Donald Trump famously boasted that he could ‘stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody’ and still not lose voters. That was back in 2016 and the following years proved his point.
We are now in the winter of 2021, however, and the 45th president may at last have stumbled across a way to alienate his fan base — by endorsing vaccines.
Covid is today the most hostile frontline in America’s all-consuming culture war. Resistance to the national vaccination drive has become the stickiest point. You are either pro-freedom, or in bed with the Great Globo Pharma Conspiracy. Trump has adopted a more middle-ground position: encouraging people to take the vaccines while supporting the right of people to choose not to be jabbed.
He recently got booed during a live event with Bill O’Reilly when he said that he had taken the booster, having in September hinted that he might not. Then, just a few days later, he doubled down in an interview with Candace Owens. ‘The ones that get very sick and go to the hospital are the ones who don’t take their vaccine,’ he said. ‘People aren’t dying when they take the vaccine.’
For many of his once most fervent fans, this is a betrayal, even a heresy. Take the marvellously barmy Alex Jones of InfoWars, a formerly ardent Trumpist who saw in the Donald an enemy of the Great Satan of Davos Globalism. He went so far as to issue a ‘Christmas Day warning to President Trump.’
‘You are either completely ignorant about the so-called ‘vaccine’ gene therapy you helped ram through with Operation Warp Speed,’ he said. ‘Or you are the most evil man who has ever lived to push this toxic poison on the public and to attack your constituents when they simply try to save their lives and the lives of others.’
The most evil man ever? Worse than George Soros? Surely not, Alex! Jones’s rage may sound a little confected for the ratings, but for all his performative craziness he has in the last decade been a good barometer of radical right-wing opinion. The cartoonist Ben Garrison, another straw in the formerly Trumpy winds, attacked Trump for joining the ‘Big Pharma Band Wagon.’
In a country where nearly 40 per cent of the population remain unjabbed, why has Trump chosen to distance himself from the anti-vax cause and align himself with the dreaded Biden administration?
It’s partly ego, of course. Trump believes, not unreasonably, that without his Warp Speed programme, the vaccines wouldn’t exist. ‘I came up with a vaccine, with three vaccines,’ he told Owens, as if he himself had invented mRNA technology. ‘All are very, very good. Came up with three of them in less than nine months. It was supposed to take five to 12 years.’
That’s not to say he doesn’t believe in what he is saying. When the New York Times’s Maggie Haberman asked why he appeared to have switched tack on vaccines, he sent her a handwritten note in characteristic capitals saying: ‘MUST TELL THE TRUTH — AND VERY PROUD TO HAVE PRODUCED THE 3 VACCINES SO QUICKLY — MILLIONS OF LIVES SAVED.’
But Trump’s pro-vax stance might end up illustrating that he has lost touch with the movement he built. It might also leave open a campaign lane for a vaccine-sceptic candidate to outflank him on the right in the run-up to the 2024 Republican presidential candidate primaries.
What a curious turnaround it would be if arguably the world’s most successful populist at last fell foul of his own crowd because he insisted on saying what he thought was right.
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