COMMENTARY

Republicans' anti-government chickens have finally come home to roost

On vaccines, the right's decades-long anti-government propaganda campaign comes back to bite them

By Heather Digby Parton
Published July 23, 2021 9:51AM (EDT)
Donald Trump, Kevin McCarthy, Marjorie Taylor-Greene and  Mitch McConnell (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump, Kevin McCarthy, Marjorie Taylor-Greene and Mitch McConnell (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Ronald Reagan, the most beloved president of the modern Republican Party (before Donald J. Trump, anyway) had a very famous saying:

"The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help. "

It was a clever comment that the leaders of the conservative movement never took seriously, of course. The Republicans were always big boosters of first responders, cops and the military who are generally the ones who literally say "I'm from the government and I'm here to help." But the anti-government sentiment worked well for the wealthy benefactors who paid these politicians handsomely to keep their taxes low and regulations scarce.

They also used that message to persuade voters that the government was trying to oppress them with everything from creeping communism to affirmative action and women's rights. In other words, everything these people already hated was blamed on Big Government by the very people who ran it. The subtext of much of this was race, of course, as the cynical conservatives managed to convince people that the government was doling out handouts to the "undeserving" (and I think you know who they were talking about) in the form of welfare, while the hard-working Real Americans were paying the freight and getting the shaft.

Over time they were able to demagogue the issue so thoroughly that average Republicans routinely voted against their own interests out of a reflexive hostility to anything the government tried to do (other than wage war, which they loved.) When the financial crisis hit in 2007 and the government was required to intervene or risk the whole economic system going into free fall, it was clear just how successful they had been.

Almost immediately, a rebellion against the government helping "irresponsible" homeowners became the rallying cry of the anti-government right and the Tea Party was born. The GOP knew that government intervention was necessary but they made sure that the banks and the wealthy were taken care of while forcing everything else to be done on the cheap. The result was a very slow recovery and long-term damage to the average American household, which worked out well for them politically and further discredited government in the minds of many Americans.

The Obamacare wars flowed naturally from that, with half the country hysterical at the idea the government was going to choose their doctors and decide who lives or dies. Their fears were stoked by right-wing politicians who suspected that the program might work and restore people's faith in the government to deliver needed benefits. Then where would they be?

There were dozens of conspiracy theories floating around from "death panels" to implanted microchips, to a giant government database that was going to house every personal piece of health information on every American. All of this inane resistance was fueled by the right's decades-long anti-government propaganda campaign.

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Fast forward to 2020 and the first global pandemic in a hundred years with an incompetent narcissist in charge. Between his ineptitude and self-serving desire to pretend that the crisis didn't exist and the years of mistrust in the government, the U.S. ended up with an epic disaster and half the population refusing to acknowledge it existed. Today, we're facing a situation in which tens of millions of people are refusing vaccines because they believe in daft conspiracy theories or are convinced the government is lying to them even in the face of over 600,000 deaths.

Throughout all this, most Republican officials have either been actively hostile to medical experts and their advice or they have been strangely passive, simply shrugging their shoulders as if this is just a normal part of life and everyone just needs to buck up. They refused to wear masks and social distance, they've egged on protesters and encouraged the right-wing media, which has been feeding snake oil, lies and conspiracy theories to their voters since the pandemic began.

Fox News has been particularly egregious in its objectively pro-COVID propaganda. Their headliners Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity have all taken slightly different approaches. Carlson has gone with his patented dark conspiracy-mongering, playing off of the right's new "Deep State" narrative to suggest that the government is forcing people to take vaccines against their will and that the shots are killing people. Ingraham has been an inveterate pusher of quacks and bogus cures while blaming it all on immigrants as usual while Hannity has been playing both sides, telling people to take the virus seriously in one breath and skepticism in the other. (One suspects this relates to his close relationship with Donald Trump, who similarly twists himself into a pretzel on this subject, wanting credit for the vaccines but being unable to buck the conspiracy addled anti-vax sentiment of his followers.)

Most of the rest of the right-wing media have followed the same trends — at least until this week.

Suddenly, we have been seeing members of Fox News breaking with their stars and making heartfelt PSA's exhorting people to get the vaccines, something we've never seen before: Watch the latest video at foxnews.com. Newsmax CEO, and friend of Trump, Chris Ruddy wrote a glowing op-ed complimenting President Biden on his vaccine program. One of the House leaders, Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La, a vaccine holdout, very ostentatiously got vaccinated and told anyone who'd listen that they should do it as well. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis actually went out and urged his constituents to get vaccinated now that his state is being overrun with COVID. Again.

The question on everyone's mind is, "What happened?"

Obviously, it's tied to the new surge of cases as the highly transmissible Delta variant runs through the population of unvaccinated people who are, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, heavily tilted toward Republicans. As of the end of last month, 86% of Democrats had at least one shot compared to 52% of Republicans. And it's not getting any better.

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Have they seen polling indicating that they are losing ground with their own voters over their lack on engagement? Are they suddenly worried that their base is going to die and leave them short of needed votes? It's hard to say. But I think MSNBC's Chris Hayes was on to something when he suggested that they had thought they could stick with the base and its anti-vax, anti-Big Government attitude about this (continuing to reap the rewards that brings to them politically) and let Joe Biden's administration do the heavy lifting of getting their states vaccinated — at which point they would swoop in and say what a terrible job he did. (This works for them every time a GOP administration leaves the country in shambles and the Democrats have to clean up their mess.)

The problem is that the virus is spreading, restrictions have been lifted and the Republican base is refusing to save itself. The anti-government chickens have finally come home to roost — and they're killing Republicans. 


Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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