At a rally in Cullman, Alabama, this weekend, former President Donald Trump did something that felt out of character: He encouraged his supporters to get the Covid-19 vaccination. Unfortunately, he quickly backpedaled when his gentle suggestion drew jeers and boos from the audience.
The back-and-forth was a powerful symbol of how Trump has created a longer-term public health crisis out of political expediency — and how he lacks the will to do what it will take to protect the very people he misled. What’s worse is there are signs that Republicans looking to carry on his political legacy in the White House are poised to do exactly the same thing.
At the rally, Trump said, "I believe totally in your freedoms. I do. You've got to do what you have to do," before pivoting: "But I recommend take the vaccines. I did it. It's good. Take the vaccines."
The backpedaling began when the mostly mask-free rallygoers began to boo: "No, that's OK. That's all right. You got your freedoms. But I happened to take the vaccine. If it doesn't work, you'll be the first to know. OK? I'll call up Alabama, I'll say, hey, you know what? But [the vaccine] is working. But you do have your freedoms you have to keep. You have to maintain that."
Trump’s language was full of hedging. His use of “happened to take the vaccine” allowed him to imply agnosticism about whether it was a deliberate or wise decision at the time. (He himself secretly got the vaccination before leaving the White House, presumably because he had faith it would work.) He’s now telling his own supporters he thinks it’s working, but he can’t bring himself to do it without vague caveats about freedoms.
It’s of course widely known that Trump craves adulation over everything, and it’s not a surprise that he would decline to push back hard against boos in his own audience. But Trump bears some serious responsibility for the very boos that make him nervous.
Trump’s response to the pandemic entailed downplaying the dangers of the virus from the very beginning and failing to back public health guidance that could’ve helped slow its spread. On an individual level, he suggested it was similar to the flu, walked around maskless and floated questionable and junk treatments for Covid-19, perhaps most memorably the theory that injecting yourself with disinfectant might protect against falling ill. On a policy level, Trump dismantled critical organizational readiness for the pandemic, discouraged social distancing and lockdowns and tried to whip up xenophobic fear of China instead of focusing on what needed to be done domestically to protect Americans.
To be fair, Trump did promote the idea of an eventual vaccine as a solution to the pandemic while he was in office. And he tried to take (undeserved) credit for Pfizer’s initial announcement that it had developed a highly successful one. But the vaccine wasn’t widely available until after he left office, and he has done little to counteract vaccine hesitancy after almost a year of downplaying the virus altogether.
Trump only admitted he had gotten vaccinated after reporters asked him about it in April. And while he’s devoted tremendous time and energy to pushing the false narrative that the 2020 election was stolen from him, he’s done virtually nothing to campaign for people to take the vaccination. In fact, he reportedly fears that doing so would aid President Joe Biden and hurt him politically. It's all a tragic reality considering how researchers have pinpointed Trump as the most influential player in combating vaccine hesitancy among Republicans.
Trump's rhetoric hurting vaccination efforts isn't limited to his specific commentary on Covid-19 and the vaccine. His entire presidency was devoted to the idea that The Establishment couldn’t be trusted, undermining the ability of mainstream media, health professionals and scientists to educate his base about Covid-19. In other words, Trump’s meager attempts to suggest the vaccine might be worth trying is overshadowed by his systematic efforts to sow mistrust in anyone outside of his political cohort.
This problem is unlikely to go away, and not just because Trump is afraid of the monster he’s helped create. Those who want to operate in the Trump lane in 2024 like Govs. Ron DeSantis and Kristi Noem are showing that they want to continue Trump’s tradition — decrying commonsense public health measures as a betrayal of conservatism and a surefire way to generate more attention for a White House run.
At a time when the fight to get more Americans vaccinated should be getting a boost — the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to the Pfizer vaccine on Monday — many Republican voters across the country are still getting mixed signals on whether they should take the vaccination. As long as politicians find profit in distorting the realities of the pandemic, the fight to end it will be a greater struggle than it should be.