If current trends hold, the already toxic political conversation around COVID-19 is likely to get much, much worse.
Among the most problematic trends in public health is the politicization of COVID vaccination. Put simply, communities that lean Democratic are rapidly getting vaccinated while communities that lean Republican are lagging far behind:
All but one of the 39 congressional districts where at least 60 percent of residents have received a coronavirus shot are represented by Democrats, according to a Harvard University analysis that presents one of the most detailed looks yet at the partisan split behind the nation’s diverging vaccination drive. By contrast, Republicans represent all but two of the 30 districts where fewer than one-third of residents have received a shot.
Wealth, class and income disparities obviously play a role here, as well as a broader lack of concern among young people across demographic segments. But partisan politics and race are now the most crucial factors in shaping the actions of those who are vaccinated, those who are merely vaccine-hesitant, and those who are adamantly vaccine resistant. White Republicans are by far the least likely to be vaccinated now or to get a vaccine in the future:
In fact, the magnitude of the struggle to broadly vaccinate low-income, minority communities that have been disproportionately hurt by the pandemic is obscured by the high levels of vaccine resistance among white conservatives. The stark racial disparities in vaccination would otherwise be far worse.
“Among the remaining unvaccinated people, white people are much more likely to say they are definitely not going to get the vaccine, whereas Black and Hispanic people are more likely to say they haven’t gotten it yet but are hoping to get it soon,” said Liz Hamel, vice president and director of public opinion and survey research at the Kaiser Family Foundation.
The actions of conservative politicians and Donald Trump in particular are most to blame. Conservative politicians have downplayed the severity of the pandemic since it began and have attacked and hampered the implementation of any efforts to control it, from mask mandates to school closures and lockdowns. Consequently, insouciant red states have been hit harder by COVID overall than blue ones as the pandemic has dragged on.
But it was not so at first. Throughout most of 2020, people in cities and people of color suffered by far the most as a consequence of structural racism forcing them into the most dangerous jobs and most compacted living conditions, as well as the reality that pandemics hit urban population clusters first before spreading outward to rural areas. When the pandemic seemed to be hitting Democratic-leaning constituencies hardest, Republicans were especially flippant precisely because it seemed that Democrats would be disproportionately affected. Donald Trump and Jared Kushner refused to implement a national plan to deal with COVID because it seemed to be killing Democrats, and they saw an opportunity to attack Democratic governors in the process:
Most troubling of all, perhaps, was a sentiment the expert said a member of Kushner’s team expressed: that because the virus had hit blue states hardest, a national plan was unnecessary and would not make sense politically. “The political folks believed that because it was going to be relegated to Democratic states, that they could blame those governors, and that would be an effective political strategy,” said the expert.
It would not be hyperbole to call it an act of democide and a crime against humanity. It should be the subject of subpoenas and historical Congressional inquiries, and those responsible for making those decisions should be held accountable in state, federal and even international court. The history of the Trump Administration’s COVID response must not be swept under the rug and forgotten as we did with the history of the rush to invade Iraq.
But what of the future in which Republican-leaning areas are likeliest to be the hardest hit with the return of fall and winter, and in the most vaccine-resistant communities? If the present is any indication, the politics will become almost unimaginably poisonous.
Fantastical conspiracy theories are already widespread among conservatives that Dr. Anthony Fauci and some nebulous cabal of illumunati from Bill Gates to the “Deep State” intentionally created COVID-19 in a lab; that the Chinese government was involved in a secret plot with Joe Biden to use the virus to undermine Trump and steal away “his” economy and the election itself; that lockdowns and masks are simply a habituating prelude to dictatorial control of the public; and so on. Some of the most damaging conservative fairy tales are about vaccines: much of QAnon-world believes that most of the vaccinated will soon die from the vaccines or require an antidote held by the cabal, and large swaths of conservative America believe the vaccine is being used as a form of control. The ludicrous notion that the vaccines contain tracking microchips is depressingly common in conservative circles.
These false theories are all part of the conservative victimhood complex, a theology in which the country’s self-absorbed Eric Cartmans reimagine the unhappy complexities of life and the sometimes uncomfortable obligations of living in civilization as an intentional plot by shadowy elites to oppress them specifically, and see themselves as Biblical heroes in an end times battle of spiritual good and diabolical evil. In this world, anything that suggests they might have to do something they don’t want–from, say, putting on a mask to paying taxes to driving an electric car to letting a non-white person move into the neighborhood–is an evil socialist plot to end the last bastion of freedom on earth, and to cage and exterminate the future beneficiaries of the Rapture foretold in Revelation. The QAnon movement, in this sense, is not something new and different from conservative theology, but simply a blasphemous substitution of Trump and The Storm for the return of Jesus and the Great Tribulation: after a period of oppression by the literal Anti-Christ organized in a global conspiracy, the saved will see their enemies swept before them in violence and lamentation. There is a reason that “making liberals cry” is the core guiding animus of conservative movement politics.
It is not hard to predict how this vicious and toxic political theology of victimization will intersect with a near future in which COVID is likely to disproportionately affect unvaccinated conservative white evangelicals. Conservative politicians and Fox News hosts will not, by and large, react by telling their constituents and their audiences to get the vaccine. The Republican base will not have a moment of introspection and consider whether mainstream society might have been right all along.
What will very likely happen is that conservative movement leaders will claim that COVID spikes among conservatives were intentionally engineered by the left. The perverse, almost criminal irony of this will not be lost on normal people: that Donald Trump intentionally allowed left-leaning Americans to suffer and die from COVID because it was to his political advantage to do so; that mainstream Democrats and health officials begged and cajoled conservatives to take reasonable measures against the virus including vaccination; and that conservatives refused at each and every point–even organizing recalls and trying to kidnap Democratic governors for doing so. And yet they claim that the left is trying to use vaccines to control them, and will very likely claim that the left is somehow using the virus to target them specifically.
In a country already suffering from white supremacist violence and threats of insurrection, the coming of politics of COVID will almost certainly add burning fuel to the bonfire. Conservative leaders and infotainment hosts could do something to stop it. They could start telling the truth and unwinding the lies. But they lack both the courage and the respect for the lives and health of their own constituents and audiences to do so.