes to a close, the loudest and most influential antivaxxers tend to be on the right and/or use primarily right-wing arguments.
Then comes the sort of spin that irritates the crap out of me. I see it whenever a reporter discovers that Republicans and conservatives embrace antivaccine views and is amazed:
To understand what’s going on, it’s important to understand where the parties are coming from. The anti-vaccine movement was not always especially political. Some of the movement’s leaders, such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the son of the late Democratic Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, have championed other liberal causes in the past.
“Not always especially political”? Wait, what? The antivaccine movement has been political going back to the very beginnings of antivaccine resistance, as have its invocations of “freedom.” Certainly during my lifetime it’s been very political. Does anyone remember the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986? That came about because lawsuits over the DPT vaccine were threatening to drive vaccine manufacturers out of the US market over liability costs, and one of the longtime leaders of the antivaccine movement, Barbara Loe Fisher, had a major role in crafting it with legislators. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the antivaccine movement relentlessly attacked the Vaccine Court, which was created by the NCVIA of 1986 because it recognized that science doesn’t support the claim that autism is “vaccine injury.” By 2008, Jenny McCarthy was leading marches on Washington to demand that regulators “Green Our Vaccines.” (I’ll give Brumfiel that one, as that was a clever appeal to environmentalism. But it was political.)
I’ve documented many other political activities of antivaxxers over the years, as well, including the rise of antivaccine groups like Texans for Vaccine Choice and Michigan for Vaccine Choice, lobbying groups designed to push for the elimination of school vaccine mandates and the destruction of the Vaccine Court. Then, in 2015 the alliance between the right and antivaxxers was turbocharged when California passed SB 277, a law that eliminated nonmedical “personal belief exemptions” to school vaccine mandates, a process that, I would argue, “primed the pump” for what we are seeing today. I could go on and on and on about the very political “not especially political” activities of the antivaccine movement over the last 17 years, but will spare you the details.
The rest of the article seeks to portray the alliance between the Republican Party as an “unlikely alliance,” which, given that I was documenting how antivaxxers had teamed up with Tea Party groups in 2012, led me to scoff. Two frames are used. First, the article describes how the audience for liberal antivaxxers like Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Del Bigtree is now primarily right wing, which leads to passages like this:
“The truth is, I’m still a registered Democrat,” says Del Bigtree, a well-known anti-vaccine activist. Even before COVID-19, he wrote and produced a documentary that falsely claimed childhood vaccines were linked to autism. But the message never caught on with the liberal audience he was targeting.
Bigtree has been banned from social media platforms like YouTube for making false claims about the dangers of COVID-19 vaccines. But as the pandemic has dragged on, his conservative audience keeps growing. Often he speaks at conferences alongside people who claim the election was rigged and promoters of QAnon conspiracy theories.
“Unless there’s going to be a white supremacist on the stage or I find out that there’s something that I truly find distasteful, then I just see that stage as simply an audience that I want to hear this message,” says Bigtree.
It’s a numbers game. He wants to grow his movement, and he’ll talk to anyone who will listen.
How nice. Grifters gonna grift, of course, but even as big a grifter as Bigtree says that he won’t get on the same stage with a white supremacist. (He has such low standards, doesn’t he?) One wonders, though, what he defines as a “white supremacist,” because certainly people like Roger Stone, who was also a speaker at the same conference, has promoted white supremacist ideas and has had close ties with the fascist Proud Boys. (I can’t help but note that I described how before the pandemic right wing militia groups were marching with antivaxxers in Sacramento. Again, links between the far right and antivaxxers are nothing new.)
As I said at the beginning, though, the NPR story isn’t all bad, and I didn’t want to leave with that impression. Some of it is quite good. For instance, Brumfiel correctly observes:
Stone, who spoke at the conference, says he’s quite open to some of the ideas presented there about vaccines. But he also sees the shot as a powerful wedge issue that Republicans can use to motivate conservative voters during next year’s midterm elections. Citing public polls,Stone says that in particular, vaccine mandates are “highly likely” to be a campaign issue.
Vaccine mandates have many features that make them a good issue to motivate conservative voters. It invokes a fight about the government regulation and personal liberty. But add in the apocalyptic views of anti-vaccine activists and the political power of arguments against vaccine mandates gets punched up to a whole new level.
