This past weekend in Arizona, Donald Trump ratcheted up his inadvertent impersonation of Freddy Kreuger — the villain of Nightmare on Elm Street — in a political horror show designed to infiltrate our dreams and then warp our reality.
For the past two years, Trump has flirted with, cajoled and egged on extremist anti-vaxxers. He did so, despite having signed off on his administration’s huge investments in vaccine development, most likely because he saw that political hay could be made from tapping into the anger and frustration that a significant proportion of the American public felt over school and business shutdowns, and, by extension, the suspicion of science and of experts that animated the growing anti-vaccination movement.
Over the last couple of weeks, however, as his political battle against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for control of the GOP has intensified, Trump seems to have realized that DeSantis — who has gone to bat against vaccine mandates, masking in schools, and a host of other public health efforts — has outflanked him on anti-vaccine extremism. And so, the disgraced ex-president, never one to let principle or political coherence stand in the way of opportunism, has pivoted, apparently hoping to head DeSantis off at the pass before he picks up enough wind in his rather unpleasant tail to make him become a viable contender for the GOP’s presidential nomination in 2024.
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Trump formerly urged his armed supporters via Twitter to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN! … LIBERATE MINNESOTA! … LIBERATE VIRGINIA” from public health mandates (in his tweets he named states that at the time were all controlled by Democratic governors). Now, however, he seeks to occupy slightly different political terrain: he has intensified his spat with DeSantis by going onto One America News Network to deride the Floridian for not publicly stating whether he has been vaccinated and boosted. Perhaps to the surprise of his interviewer, the ex-president, who once mused aloud about whether an injection of bleach could serve as a counter to COVID, stated that vaccines worked, that he himself had been boosted, and that he viewed as “gutless” conservative politicians who themselves were vaccinated, but who refused to publicly acknowledge their vaccine status for fear of alienating conservative voters. He didn’t mention DeSantis by name, but the object of his derision was clear.
Having come out on the side of vaccinations, however, Trump couldn’t resist adding his own particularly toxic racist bile into the mix.
On January 15, at a political rally in the southwestern Arizona town of Florence — a town that has, for decades, been defined by its large number of state and federal prisons, as well as immigration detention facilities, but which is slated to soon lose one of its two state prisons, and, with it, hundreds of jobs — the demagogic Trump lobbed a racial Molotov cocktail into the vaccination conversation.
New York State has recently issued guidelines for treatment of COVID and for vaccination priorities that suggest providers take medical vulnerability into account when allocating scarce treatments. The guidelines note that some groups have been systemically excluded from medical coverage and from equitable health care efforts over centuries of U.S. history, leading to deeply ingrained health disparities between races. Thus, the guidelines note, Black and Brown Americans are disproportionately likely to die from COVID, and so race becomes one factor among many when deciding how and when to allocate treatment.
Trump ran with this, and twisted these guidelines into something entirely different, into something approximating a deliberate, murderous onslaught against whites approved by Democratic state legislatures.
As the Associated Press reported, Trump told his audience at the grotesquely named “Save America Rally” that, “The left is now rationing lifesaving therapeutics based on race, discriminating against and denigrating … white people to determine who lives and who dies. If you’re white you don’t get the vaccine or if you’re white you don’t get therapeutics. … In New York state, if you’re white, you have to go to the back of the line to get medical health.”
The utter falseness of these claims is abundantly apparent: when the New York Times fact-checked the story, it found no evidence that white New Yorkers were being denied either vaccines or therapeutics, and found that white people in the state were vaccinated at a higher rate than were Black residents of New York state. Even the U.K.’s Daily Mail, a bulwark of conservative opinion-writing noted the myriad falsehoods in Trump’s speech.
The speech was largely ignored by the media, and by the political leadership in D.C., but it oughtn’t to have been. This was racial fearmongering of the most naked sort, the covert dog whistle of racism replaced by the overt bullhorn of fascism.
There should have been a coordinated denunciation of Trump’s attempt to put a lit match to a fuse here. But President Biden, who has spent much of the last few weeks on the attack against Trump, didn’t specifically call him out on this speech. Nor did senior Republicans in Congress. There was not even a perfunctory denunciation from Mitch McConnell or Kevin McCarthy of the sort that McConnell, at least, used to be able to muster following, say, Trump calling the Nazi mob at Charlottesville “very fine people.” Perhaps the GOP leaders — having seen the political mischief they could unleash, particularly in majority-white suburbs, through waging a war against what they’re inaccurately referring to as the teaching of “Critical Race Theory” — are standing by to see whether Trump’s racist bomb-throwing on vaccines and COVID treatments will curry similar suburban favor. There was silence, too, from so-called moderates, such as Senators Mitt Romney and Susan Collins.
Yes, we’re tired of Trump, and yes, it would be a blessed relief if we never had to listen to his vile rhetoric again. But Trump’s out there, and millions of Americans are still taking their cues from him. When he spouts the kind of inflammatory lies that he did in Florence, Arizona, his statements get picked up and amplified by conservative television, radio and internet personalities, and, left unchallenged, his lies are embraced by the consumers of conservative media as their new truths.
As President Biden’s administration flounders in response to the hyper-contagious Omicron variant, and as DeSantis outflanks Trump on the right with his anti-vaccine, anti-public health jeremiads, Trump is attempting to reinvent himself as the visionary proponent of vaccines, the leader who saw earlier than anyone else the need for a warp-speed effort to develop a variety of vaccines as a way to beat back the pandemic. But he is also taking care to energize his white nationalist, conservative base, many of whom are fervently anti-vaccine, as he makes this pivot. And so, he has settled on a compromise: He now is pro-vaccine, but he’s also ever more explicitly positioning himself in George Wallace territory, tapping into racial resentment and spreading lies about whites being deliberately denied life-saving medical interventions.
In so many ways, this country is already a powder keg. Trump thrives amid this chaos. He has always relied on a politics of racial resentment: He made clear his ambitions in the 1980s when he took out newspaper ads urging that the African American and Latino teenagers falsely accused of gang-raping a white jogger in Central Park be executed, and who refused to apologize once those teenagers were exonerated of the crime. This is also the man who opened his presidential campaign with a dramatic accusation that Mexican immigrants were “rapists” and “drug dealers,” and the man who attempted to impose a travel ban against Muslims. So it should be no surprise that in 2022 this same man is spreading explosive lies about Democratic politicians supposedly stymying efforts by white people to get vaccines, in an attempt to distract from the oddity of his sudden attempt to get his supporters to embrace the value of vaccinations.
It’s classic Trump-deflection. After a year of the ex-president pandering to anti-vaccine sentiment, he’s now working on a rewrite. As de facto head of the Republican Party, Trump appears to be trying to head into the midterms able to lambast Biden for his mishandling of the Omicron surge, while also finding a baseless way to blame Democrats and their public policy priorities for the large number of white conservatives who remain unvaccinated and who are, on a daily basis, still dying of the disease. It’s a wild attempt to downplay the fact that the low vaccination rates within Trump’s base are actually due to the miasma of misinformation on vaccines that his own allies have aggressively been spreading.
Against such a propagandist, silence doesn’t work. However exhausting the project, he must be called out again and again, and once more again so that his lies are never accepted as the truth.