Now in the second year of the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. is facing yet another surge amid the rise of the more infectious Delta variant. America still leads the world with the highest reported death toll at more than 610,000, followed by Brazil and India. Public health experts are now projecting that with a significant portion of Americans still unvaccinated, as many as 240,000 people could contract the virus daily, with 4,000 of those infected dying each day this October when the virus is expected to peak.
The large number of Americans refusing to get vaccinated is linked to the disinformation spread by Republican politicians, right-wing news outlets and anti-vaxxers pumping deadly conspiracy theories about vaccines into the social media sphere.
Recently however, several prominent Republican-elected officials and conservative commentators – including Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and Fox News host Sean Hannity have belatedly recommended vaccinations, but in a manner that was perceived by many as a mixed message, stressing “individual freedom.” Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Amanda Marcotte, a senior politics writer at Salon.com and author who examines why some GOP politicians and right-wing media outlets, who had spread COVID disinformation for many months, have recently changed their message.
AMANDA MARCOTTE: I think this is kind of one of those two-part situations where in the Trump presidency, Trump deemed it politically useful to minimize the COVID pandemic and encourage conspiracy theories and denialism in the base. And he encouraged people that revolt against mass mandates, lockdowns and other efforts to contain the virus. And, you know, I think the result was that hundreds of thousands of people died, more than would have if we had actually not politicized this particular pandemic, if people had come together and actually stayed socially distant, masked and done everything in their power to actually stop the spread of it.
And, you know, he lost obviously, and then Biden came into office kind of right around the same time that the vaccine started to come out and all the things that Trump accused the left of doing to him — which is to say, he thought the left was kind of making up COVID in order to undermine the economy and undermine his presidency — which was false.
The right is really good at projection. And I think that what happened was they started to do what they had accused the left of doing. Except instead of falsifying or hoax-ifying COVID, they actually just went ahead and made the pandemic worse in order to undermine Joe Biden. So I think, you know, those things kind of fed on each other. If you were a Trump voter who refused to take COVID seriously a year ago, you were very easy to persuade to not take the vaccine. You know, even so kind of the purpose of it has changed a little bit. In the past it was about trying to keep the economy running despite the pandemic. And now it’s about keeping the economy from coming all the way back by drawing the pandemic out.
SCOTT HARRIS: You know, I did want to ask you about the recent change in messaging that we’ve seen come from many Republican politicians, as well as these right-wing news anchors. It seems something changed in the air almost overnight, given the fact that they had this history of you know, months and months of preaching against the vaccine. And then all of a sudden, like a switch was turned on. Here, they are, encouraging their audience to get the vaccine. But you’ve explored this in some detail and it’s not as clear cut as I just stated.
AMANDA MARCOTTE: I think what happened if I had to guess — and this is speculation on my part — is that they started to see polling or focus group data that shows that despite their efforts to blame the surge of COVID cases on Biden, the public understands that the surge of COVID cases is the fault of the Republicans for discouraging vaccinations. And so there is an attempt to escape blame going on. And so, you have Sean Hannity on Fox News go on air and say, “You should get vaccinated.” You have a number of Republican politicians say that. But then Hannity went on his radio show and on two separate occasions, immediately clawed it back and said he wasn’t telling anyone to get COVID vaccines. He continues to spread COVID vaccine misinformation on his show. Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham on the Fox News network also continue to spread vaccine misinformation.
So I think what happened, at least in the kind of right-wing pundit world, is that they released one clip of one guy saying one time — or a couple of them really — just saying, “Vaccines are good, get one” to sort of get the media off their backs and muddy the waters over who’s to blame. But they haven’t actually changed the strategy of discouraging the vaccine. That’s like most of the information on Fox News is still anti-vaccine, except for a couple of segments that were there to hoodwink and bamboozle the mainstream media. Republican politicians that have been coming out and saying, “Get vaccinated” — that might be a little bit more of a mix of trying to escape blame.
And in some cases, I think like with Gov. (Kay) Ivey of Alabama, she really does seem sincerely kind of vexed by how bad the COVID rates have gotten in her state. But I think overall, they’re more focused on trying to escape blame than they are actually getting shots in arms. And I’ll point out that even the Republican politicians that have come out and said, “Get vaccinated” aren’t doing a whole lot to actually turn that into a reality. You know, they’re not passing mandates. They’re not making it more difficult for people to not get vaccinated. They’re not putting any resources behind getting more people vaccinated. I want to see more action, less media bamboozle-talk.
For more information, visit Amanda Marcotte’s Salon.com authors page at salon.com/writer/amanda_marcotte.