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The right-wing anti-Covid vaccine push is missing a scapegoat

A stream of vaccine skepticism from GOP politicians and conservative media is putting America at risk.
Illustration of a hand holding a Covid-19 vaccine, Covid-19 virus spores, and a healthcare worker treating a patient in a hospital.
The vaccine skepticism coming from the right is getting people killed.Chelsea Stahl / MSNBC; Getty Images

For months now, right-wing politicians and media figures have cast baseless doubt on the efficacy of the Covid-19 vaccines. It's ghoulish and vile — and I'm worried that it's gearing up for an even more dangerous phase.

There's an obvious political slant to this misinformation, a terrible logic that views the Biden administration's vaccination campaign as an impediment to potential Republican electoral victories. Basically, in this thinking, anything President Joe Biden does that's good for the country is bad for the GOP. Ergo, vaccines that would help America safely and fully reopen — not to mention save lives — must be bad.

Eventually, these theorists are going to need a scapegoat: someone to blame for the inescapable fact that people are still dying from Covid-19.

The anti-vaccine narrative has taken hold among Republican voters, helping keep the vaccination rate in the U.S. at about 59 percent of adults. Forty-seven percent of Republicans said they weren't likely to get vaccinated, a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found.

Rather than help push his followers to get their shots, former President Donald Trump joined the cavalcade of denialists over the weekend. In a statement dripping with pique, he linked mistrust in the administration's vaccination push to his own lies about the election:

"He's way behind schedule, and people are refusing to take the Vaccine because they don't trust his Administration, they don't trust the Election results, and they certainly don't trust the Fake News, which is refusing to tell the Truth."

While Trump is, as ever, willing to say the quiet part out loud, others have twisted themselves into ideological knots to justify their vaccine skepticism. Many, like Fox News omni-troll Tucker Carlson, have tried to frame vaccine concerns as a civil liberties issue. When the Biden administration announced its plan to have volunteers and health workers go door to door to spread the good word about vaccines, Carlson and his fellow Fox host Laura Ingraham absolutely freaked out. Carlson said the initiative was trying to "force people to take medicine they don't want or need." Ingraham likewise said the campaign was "creepy stuff."

Not to be outdone, reliable MAGA die-hards like Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, followed the slippery slope from vaccine information handouts to classic Second Amendment fearmongering. "What's next? Knocking on your door to see if you own a gun?" he asked. Freshman Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., also claimed it was basically a trial run to confiscate people's guns and Bibles.

Others have hidden behind the idea that they're "just asking questions" about how effective the vaccines can really be. Newsmax host Rob Schmitt got roasted last week for saying vaccines are "generally kind of going against nature." (The network had to issue a statement in response to the blowback, saying it "strongly supports President Biden's efforts to widely distribute the covid vaccine.")

And then there are the folks at OANN, who framed the door-to-door campaign as a ploy by "political operatives" sent to "the homes of people who refuse to take an experimental COVID-19 vaccine." Last week the media site also ran a whole segment "fact-checking" the vaccines, claiming that over 9,000 people have died as a result of being vaccinated. (That is not the case at all, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

All of this is terrible, but it's missing an important piece of the conspiracy puzzle. Eventually, these theorists are going to need a scapegoat: someone to blame for the inescapable fact that people are still dying from Covid-19. As NBC News reported Monday, "five of the top six states with the highest daily average cases over the past two weeks have below-average vaccination rates and voted for Trump last fall."

Yes, conservatives can target the Biden administration, and they have, for overreach and hypocrisy, given Vice President Kamala Harris' concerns about a rushed vaccine before last year's election. Dr. Anthony Fauci is a common lightning rod, especially given some of the inconsistent information and guidance offered during the early stages of the pandemic. Liberal scolds can be blamed for not providing the proper outreach to skeptical conservatives. (A point I disagree with, but which at least is in favor of more people getting vaccinated.)

But the anti-Covid vaccine movement will struggle to explain away the unvaccinated Americans who are overwhelming hospital systems again. It can't tell people whose loved ones have gotten sick and died after refusing the vaccines that the inoculation was to blame. And there's no leap that I can think of, logical or not, that convincingly makes the case that Biden is more responsible for these deaths than the people who are discouraging vaccinations.

Which leaves me worried about what happens when this movement does find a scapegoat. In the early days of the pandemic, even after prevention efforts like social distancing and masking were known to work, Asian Americans were the targets of choice. The violence sparked by that racist attempt to divert attention from America's lackluster pandemic response has yet to fully abate.

There has to be someone who can be blamed for these hundreds of daily deaths. I'm sure someone will turn up sooner or later on Carlson's show — and I'm not looking forward to finding out who the mob has chosen.