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Trump's frightening 2025 pledge puts our children at risk

As Trump ramps up his anti-vaccine rhetoric, he is pushing a dangerous movement away from the fringe and toward the center of the culture wars.

Amid former President Donald Trump’s fire hose of fabulism, feculence and felonies, it can be hard to keep track of his many concerning 2025 pledges. One nugget that may have escaped wider notice is his declaration, made in speech after campaign speech, that he will “not give one penny to any school that has a vaccine mandate.” As Steve Benen notes, “Trump’s rhetoric was neither accidental nor new.” But we also can’t ignore it. 

We are occasionally assured that we should take Trump seriously, but not literally. Yet Trump seems committed to this vaccine mandate threat.

We are occasionally assured that we should take Trump seriously, but not literally. Yet Trump seems committed to this vaccine mandate threat. As Benen notes, the former president has repeated his anti-vax vow “word for word, for at least a year.” And, lest there be any confusion, he occasionally emphasizes that his pledge would apply to every public school “from kindergarten through college.”

Nor does he specifically limit his pledge to Covid-era vaccines.

It’s hard to overstate what this could mean.

Every state, as well as the District of Columbia, has vaccination requirements for children attending school. It’s routine to require that children be immunized against measles, rubella, chickenpox, tetanus, pertussis, polio, hepatitis B and pneumococcal disease.

These mandates highlight one of the biggest triumphs of modern science. The proof is as dramatic as it is incontrovertible. Diseases that once killed hundreds of thousands of Americans have been eliminated or drastically reduced.

Smallpox and polio have been eradicated, while diseases like measles, chickenpox, mumps and pertussis have been dramatically cut. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, routine childhood vaccinations are believed to have helped prevent 472 million illnesses and 1,052,000 deaths just among American children born between 1994 and 2021.

Despite this, vaccinations remain controversial with a subset of activists. During the Covid pandemic, right-wing politicians mobilized in opposition both to the Covid vaccine and to government mandates. Trump, who took credit for the rapid development of the vaccines, felt the backlash and eventually joined the campaign against legal requirements.

In recent months, he has escalated his attacks on Covid mandates in particular. And he is using his sweeping anti-vax pledge as a wedge issue against Robert F. Kennedy Jr., another notorious vaccine skeptic. In a recent video posted on his Truth Social platform, Trump denounced Kennedy for being insufficiently hostile to vaccines. 

“So, Republicans,” Trump said, “get it out of your mind that you’re going to vote for this guy because he’s conservative. He’s not. And by the way, he said the other night that vaccines are fine. He said it on a show, a television show, that vaccines are fine. He’s all for them. And that’s what he said. And for those of you that want to vote because you think he’s an anti-vaxxer, he’s not really an anti-vaxxer.”

As Trump ramps up his anti-vaccine rhetoric, he is pushing the opposition of vaccines away from the fringe and toward the center of the culture wars. The danger is that, in doing so, he could turn opposition to vaccine mandates more broadly into the same kind of litmus test for the right as hostility to mask mandates and other Covid-era restrictions.

Indeed, there are already warning signs at the state and local level. Measles is making a modest comeback in states like Florida. After an outbreak in a school near Miami, Gov. Ron DeSantis’s handpicked surgeon general, Joseph Ladapo, declared that unvaccinated children could still attend school. In 2023, Ladapo also recommended against the Covid-19 mRNA vaccines for young males between the ages of 18 and 39.

This may just be the tip of a new reactionary anti-vax push. Legislation has been proposed in state legislatures across the country that could limit the use of vaccines for measles, polio and meningitis, often in the name of parental or religious rights. A bill pending in Louisiana would require schools to proactively inform parents of their rights to opt out of the mandates. “We’re against the government telling us what to do with our own bodies,” the legislation’s author, GOP Rep. Kathy Edmonston, insists

The Republican Legislature in West Virginia passed a bill that would have exempted students attending private, parochial and virtual schools from the mandates. (It was vetoed by GOP Gov. Jim Justice.) Mississippi has seen a dramatic spike in the number of students claiming religious exemptions. In Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers vetoed legislation that would have required public universities and colleges to provide exemptions "for reasons of health, religion, or personal conviction."

Of course, even a Trump-inspired cutoff of federal aid would not mean the end of vaccine mandates writ large. States and local communities could still choose to continue protecting children from infectious diseases with the strategy that has proven effective for decades.

But the risk of Trump’s threat is very real, and the toll could be measured in the lives of America's children. In 2024, that needs to be taken both literally and seriously.