Republican Vaccine Denial Is Not a Political Strategy

Photo: Jeenah Moon/REUTERS

Never attribute to malice, states Hanlon’s razor, that which is adequately explained by stupidity. In defiance of that precept, many liberals have suggested that the Republican Party’s subversion of the pandemic response is a plot to undermine the Biden presidency.

“The right’s strategy on COVID-19 vaccines, as planned and executed by the Republican Party and Fox News, was a [sic] simple as it was sinister: sabotage President Joe Biden’s rollout by sacrificing the bodies of their own supporters,” argues Amanda Marcotte. “The GOP plan was to sabotage herd immunity and blame Democrats for it,” argues Brian Beutler. Jamelle Bouie floats this hypothesis without fully endorsing it, acknowledging that Republican vaccine denial might be sincere but might also be “an unbelievably cynical and nihilistic strategy.”

No doubt Republicans are happy to see the Delta wave harming Biden’s polls, and for many, their Schadenfreude may even outweigh their humanitarian concern. But the notion that they engineered this outcome deliberately flies in the face of nearly all the evidence we have.

The Republican posture toward the coronavirus has not fundamentally changed since Biden’s election. Since the virus appeared, the party has consistently denied or downplayed its seriousness and opposed any measures to contain it: masking, vaccines, shutdowns of both public and private spaces.

The pressure to adopt this denialism has come from both above (Donald Trump’s belief that the pandemic was a hoax designed to sabotage the economy and prevent his reelection) and below (the Republican base having nurtured a distrust of science.) I analyzed the right’s denialism as an outgrowth of its paranoid rejection of science in a story that ran in July 2020. And even though Trump hoped a vaccine would end the pandemic, the anti-vax movement was already mobilizing on the right and gaining adherents among Republican elected officials.

If Republicans had a partisan motive then, it was the belief that opening up the economy and taking the hit to public health would help President Trump. It seems hard to understand how they would suddenly decide the same course of action would hurt President Biden.

What’s more, it’s difficult to explain why Republicans would get buy-in on this strategy from governors, who would pay an immense political price for their cooperation. Ron DeSantis used to enjoy a promising brand as a Republican governor who had flouted restrictions while still registering average-ish public-health outcomes.

But his state has turned into such a basket case that conservative pundits have (at least briefly) paused their incessant demands that the media apologize to him. DeSantis has been left picking unpopular fights with local school boards and cruise lines that are trying to serve the public without getting people killed.

Meanwhile, Republican vaccine skepticism is killing a nontrivial number of Republican voters, including a tragic procession of mid-level party officials. Three unvaccinated conservative talk-show hosts have died of COVID this month alone. For a movement so obsessed with demographic replacement that it sees Afghan refugees as a plot to entrench Democratic majorities, it’s odd that it would deliberately kill off its own voters.

Noting this MAGA-cide, Christopher Ingraham accuses Republicans of following “the most breathtakingly cynical political strategy I’ve witnessed in my lifetime, revealing a stunning level of contempt for the true believers in the party who end up laying down their lives for the cause.”

But why should we consider it a “political strategy,” or even a strategy at all? Republican COVID denialism began as a kind-of strategy, designed to justify steps Trump believed would help him win reelection, but has evolved into haphazard, self-harming gestures of cultural resentment. Having initially convinced themselves COVID isn’t serious, enough Republicans have invested themselves in vaccine skepticism now that most Republican politicians hesitate to alienate their own voters.

There have been times in the past when the cynicism of Republican elites and the paranoia of the base have worked in concert. The tea-party rebellion was like that: Republican leaders stoked their base into a rage, which they used to justify contractionary fiscal and monetary measures that hampered the recovery under Obama.

But whatever temporary harm they are inflicting on Biden seems incidental to the damage they are absorbing themselves. In the current crisis, Republican leaders are not controlling the paranoia of their base but are being controlled by it.