Why the GOP Wants to Kill Its Voters

Understanding the seemingly illogical political logic behind the Republican embrace of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories

In its simplest form, politics is a game of numbers. The goal is to attract more voters. Therefore, exposing your most loyal voters to a deadly virus seems to be a particularly stupid way to go about winning elections. Yet a surprising number of Right-Wing politicians and media figures have spent a lot of time and energy pushing conspiracy theories about the COVID vaccine. This messaging has undoubtedly killed thousands of voters that the Republicans need in the 2022 elections.

While some Republican leaders have pushed the COVID vaccine from the outset and others, like Sean Hannity, have recently kinda, sorta changed their tone due to pressure from advertisers, there is no question significant elements of the Republican Party have embraced the anti-vax movement in the post-Trump Era.

Progressives were mystified about the Republican embrace of the anti-vax movement. Reactions ranged from outrage to condescension. Maybe the Republicans are too dense or demented to know what’s in their best interest. Perhaps, they are so committed to “owning the libs” that they are willing to kill their own voters. But the reason is neither idiocy nor performative assholery.

While the modern Republican Party is nihilistic, immoral, corrupt, and racist, it is not stupid. There is an underlying — albeit twisted — political logic behind the decision of so many Republican politicians to push anti-vax conspiracy theories. Killing their own voters is disgusting but not as self-defeating as it seems. It’s not a good or moral strategy, but it is a strategy. And defeating that strategy requires understanding why Republicans think killing their voters is good politics.

It’s B.S., and They Know It

The first — and most important thing — to understand is that the Right-Wingers pushing anti-vax messaging are full of cynical B.S. If you don’t believe me, listen to them. The Washington Post’s J.M. Rieger put together a video compilation of leading GOP anti-vaxxers like Senators Ron Johnson and Rand Paul praising the Trump Administration for their efforts to speed the development of the vaccine. Here are some examples from Rieger’s research:

In December, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) praised the Trump Administration’s “brilliant” Operation Warp Speed for helping expedite the development of coronavirus vaccines. Since then, Johnson has inflated the number of adverse reactions and deaths linked to the vaccines.

Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-Tex.), a former White House physician, told Fox News in November that he would get vaccinated to contribute to herd immunity. By July, Jackson was warning Fox viewers that “this is still an experimental vaccine being used under an emergency use authorization.”

In March, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) praised former president Donald Trump for saving lives with the coronavirus vaccines. By July, Greene was telling Americans not to get vaccinated.

Not one public figure has done more to sow distrust in the COVID vaccines than Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. On a nightly basis, Carlson pushes disinformation about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines. He regularly invites discredited conspiracy theorists like Alex Berenson on his show. Berenson — whom The Atlantic dubbed “The Pandemic’s Wrongest Man” — is a former New York Times reporter who has desperately sought relevance by becoming a champion of the anti-vaccine movement. Despite his efforts to convince his viewers not to get the vaccine, Carlson has refused to tell viewers whether he has been vaccinated.

Carlson is not the only anti-vaxxer on Fox’s airwaves. Despite a recent shift in tone, the Right-Wing propaganda network has been a fount of COVID misinformation. A Morning Consult poll from June found that people who regularly watch Fox News are significantly less likely to get vaccinated than those who consume other media.

However, what Fox News says on-air and what it does behind the scenes are two very different things. Due to his advanced age and immense wealth, Rupert Murdoch was one of the first people on Earth to receive the vaccine. The fact that Murdoch can profit off the death of his viewers yet be secure in his own immunity is more evidence that he is one of history’s great villains. The network has also railed against the idea of vaccine mandates or passports. Yet, as CNN reported:

Fox Corporation, the Right-Wing talk channel's parent company, has quietly implemented the concept of a vaccine passport as workers slowly return back to the company's offices. Fox employees, including those who work at Fox News, received an email, obtained by CNN Business, from the company's Human Resources department in early June that said Fox had ‘developed a secure, voluntary way for employees to self-attest their vaccination status.’

This level of cynicism and dishonesty among Republicans is nothing new and surprises no one reading this, but it is relevant because it speaks to the fact that these folks are pushing the vaccine conspiracy theories as part of a specific political strategy.

So, if all these Republicans are lying, why are they doing it? Not every purveyor of vaccine misinformation is doing it for the same reasons or incentives. The online Right is a loosely connected, incoherent mishmash of militants, grifters, and attention merchants. With the exception of the Mitt Romney’s and Liz Cheney’s of the world, the Republican Party itself can be divided into pure Trumpists who gleefully drank the MAGA Kool-Aid and performative Trumpists that choked it down. Here are the reasons for pushing misinformation:

Sow Distrust in (Democratic) Government

Many people think the last century or so of American politics has been a battle over the size of government. Democrats want an expanded social safety net and more government intervention, while Republicans want to shrink government to enable the market. This is the central narrative for most political reporting. It is also dangerously wrong. The battle over government is not about the size of government, but the role of government. Republicans want the government to serve as a bulwark against the growing political and economic power of a diversifying America that they view as an existential threat to their primarily White, Christian base. This viral quotation from composer Frank Wilhoit perfectly encapsulates the modern Republican Party:

Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.

