Earlier this week, Vanity Fair published and article by Katherine Egan entitled Inside Ron DeSantis’s Plan to Ride Anti-vaxxism to the White House. I was inspired, if you will, to use this story as a starting point for today’s post because, while it didn’t report anything that I didn’t already know about Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his embrace of antivax politics, it was nonetheless alarming for a couple of reasons. First, it represents what I see as the cementing of resistance to public health interventions, including vaccines, as key element that is part of the Republican Party’s identity now. Second, the story seems to lack a sense of history, treating this development not as the predictable result of a process dating back at least to 2010 or so, but as some new phenomenon that’s occurred since the pandemic. It’s not. I’ll start with the blurb after the title:
He was for the COVID-19 vaccines before he was against them, but now Florida’s governor is all-in on vaccine skepticism—and hoping to use the issue to outflank Trump on the right. With the presidential primaries looming, and MAGA activists angling to turn Trump against the vaccines he helped fast-track, experts fear anti-vaxxism could soon become an official plank of the Republican Party.
“Could soon become”? Arguably, it already has become! Granted, antivax statements haven’t (yet) found their way into the official Republican Party platform yet, but that’s largely because in 2020 there was no official Republican Party platform other than declaring fealty to Donald Trump and his “America First” agenda. While the article gets a lot right about how antivax beliefs have captured the Republican Party, leading DeSantis to embrace them in his quest to outflank Donald Trump for the 2024 nomination, I have to point out some annoying tropes that recur.
Egan starts out by contrasting how eagerly DeSantis embraced the COVID-19 vaccines as they started to roll out at the end of 2020 with his behavior now. Recall that DeSantis eagerly waited at a loading dock in Tampa that December for the first shipment of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines to arrive in Florida, where, with a flourish, “DeSantis signed the FedEx manifest” and “proudly declared” that on that day “we will have shots going in arms.” Back then, he was like so many of us, hopeful about the vaccines, and like so many Republican politicians at the time, including Donald Trump, eager to take some of the credit for an amazing feat of vaccine development, in which a new platform (albeit one that had been in development for a decade prior) was quickly adapted to produce vaccines against a novel coronavirus in record time.
The contrast to now is stark:
By the end of last year, however, DeSantis’s vaccine cheerleading was a distant memory. On December 13, almost exactly two years after the FedEx delivery, he petitioned the Florida Supreme Court to let him empanel a statewide grand jury to investigate COVID-19 vaccine makers, particularly Pfizer and Moderna. “It is against the law to mislead and misrepresent, particularly when you’re talking about the efficacy of a drug,” DeSantis said, comparing the vaccine push to the profiteering that drove the deadly opioid epidemic.
In January, the grand jury went to work looking for dark intent or false claims behind the lifesaving vaccines. It is slated to report its findings by January 2024. That would be just in time to potentially influence the outcome of the Republican presidential primaries, in which DeSantis is widely seen as a leading challenger to Trump, even though he hasn’t yet officially declared his candidacy.
Naturally, I wrote about this disturbing incident when it happened, largely because it was an example of Gov. DeSantis adopting and co-opting a very old antivax trope, namely that of “Nuremberg 2.0,” in which a tribunal would “hold them accountable” (e.g., punish) the perceived wrongdoers who had promoted vaccines and vaccine mandates. Again, as I’ve written many times, “Nuremberg 2.0” is an ahistorical misunderstanding of the Nuremberg Trials that reflects a desire among antivaxxers for vengeance against their perceived enemies more than any sort of legitimate investigation, legal proceeding, or holding people accountable who deserve to be held accountable. It’s a dark fantasy of a “new Nuremberg tribunal” that dates way, way back in antivax conspiracy theories and often involves fantasies of “stringing the bastards up” or even the guillotine that antivaxxers were promoting years ago based on the idea that childhood vaccine mandates violate the Nuremberg Code. That was 2012. Sound familiar?
