Amid the pandemic’s grim tableau of death, illness and disinformation, a moment of comic relief broke through recently. It was the darkest kind of comedy, to be sure, but we’ll take whatever we can get these days. The occasion was Donald Trump’s belated endorsement of the coronavirus vaccines – which almost instantly provoked an eruption of panic and fury among his cultists.
No doubt this conflict has raged within the former president’s head for many months now, while he vacillated between glomming credit for the vaccines his administration supported and pandering to the ignorance and paranoia of his Republican political base. Trump needs to boast constantly about himself and his presidency, yet he also depends on the kind of conspiratorial deceptions promoted by the anti-vaccine movement. It must have been a torturous quandary for him.
Suddenly, however, he blurted the truth at an event in Dallas on Dec. 19, when Bill O’Reilly asked whether he had gotten a booster shot. “Yes,” he said, as some in the audience began to boo him. Trying to quiet the jeering, he urged his followers to “take credit [for the vaccines]. Take credit for it. It’s great. What we’ve done is historic. Don’t let them take it away. Don’t take it away from ourselves. Don’t let them take that away from you.”
What he meant, of course, was don’t let “them” – whoever they may be – take credit away from him. While whether his administration’s role in fostering vaccine research was essential or not is a matter of dispute, he seems determined to secure his own place in that historic development. He reiterated the point during an interview with the fanatical anti-vaxxer Candace Owens, who promotes toxic “cures” such as colloidal silver instead.
Why Trump adopted a more forthright position now isn’t obvious. Is it because he wants to run again in 2024, and knows his mismanagement of the pandemic has hurt him among swing voters? Is it because he realizes that his craziest supporters are too narrow a constituency to win another national election?
Whatever his motive, Trump’s decision to speak out on behalf of vaccination has irked some of his most sycophantic fans, creating hilarious consternation on the far Right. Owens, for instance, suggested that he is “too old” to “do his own research” on the internet, presumably where she finds the perilous falsehoods that she purveys for profit.
That stinging insult was amplified by a denunciation and then a threat from Alex Jones, the Texas conspiracy theorist who notoriously claimed that the Sandy Hook massacre was a staged event. On Christmas Day, Jones said the man he once promoted as the nation’s savior is “ignorant or one of the most evil men who ever lived.” A few days later, Jones warned that he may “dish all the dirt” on Trump, whom he said is surrounded by “bad advisers,” and urged his followers to “move on” from the “pathetic” ex-president.
Meanwhile in another precinct of Cuckooland, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene struggled to defend her “favorite president of all time.” The Georgia congresswoman has not only vowed never to get vaccinated but has also accrued tens of thousands of dollars in fines for refusing to wear a mask in the Capitol as required by House rules. Having spread lies about the dangers and efficacy of vaccines for months, Greene comforts herself and her followers by noting that Trump opposes any vaccine mandate – and then changing the subject to the Big Lie about the 2020 election and the perfidy of less insane Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Finally, President Joe Biden heightened these contradictions when he praised Trump for promoting vaccinations. This clever intervention left Trump “appreciative,” and also flabbergasted and flat-footed.
If Trump rejects his most conspiratorial and crazed backers – and they push him away, too – that will be a healthy and entertaining turn for our politics. At the very least, he and Biden together may get more Americans vaccinated. And just maybe we’ll see a happier new year in 2022.