IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Will Trump's followers listen to Trump on Covid vaccines?

Trump's acolytes adore him, just so long as he's saying what they want to hear — and right now, they don't want to hear the truth about vaccines.
Image: Former U.S. President Donald Trump on stage giving a thumbs-up.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump exits the NCGOP state convention on Jun. 05, 2021 in Greenville, North Carolina.Melissa Sue Gerrits / Getty Images

Donald Trump's rhetorical record on vaccines and autism is dreadful. His rhetoric over the summer on booster shots was hardly any better.

But last week, the former president was surprisingly constructive on the issue of Covid-19 vaccinations. It began last Sunday when the Republican acknowledged having received a booster, adding that the vaccines have "saved tens of millions of lives worldwide." Soon after, when President Joe Biden noted that the vaccines were developed during his predecessor's administration, Trump expressed his delight.

A few days later, as NBC News noted, Trump went even further.

Former President Donald Trump praised the efficacy of the coronavirus vaccines in a new interview just days after being booed by an audience for revealing he received a Covid booster shot.

"The vaccine is one of the greatest achievements of mankind," Trump told conservative commentator Candace Owens in an interview on Wednesday. When the host started to push back a bit, the former president quickly added, "Oh no, the vaccines work. The ones who get very sick and go to the hospital are the ones that don't take the vaccine.... If you take the vaccine, you're protected."

He added, "I came up with a vaccine, with three vaccines all are very, very good," he said in the interview, referring to Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson.

There's certainly room for conversation about the Republican's motives. Trump expressed disapproval of vaccines unrelated to Covid because he didn't develop them. He questioned the utility of masks, because he couldn't take credit for them, either. But as far as the former president is concerned, the three main Covid-19 vaccines are his.

He may not have been directly involved in their development — that credit obviously belongs to scientists — but for Trump, the scientific breakthrough happened on his watch, so the lifesaving vaccines are an extension of his awesomeness.

But more interesting is that the former president's search for self-glorification is the likely impact of his rhetoric. Republican pollster Frank Luntz said last week, "This is significant. Trump telling people to get the vaccine right now will have a better, a bigger impact than anyone else, because it's Republicans who aren't vaccinated."

At face value, that makes quite a bit of sense. There's ample evidence that rank-and-file Republican voters are among the least likely to do the responsible thing; those same voters tend to have a religious-like reverence for the former president; so it stands to reason that Trump's rhetoric might have beneficial effects as we try to end the pandemic.

But just below the surface, there's reason for some skepticism about whether Trump's followers will follow his advice and roll up their sleeves.

Let's not forget that the Republican's recent rhetoric on Covid vaccines isn't entirely new. In early March, as public access to the vaccines became more common, Trump appeared at a far-right gathering and said, "So everybody, go get your shot."

About a week later, the Republican issued a related statement that meandered, and was annoyingly whiny, but which was nevertheless pro-vaccine: Trump called the shots "beautiful" and suggested that "everyone" would be receiving them.

Many of his supporters ignored him. In the months that followed, Trump was even booed by his own supporters when he touted the free, safe, and effective miracle vaccines.

Alex Jones told his audience that the former president's rhetoric on vaccines was "nothing but a raft of dirty lies." Other notable voices from Trump World have reacted in a similar way.

From a public health perspective, the hopes are rooted in a dubious assumption: Trump's followers will take direction from Trump, even when they disagree with him. The more the Republican celebrates the vaccines — for whatever reason — the more likely it is his devotees will do the smart thing.

But what often gets lost is the fact that 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 and attitudes, 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 last week, what we're seeing is a conflict between Trump and Trumpism, and the latter is winning.