Just a few examples from social media:
This meme might give you an idea what “Nuremberg 2.0” is really about:
I could go on and on and on with examples (and have), but will spare you for now. Basically Gov. DeSantis harnessed the deepest, darkest, most violent fantasies of the antivax movement and channeled them to his political advancement. Just look at some of the people he chose to be on his
- Jay Bhattacharya, MD, PhD
- Martin Kuldorff, PhD
- Tracy Beth Høeg, MD, PhD
- Joseph Fraiman, MD
- Christine Stabell Benn, MD, PhD
- Bret Weinstein, PhD
- Steven Templeton, PhD
As I noted at the time, Drs. Bhattacharya and Kulldorff co-authored th “let the virus rip” Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) and now write for the astroturf anti-public health “group”think tank” Brownstone Institute, with Kulldorff having served as its scientific advisor. Bret Weinstein, of course, is the evolutionary biologist turned COVID-19 conspiracy theorist and promoter of ivermectin as a cure for the disease, while Dr. Fraiman is an antivaxxer who has coauthored an awful paper with Peter Doshi falsely representing COVID-19 vaccines as unsafe. Dr.Tracy Beth Høeg, of course, is a sports medicine doctor turned fake COVID-19 expert churning out a bad VAERS study and one of the main promoters of “Urgency of Normal” and dubious claims about vaccinating children.
And don’t even get me started on Gov. DeSantis’ pick for Surgeon General to run the Florida Department of Health, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, a full-on COVID-19 conspiracy theorist from America’s Frontline Doctors who has used his office to promote disinformation about COVID-19 vaccines and general pandemic minimization.
Oh, wait. There’s a contrast there, too:
In April 2019, DeSantis nominated Dr. Scott Rivkees to be Florida’s surgeon general. When DeSantis interviewed him for the job, “we talked about the importance of childhood vaccination,” says Rivkees, who is now a professor at the Brown University School of Public Health. “It was recognized as an important pillar of public health.”
At the end of September 2021, however, Rivkees left and Ladapo, a Harvard Medical School graduate and associate professor at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, was brought in. Ladapo had already gained notoriety for his critiques of school closures and “fear-fueled policy making” in the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere.
Dr. Ladapo is so bad that earlier this month the CDC and FDA rebuked him for spreading misinformation.
All of this worries public health officials, as it should:
DeSantis’s probe has experts worried that vaccine skepticism could become an official plank of GOP policy. “The worst-case scenario is if it becomes a litmus test in the [presidential] primary,” says Saad B. Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health who has served on numerous US government vaccine advisory committees. “Then all bets are off.”
This sort of statement leads me to wonder: Is Dr. Omer oblivious, or is he trying to be diplomatic? I ask this because, first, it’s not “vaccine skepticism.” It’s antivax. It drives me up a friggin’ wall when public health officials mistakenly conflate vaccine denial and antivax conspiracy theories with “skepticism.” They’re not real skepticism, and referring to such nonsense as though it were legitimate skepticism not only denigrates skepticism by conflating it with contrarianism and science denial, but elevates cranks by conflating them with skeptics. Maybe these people conflate the two to be “diplomatic,” but doing so only serves to minimize just how much a conspiratorial science denial movement the antivaccine movement is. Second, Dr. Omer is a bit late to the party. Antivax has been a litmus test for the GOP base at least since fall 2021; it was becoming one before the pandemic, but the pandemic turbocharged the process, hastening it far more than even I could ever have feared.
Gov. DeSantis, of course, is probably not truly antivax, at least not yet. He could very quickly get there, because there’s a long history of GOP politicians who “come for the freedom” by resisting vaccine mandates and seeing themselves as standing up for “parental rights” and “freedom” but end up staying for the antivax conspiracy theories to the point where they become true believers. Where Gov. DeSantis is in that process is not yet clear to me, although right now he appears to be in the cynical pandering stage:
DeSantis, by all accounts a savvy politician, is clearly aware that anti-vaccine sentiment has surged among rank-and-file Republicans.
Even a former senior Trump official who worked on Operation Warp Speed, the program that successfully accelerated vaccine development, acknowledges that DeSantis’s anti-vax 180 is “good politics.” Trump himself has drawn boos at his rallies when he mentions the vaccines. “There is a whole contingent of the GOP that don’t like vaccines,” the former official says.
Those familiar with DeSantis’s inner circle say his vaccine stance is indeed driven by politics, not science. “There’s no medical people involved in this,” someone with knowledge of DeSantis’s advisers says. “It’s all political people. Now a couple of those TV doctors, those people are in his orbit, but this is not engineered by the scientific side of the house.” His goal, insiders say, is to tack to Trump’s right and peel off anti-vaxxers whose votes could prove decisive in the Republican presidential primaries next year.
Now there’s a frightening sentence! I would also add this. Even if Gov. DeSantis is probably still (barely) in the cynical pandering stage, that stage has led him to put a true believer at the helm of Florida’s entire public health apparatus. At a certain point, it doesn’t really matter whether Gov. DeSantis is a cynical panderer or has become a true believer. The end result in terms of public health policy is the same: A disaster.
