The California Recall and the GOP's Anti-Vax Arms Race

If Trump can get booed for being insufficiently anti-vax, no Republican is safe

In Friday’s Message Box, I wrote about the politics of President Biden’s recent announcement pushing for vaccine mandates for federal workers. Since that post, the Republican reaction has been even more rabid and self-defeating than I imagined. That reflexive decision to side with the anti-vax crowd is one reason they lost their shot at the California governorship in yesterday’s recall election.

Before I get to the politics, I feel compelled to point out that the politics are sort of beside the point. The vaccine mandates are good, necessary policy to get more and more Americans vaccinated and protect the tens of millions of children who cannot yet access the vaccine. If you doubt for one second that these policies are necessary, check out this map recently shared on Twitter by Adam Sternbergh of the New York Times:

The United States currently has the second-highest per-capita COVID case rate in the world. We only trail Mongolia. If you were to zoom in, you would see that the biggest problem areas are Republican states run by Republicans. For all of the good work the Biden Administration does, they know they must do more to push back against Republican malfeasance at the state level.

I believe President Biden made this latest announcement for entirely substantive reasons, but in Washington, every decision is inherently political. By moving the emphasis from carrots to sticks, the president essentially set a political trap for Republicans — and they walked right into it.

There are more vaccinated people than unvaccinated people. Mandates are popular and getting more popular by the day as frustration with the unvaccinated grows. Not to oversimplify the complexities of politics but, in general, you want to be for popular things and against unpopular things. Yet, the Republicans — and not just the MAGA/Fox extremists — came out in strong opposition to Biden’s plan. Some even called for violent resistance.

Republicans bumbled into Biden’s political trap. Their virulent — and violent — opposition to vaccine mandates could be a political anvil around their neck in the midterms if the effects of the pandemic persist.

The decision to double and triple down on this losing strategy can be traced back to a recent moment involving — you guessed it — Donald Trump.

The MAGA Movement Turns on Trump

As a general rule, most congressional Republicans think Donald Trump is a blundering buffoon. Behind the scenes and in off-the-record conversations with reporters, they mock his ignorance. They tell tales of incoherent conversations and rampant conspiracy theories. They cringe at his crass tweets. But every Republican is in awe over his command of the Republican base. Trump used his sway to elevate backbenchers to the governor’s mansion and dispatched long-standing members of the establishment to CNN contributor status. That’s why it was so shocking to see a crowd of MAGA supporters in Alabama (of all places) turn on the former president.

During a late August rally, Trump did something that bordered on responsible and encouraged attendees to get vaccinated. Trump told the crowd:

“I recommend taking the vaccines, I did it. It’s good. Take the vaccines.”

The attendees — many wearing “Make America Great Again” hats and other Trump swag — did something unprecedented for a Trump rally — they booed their leader.

Trump seemed legitimately shocked. The boos at Trump rallies are usually reserved for the media, Democrats, science, democracy, and apostate Republicans. This was something new. Trump quickly backpedaled:

“No, that’s OK, that’s alright. You’ve got your freedoms, but I happen to take the vaccine. If it doesn’t work, you’ll be the first to know, OK? I’ll call up Alabama and say, ‘Hey, you know what?’ But it is working. But you do have your freedoms. You have to maintain that.”

Trump being booed at a Trump rally quickly went viral. And unlike a lot of viral moments in political media, this one had real significance. If Trump can get booed for simply suggesting people take the COVID vaccine then every Republican on the ballot is in real danger if they aren’t anti-vaccine. In the beginning, simply being supportive of Trump was sufficient to avoid the enmity of the base. No more. The Trumpist movement has moved beyond Trump — on this issue at least.

The Politics

It’s too early to say how prominent COVID will be on the minds of voters during the 2022 elections. One can only hope that the pandemic is far behind us and we are not dealing with a new variant further down the Greek alphabet. But the question of vaccines and mandates are already central in the two most prominent 2021 races. Even before Trump’s boos or Biden’s mandate speech, California Governor Gavin Newsom was making vaccine and mask mandates the central issue in his effort to defeat the recall. In Virginia, Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin is caught between a rock and a hard place in a very blue, anti-Trump state. Earlier this summer, Youngkin tried to make ground with a pro-vaccine campaign. But Youngkin was so afraid of angering the Trump base that his message ended up being a mealy-mouthed muddle that pleased no one, angered everyone, and weakened his image and campaign.

Preliminary exit polls in the California recall show that 63 percent of voters see vaccination more as a public-health responsibility than as a personal choice.

The visual of Trump being booed was top of mind for every Republican responding to the Biden mandate plan. Given the polling and context, the obvious political move for Republicans was to put out a statement in mild opposition to the specifics of the Biden plan while touting the vaccine development efforts of Trump and Republicans. That is, of course, not what happened. They were so afraid of angering the MAGA base they felt compelled to raise the salience of an issue that is, without a doubt, bad for them politically. Each Republican statement was more cataclysmic than the prior.

As ABC News reported:

South Dakota GOP Gov. Kristi Noem, a potential 2024 presidential candidate, tweeted to Biden, "see you in court," while Mississippi GOP Gov. Tate Reeves compared him to a "tyrant," and South Carolina GOP Gov. Henry McMaster said he'll "fight them to the gates of hell" to stop the move. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called Biden's approach "flat-out un-American."

The Republican Party risks further embracing an unpopular position that erodes their currently very good opportunity to retake the House and Senate majority. All this in response to some booing at a Trump Rally. Boohoo, right? Things that are terrible for the Republican Party politically are good for the country. That group of incompetent, lily-livered, conspiracy theory-believing bunch of wackos are an existential danger to the country. However, their positions right now could make the vaccine debate even more poisonous.

To date, Trump has been betwixt and between on vaccines. He desperately wants more credit for the role Operation Warp Speed played in speeding the development of the vaccine, while still wreaking havoc with periodic statements to sow distrust in the effort. Unsurprisingly, Trump quickly sought to appease his base by claiming in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that he was unlikely to get the booster shot.

The 2024 Republican primary also threatens to become more anti-vaccine. The problem for every Republican seeking to challenge Trump’s hold on the GOP is that there is no appetite for someone left of Trump and there is no room to the right of him. Virulent anti-vax sentiment may be the only way to outflank Trump in the run up to the primary. This is incredibly dangerous. Republicans may attempt to make it more challenging to get the hesitant on board with the vaccine and start an arms race of irresponsibility between the craven grifters thinking about running for president.