“Anti-mandate,” it turns out, frequently serves as a gateway to hardcore antivaccine beliefs, as I’ve been saying for a very long time now. I’ll also add here that there’s a reason why the right wing has united with not just antivaxxers, but with “antimaskers,” a catch-all term that describes those who reject public health mitigations for the pandemic, such as mask mandates and “lockdowns.” I’ve postulated that the reason that antivaxxers and antimaskers so quickly made common cause is due to their shared antipathy to public health interventions. Of course, I’ve long been describing how antivaxxers cleverly cloaked their antivaccine views in the rhetoric of opposition to government regulations and mandates. Come for the freedom, stay for the antivaccine pseudoscience.
Brumfiel also describes some of the data suggesting that this alliance between antivaxxers and the Republican Party is having a dire effect on the party’s supporters, such as data showing lower vaccine uptake and higher death rates in pro-Trump counties. That is, of course, just an association, but it’s a very suggestive one given how strong it is. When various Republicans are asked about the association between supporting the Republican Party and not being vaccinated against COVID-19, as antivaxxers have long done, they frame it as an issue of “freedom” and “personal choice” as well, often coupled with disinformation:
When asked about Republicans’ low vaccination rates, Stone was nonplussed. “Each person must make their own choice, God bless them.” He went on to falsely claim that getting the vaccine actually enhances a person’s chance of getting the disease. “So I guess I’d be more concerned if I were a Democrat,” he says.
No, that is not true at all.
There is also bad logic:
Burns, who is running for Congress in South Carolina, likened the choice about vaccination to smoking: “Cigarettes kill people every day, but yet you can go to the supermarket right now and buy it with no issue, that’s their choice. If they want to go put cancer into their lungs, they have a right to do so.”
Can anyone tell me what the difference is between cigarette smoking and an infectious disease like COVID-19? Cigarettes certainly do lead to huge levels of preventable disability and death, but guess what? Although it is definitely true that secondhand smoke can cause harm, it’s not the sort of contagion that will land you in the hospital and on a ventilator within days or weeks, and guess what else? There are laws designed to limit people’s exposure to secondhand smoke! We as a society try to mitigate the damage that smokers can cause to the health of people who don’t smoke through laws restricting where smoking is allowed, as imperfect as those laws are. (Of course, one wonders how many of these Republicans also oppose indoor smoking bans.)
But for many Republicans who are concerned about public health, the willingness to parlay a lifesaving vaccine into political capital is disturbing.
“They just care about winning,” says Annette Meeks, a lifelong Republican who heads the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota conservative think tank. “It’s the worst element in American politics today.”
Meeks has seen the data on vaccines, and she’s watched people she knows get sick. “To see people reject those vaccines based on pseudoscience or worse — lies — and to see lives lost is a tragedy beyond words,” Meeks says.
In addition to the moral failings, Meeks says embracing the anti-vaccine movement carries huge political risks for the GOP. That’s because elections in states like Minnesota are won and lost in the suburbs. And those suburban voters tend to be vaccinated.
How many Republicans like Meeks are left, much less pro-vaccine Republicans willing to speak out and buck their party? Reason and science are being driven out of the Republican Party in a pretty systematic fashion. It’s good of Meeks to try to change what the Republican Party has become in terms of its antivaccine stance, which was once fringe but is now pretty close to being firmly ensconced as a core principle of the party. All I can say is: Good luck. I don’t know if anyone can unring this particular pseudoscience bell or put the antivax genie back in the bottle now that it’s escaped, particularly given the very significant grifting potential in antivaccine pseudoscience and conspiracy theories.
Don’t think that antivaxxers don’t see the grift potential, either:
The risks for the Republican Party in lives and votes may be real, but the there is little downside for the other party in this alliance — the anti-vaccine movement.
Del Bigtree says he’s seeing more people at speaking engagements and getting millions of visitors to his website each week.
“We are growing in size, in numbers, in confidence and in finances,” he says. And for now, his audience is clear: conservative America.
Of course there isn’t a downside for antivax grifters like Del Bigtree! They got a huge new audience, and Republican politicians now listen to them, opening huge new vistas of grift for them to exploit as huge numbers of easy marks treat them like rock stars. In the meantime, such huge swaths of the Republican Party have fallen prey to what one of my favorite journalists Charles Pierce likes to call the prion disease consisting of ever more outrageous conspiracy theories like QAnon, of which antivax conspiracy theories are not even the most bizarre. Thanks to the cravenness of Republican politicians and the susceptibility of the Republican base to conspiracy theories, the antivaccine movement is clearly in ascendance and the Republican Party is the antivaccine party.