Remind me, who was it who got booed by a crowd in Alabama six weeks ago for recommending the vaccine to his audience?
It wasn’t Joe Biden, was it?
There’s a grain of truth to what Trump told Hannity last night. If he were still president and therefore still the vaccine salesman-in-chief, I think the gap between Democrats and Republicans in vaccination rates would be smaller. Some Dems who’ve been vaccinated would have refused to get jabbed, believing that Trump was too incompetent and/or selfish to produce a safe and rigorously tested vaccine. And some Republicans who’ve held out would have gotten their shots, if only to show up the libs by vouching for the president’s great achievement with their own personal health.
But we’re kidding ourselves if we think the numbers would be upside down. Republican vaccine resistance didn’t suddenly show up on the day Biden was sworn in.
Trump on vaccines: "During my administration, everybody wanted the vaccine. There was nobody saying 'Oh, gee, I don’t want to take it.' Now they say that and that's because they don’t trust the Biden administration. I can think of no other reason." pic.twitter.com/A8V1jOr2BW
— Justin Baragona (@justinbaragona) October 8, 2021
KFF conducted a poll on the vaccine in December 2020, when Trump was still in office. If vaccine enthusiasm were a function of trust in the president we’d expect at least parity between Democrats and Republicans at that point. Instead:
Democrats led Republicans by 30 points. Three months earlier, in September 2020, they also led by exactly 30 points. Those numbers have held up over time too. In KFF’s new poll from last month, 90 percent of Dems said they’ve already gotten at least one dose versus 58 percent of Republicans who said so.
We could sit here all day trying to tease out sociological explanations for why the right is more skeptical of the vaccine than the left. Populism is stronger on the right and populists are suspicious of elite consensus. Conservatives are more hostile to mandates for ideological reasons and we’ve been awash in vaccine mandates at different levels for months. Most importantly, the right is less trusting of mainstream media and so the right seeks out fringier alternative platforms that are more willing to entertain skepticism about the vaccines than the liberal media ecosystem is. Fox News is only one player in that ecosystem but they’re the biggest player, and the network’s biggest show has become the country’s loudest megaphone for vaccine resistance. Savor the irony of Trump trying to pin vaccine hesitancy on Biden during an interview with Fox News primetime, less than an hour after Tucker Carlson’s evening show had finished airing.
That’s another interesting what-if of the pandemic: What if Trump had been reelected and Fox News had to cover the vaccine rollout knowing that its success would redound to Trump’s political benefit instead of Biden’s? What would Tucker’s show have looked like? Some have wondered whether it’s a coincidence that vaccine skepticism seemed to pick up at Fox only after Biden became president.
More broadly, what reason is there to think vaccination rates would have been higher under Trump in a second term than under Biden? Biden’s administration has been relentless and lockstep in encouraging people to get vaccinated since it came to power and has increasingly cheerled mandates to target the holdouts, most famously with Biden’s own federal mandate for companies with 100 or more employees. It’s unthinkable that Trump would have ordered or even condoned mandates. In fact, during this same interview last night with Hannity, he casually discouraged people who’ve had COVID from getting vaccinated:
“People have to have their freedoms,” Trump said Thursday to FOX News host Sean Hannity. “We should be in great shape, between the people who get it, they should not have to. If you get COVID, whatever you want to call it, plenty of names — Wuhan virus, the China virus, we’ve got plenty of names. When you get it, you shouldn’t have to be forced — they want to force people who have had it to have the vaccine. When in actuality, when you have it, you don’t need the vaccine, you become immune. So they say. It is a natural immunity.”
“Why are they forcing people to take the vaccine?” Trump asked. “Remember this, the drug companies make a lot of money. And they like it. I don’t know who else wants it or likes it, but when you get it, you don’t have to take the vaccine.”
He himself got vaccinated despite having had COVID, something many scientists recommend in the name of generating “hybrid immunity.” The most Trump would have said as president to push the vaccine, I suspect, is essentially what he said to Hannity — he recommends it but it’s no biggie if you don’t want to get it and he certainly understands if you think pharmaceutical companies are just trying to make a buck off a shot that you don’t really need. There’s no universe in which that tepid pitch leads to a higher vaccination rate than an all-hands-on-deck “get the shot” message.
I’ll say this for him, though: He probably would have gotten rid of Fauci, either by firing him or by Fauci quitting in disgust after he was reelected. That might have improved the feds’ vaccine messaging, at least.