Donald Trump is accustomed to a degree of deference from his followers that borders on creepy. Many of the former president’s diehard devotees continue to believe, even now, that the Republican is effectively infallible.
There is, however, one notable exception.
Nearly a year ago, Trump held an event in Alabama — one of the nation’s reddest red states, where the Republican ticket won by 25 points in 2020 — where he encouraged attendees to get Covid vaccines. The booing was audible and immediate. Four months later, at an event in Texas, he acknowledged having received a booster shot, at which point he was again booed by his supporters.
The former president has clearly gotten the message. The Daily Beast highlighted Trump’s rhetoric in July, during a rally in Anchorage, Alaska, where the Republican was reluctant to use the word “vaccine.”
“We did so much in terms of therapeutics and a word that I’m not allowed to mention,” Trump told the crowd while referencing vaccines. “But I’m still proud of that word! Because we did that in nine months, and it was supposed to take five years to 12 years. Nobody else could have done it.”
He added, in reference to the “v” word, “I’m not mentioning it in front of my people.”
Trump clearly wanted to brag about the development of the lifesaving vaccines, but he also wanted to avoid getting booed by his own acolytes, so he tried to split the difference: The former president said he's “proud” of the the scientific breakthrough that he’s now afraid to reference out loud.
The fact that Trump’s followers are reflexively repulsed by the mere mention of Covid vaccines is itself extraordinary. The vaccines have been enormously effective and deserve to be seen as a once-in-a-generation miracle. To hear Republican voters boo such a breakthrough is a reminder of the party’s regressive approach to science and public health.
But as a political matter, it’s just as striking to see Trump get browbeaten into submission. We’re accustomed to seeing the Republican try to bully others, but this is an instance in which he’s the one who’s been bullied, to the point in which he was, for all intents and purposes, scared to say the word “vaccine” in front of his own supporters.
By the former president’s own admission, he no longer believes he’s “allowed” to mention the word.
Circling back to our earlier coverage, this is a timely reminder of an underappreciated political dynamic: Trump’s acolytes adore him, just so long as he’s saying what they want to hear — and at this point in the pandemic, they don’t want to hear the truth about vaccines. The Republican has a gift for exploiting the GOP base’s instincts, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he has the power to change those voters’ minds.
He doesn’t lead his supporters, so much as he reflects their id.
As Philip Bump put it late last year, in a conflict between Trump and Trumpism, it’s the latter that often prevails.