Ten years ago, I used to say that antivax is the conspiracy theory and science denial shared across the political spectrum. And so it was. I also used to point out around five years ago that, yes, antivax views were generally probably roughly evenly distributed among the right and the left. The article (sort of) acknowledges this, although it falls for the rather lazy and not entirely accurate cliche that just a decade ago antivaxxers were all granola-crunching lefties:
Vaccine skepticism is nothing new.
For years, it brewed on the political left, says Dr. Arnold Monto, an epidemiologist and acting chair of the FDA’s COVID-19 Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC). Affluent California mothers pursuing an organic lifestyle and “trendy West Siders in New York,” he says, embraced debunked claims about the links between childhood vaccinations and autism. These views have long been stoked by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a progressive environmental lawyer turned anti-vaccine crusader.
Again, this is only sort of true. There was definitely a stereotype, a narrative by the press, that nearly all of the antivax activism was left wing among coastal liberals in Marin County and trendy Manhattanites. Even as skilled a humorist as Samantha Bee used that stereotype as the basis of a 2014 Daily Show segment that was funny but got a lot wrong.
That wrongness continues in some quotes in the article:
By early 2022, the vaccine anger from the right was notable, says Monto. “A party which used to be in favor of vaccines, probably even more than the Democratic Party, turned it around so they espouse all sorts of data for their own purposes,” he says.
No, no, no, no, no! That is utter bullshit. I’m sorry, but there is no other word to describe such obliviousness, and that is something that no chair of FDA’s COVID-19 Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC) should be clueless enough to believe. I can only think that maybe—just maybe—Dr. Monto is thinking back to before the turn of the millennium—or maybe even earlier.
No, for at long time, regardless of which party had more antivaxxers in its ranks, it has been only politicians of one of the major political parties, the Republican Party, who were embracing antivaccine policies because they sensed that they could win votes from the base that way. Some of them even rose to positions of great power in Congress and the Party, such as Rand Paul. Does Dr. Monto not remember, for example, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Indiana)? He had an autistic grandchild and fervently believed that vaccines had caused his grandchild’s autism. As a result, in the 1990s and 2000s, he routinely used to abuse his position as the chair of the powerful House Oversight Committee to drag CDC and FDA officials before his committee to harangue them about whether vaccines cause autism and what they were doing to “investigate” this link, while giving voice to antivax activists and not believing any data that didn’t show a link between vaccines and autism. Does he not remember Senator Rand Paul, who is antivax to the core?
In comparison, Democratic antivaxxers—who certainly do exist!—tend to be largely shunned and relegated to the fringes of the party. (Think, for example, Marianne Williamson.) However, since resistance to vaccine mandates and public health interventions has become a badge of ideological and political identity, it is impossible to deny that right now, right here in the US, in 2023 antivax activism is far more a right wing phenomenon—and a far right wing phenomenon at that—than it is left wing, and this is not a new phenomenon. It had largely been cemented by the fall of 2019, when members of a far right militia marched on Sacramento with antivax activists and in 2018, when pro-vaccine Republicans in Texas were being successfully primaried by antivax Republicans and antivaxxers were running to be the governor of major state. I note that in my very own state in 2018 my local Republican Party held an antivax roundtable at one of its local offices, which I attended to document and that both my state representative and state senator espoused antivax positions, and that before that my state GOP had been introducing bills to make measles great again by hamstringing public health and school officials and making exemptions to school vaccine mandates much easier to get. Nor was the Michigan GOP alone in this. Indeed, in 2012, the Texas GOP had planks in its party platform opposing school vaccine mandates and the teaching of evolution. Funny how those two frequently go together. Also, the elimination of school vaccine mandates has always been the antivax endgame.
How did this happen? For details, you can read my accounts in 2021, 2019, and even 2015, when I first asked, Is the Republican Party becoming the antivaccine party? I’ve also discussed how far back the affinity between the far right and antivaccine views goes. (Hint: It’s not just back to 2021 but dates back at least to the mid-1800s, if not longer.) There’s a reason why Tucker Carlson so easily slipped into promoting antivax propaganda and a neo-Confederate like Jeffrey Tucker founded one of the foremost promoters of anti-public health propaganda, the Brownstone Institute.