This is why Republicans defend the police when they murder our citizens. It is why they pour money into border enforcement. And it is why they expand military and domestic surveillance. But when a Democrat is in charge — particularly if it’s a Black president with a white vice president or a white president with a Black vice president — the government becomes an existential threat. The Republican narrative depends on sowing distrust and fear about the government. Pushing conspiracy theories about the vaccines should be seen in the same vein as Republican paranoia about gun confiscation, “Deep State” opposition to Trump, the “War on Christmas,” and schoolchildren being indoctrinated with “Critical Race Theory.” Republicans need their base jacked up on a high dosage of fear, particularly of institutions. The idea the government is forcing you to get an unproven shot for an overhyped virus serves that exact purpose.

Hurt Joe Biden (and America)

The fact Republicans switched from praising the vaccines to questioning them the moment Donald Trump skulked back to Mar-a-Lago tells you everything you need to know. If Trump was reelected (or had successfully stolen the election), the Republican Party and Fox News would be the #1 booster of the vaccine program. Carlson would get his shots live on air. Ron Johnson and Rand Paul would be running vaccine clinics out of their offices. The D-list MAGA celebrities would do PSAs on OAN and Newsmax. But Donald Trump is not president. Joe Biden is president. Republican success in the midterms depends, in part, on Biden’s failure to control the pandemic and resuscitate the economy. Just as the Republicans did everything in their power to prolong the recession under Obama, they are now making it harder for President Biden to control the pandemic. Railing against mask mandates, questioning science, and pushing anti-vax conspiracy theories are crucial in that effort.

Desperately Seeking Supporters

The Republican Party’s embrace of the anti-vax movement is not new. It predates COVID. Long before he became president, Donald Trump was pushing discredited conspiracy theories about links between vaccines and autism. In 2011, Texas Republicans revolted against the idea of an HPV vaccine mandate proposed by the state’s Republican governor. In 2019, Politico wrote an article headlined “How the anti-vaccine movement crept into the GOP mainstream” which discussed how Republican politicians started questioning vaccine mandates for schoolchildren — upending decades of science and cultural norms.

The Republican Party cozies up to anti-vaxxers for the same reason that they cozy up to QAnon, White Supremacists, and Right-Wing militias like the Oathkeepers; they have no choice. With every passing day, the Republicans become a smaller and smaller part of the electorate. Winning political power — even an Electoral College and Senate tilted dramatically in their favor — becomes more challenging. They need higher and higher turnout from a shrinking base. The anti-vax movement is a relatively small but highly engaged and very online group of people. Exactly the sort of people that stayed home in 2012 but turned out for Trump in 2016 and 2020. Electoral math dictates that the Republican Party simply can’t turn away likely supporters — even if it means killing some of them through collateral damage.

Chasing Facebook Engagement

Like much else that is wrong with the world, the anti-vaccine sentiment penetrating mainstream Republican thinking can be blamed partially on Facebook. While Democrats and journalists flock to Twitter in search of retweets and approbation from the echo chamber, the Republicans are focusing their time and energy on Facebook. Ben Shapiro, Candace Owens, and Dan Bongino have become power players within MAGA politics through their ability to generate massive and consistent Facebook engagement. Posting vaccine misinformation on Facebook is a great way to generate engagement and attention, the currency of Right-Wing politics. According to “What’s Trending” — an essential newsletter by CAP Action’s Alex Witt — attacking the COVID vaccine and fearmongering about vaccine mandates was the subject of a number of top Facebook posts from conservatives. As Jesse Lehrich, the co-founder of Accountable Tech, pointed out on Twitter, the top Facebook post in the entire United States on July 16th was one from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene pushing a vaccine-related conspiracy theory.

The problem of vaccine misinformation and a growing anti-vaccine movement is much bigger than Facebook. But the perverse incentivizing structure of the world’s largest social media platform is a factor in why Republican politicians see a political upside in “killing people,” to paraphrase President Biden.

Like so much else in Trump-Era Republican politics, the decision to sow distrust in the COVID vaccine is instinctual rather than intellectual. It is a massive indictment of our politics and media environment that such a cynical and dangerous approach is not the death knell for those who adopt it. Understanding the political forces that reward such behavior is crucial to Democratic success in 2022 and beyond.