The party of Trump has a big problem, they have found themselves on a sticky wicket: They have radicalized their base to believe that public health measures are “Democrat overreach.”
In order to get the base excited, they have to rail against certain things, many of them public health-related (vaccine passports, masks, lockdowns, social distancing). But railing against public health means endangering the health of their base.
For a little while, this delicate balance seemed like it might hold, as Republican governors spent months sowing doubts about vaccines and complaining about masking and other supposedly freedom-harming public health basics. The right-wing press took a premature victory lap, with the National Review’s Rich Lowry asking, “Where Does Ron DeSantis Go To Get His Apology?”
But the Delta variant made it clear that DeSantis should be giving an apology, not asking for one, as red states have predictably been hit hardest. An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll from July showed that “Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to say they have not been vaccinated and definitely or probably won’t be, 43% to 10%.”
And, dontcha know, COVID cases in Texas are up 125 percent over the last two weeks. In Florida, they’re up 162 percent. On Monday, as Gov. Greg Abbott asked hospitals in his state to cancel elective surgeries, Sen. Ted Cruz went on Sean Hannity and pronounced “No mask mandates. No vaccine mandates. No vaccine passports. No COVID mandates!” Indeed, Texas and Florida have similar laws prohibiting localities from making their own public health rules, although both Dallis and Austin are suing to allow masking.
It took at a lot of stupid to get Florida and Texas to this dark place, which is why the MAGA propagandists are trying to suggest, without much evidence, that this is about an unvaccinated wave at the border—when it appears to be about unvaccinated Americans, in a country with enough vaccine doses to go around, harming their own health and spreading the virus and helping it continue to mutate in the process.
In Florida, DeSantis has taken what can only be called a pro-COVID stance, suing cruise lines to try and stop them from using vaccine passports. That’s cutting off your nose to spite your face given the industry’s importance to the state, but the trolling was always the point. That’s why a defiant, some might say sadistic, DeSantis announced that “the Florida Board of Education could withhold the salaries of superintendents and school board members who defy the governor’s executive order prohibiting mask mandates” in a state that reported 134,506 new cases last week.
No wonder Dr. Jonathan Reiner told CNN this weekend, “The viral load in Florida is so high right now… that I think that if Florida were another country, we would have to consider banning travel from Florida to the United States.” Bloomberg’s Steven Dennis tweeted that, “Per NYT, ~1 out of every 945 people in Duval County, Florida (Jacksonville) is in a hospital bed tonight w/COVID. #1 highest in the USA.”
With COVID numbers way up, DeSantis’ numbers are down as he looks toward re-election and then, he hopes, a 2024 presidential run. It’s a game of chicken: Can he troll the libs without killing so many of his constituents that they turn on him?
Republicans often fume about how Democrats supposedly don’t treat them with respect. But how should we treat voters who refuse to connect their anti-public health rhetoric with all the deaths from a preventable disease?
The reality is that the GOP decided to target anti-vaxxers because they’re easy marks who don’t trust the lamestream press but rely on Facebook memes and Joe Rogan—the guy who used to tell people to eat bugs on Fear Factor.
What DeSantis and the other governors are doing is deadly wrong, but that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily a bad political bet given the sick state of the base, in pretty much every sense.