I don’t mean to be totally critical of the article. So before I finish, I will note that there’s a lot that it gets right. For example, Eban notes how much COVID-19 “contrarian” doctors have helped fuel right-wing resistance to vaccines and public health, correctly noting Tucker’s role:
And yet, some members of the public health integrity committee have touted unproven cures such as hydroxychloroquine and used selective data to question vaccine safety. Four of the seven have had their work published by the Brownstone Institute, a nonprofit think tank set up in May 2021 to counter what it claims are threats to “freedom and fundamental human rights” exposed by the global COVID-19 response. Its founder, Jeffrey A. Tucker, who initially helped convene the signers of the Great Barrington Declaration, is an author and self-described “Victorian liberal” who has advocated for child labor. In a 2016 blog post in the Foundation for Economic Education, he lamented that bored kids were forced to attend public school instead of experiencing an “exciting life” of work “on the streets, in the factories, in the mines, with adults and with peers, learning and doing.”
In an upcoming book titled We Want Them Infected, NYU’s Jonathan Howard chronicles the rise of what he calls “malignant contrarianism” among a certain subset of doctors and scientists. Attempting to answer the question “Why do smart people come to believe crazy things?,” he concludes, “They need to be smarter than everyone. If vaccines were banned, [they] would be the loudest voices saying, ‘They’re suppressing this miracle. No wonder big pharma doesn’t want you to know about it.”
Howard says the doctors surrounding DeSantis have vastly underestimated the toll of COVID, particularly in children, and have focused inordinately on vaccine side effects, elevating them to a “fate worse than death.”
I like that part about how, if vaccines were banned, these same contrarians would likely be advocating for them. I rather suspect that Dr. Howard is onto something there.
Eban is also correct that the right wing fringe doctors appear to have taken over:
To the doctors and scientists who believe that COVID-19 vaccines are somehow a bigger threat than the virus itself, Ron DeSantis’s Florida is the tip of the spear in a fight to expose the agenda of public health experts and vaccine makers. “If not Florida to perform an independent audit, then who?” says Dr. Robert Malone, a physician and scientist who has publicly criticized the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines.
MAGA supporters and insiders are increasingly disappointed, meanwhile, with Donald Trump’s failure to disavow the vaccines his administration helped develop. Some have gone so far as to wage a pressure campaign to get him to renounce them.
Unfortunately, public health officials seem to take the wrong message from all of this;
According to Dr. Sandro Galea, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, the public health establishment is partly to blame for this backlash. The “absolute refusal to acknowledge any side effects of vaccines” has led more right-leaning scientists and doctors to emphasize them, he says. “The public health absolutism of the moment has removed space for disagreement. It empowers people like DeSantis, who is obviously exploiting the situation” for his own benefit.
I can’t help but ask in response to this; Who are these public health officials whose “absolute refusal to acknowledge any side effects of vaccines” supposedly led these contrarians to emphasize them? Seriously, I want names, because I don’t know of any. And, no, not even Dr. Anthony Fauci did that. Let me just put it this way. Dr. Galea is falling for a very common narrative in which supposedly more “transparency” (whatever that means in practice) will lead to more trust. That might have been true before social media (although I question whether it was ever as true as public health officials claim).
Let’s just put it this way. The rollout of COVID-19 vaccines was accompanied by the most transparent reporting of adverse events either, and the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) was heavily promoted. Predictably, antivaxxers weaponized it against COVID-19 vaccines, as they had against childhood vaccinations going back at least 20 years. Moreover, Dr. Galea should remember that in antivax-speak, saying accurately and truthfully that it isn’t clear whether a given reported adverse event is caused by a given vaccine is the equivalent of denying that the vaccine caused it, or, to borrow his words, an “absolute refusal to acknowledge any side effects of vaccines.” To them, correlation is causation, and no amount of epidemiology will change their mind otherwise. Similarly, saying (for example) that the risk of myocarditis from the mRNA vaccines is low and that the myocarditis is mild, making the risk of COVID-19 still far worse than the risk of the vaccine, is an “absolute refusal to acknowledge any side effects of vaccines.”
My annoyances aside with some old reporting tropes about the antivaccine movement and my frustration with public health officials with short memories and a lack of familiarity with antivax conspiracy theories, the article still does a needed service in emphasizing two things. First, antivax is the dominant ideology with respect to public health among the far right and the Republican base. Second, so dominant has antivax ideology become that an ambitious and cynical politician like Ron DeSantis sees far more advantage in pandering to this ideology (and likely eventually being captured by it) than in pursuing a more science-based position.
As bad as I feared that it might get, I must admit that I had never predicted that antivax views would become a litmus test for politicians of a major political party at the national level. Yet that it what has happened. Ron DeSantis is a symptom more than a cause of the rot at the heart of the Republican Party.