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No one took Geraldo Rivera very seriously last year when he proposed naming the coronavirus vaccine in honor of the just-defeated president.

Margaret Sullivan

Margaret Sullivan

“With the world so divided and everybody telling him he’s got to give up and it’s time to leave ... why not name the vaccine ‘The Trump’?” suggested the former tabloid TV talk show host.

Geraldo might have been onto something — not because defeated candidates require an ego massage or because Trump needs anything else named after him but because such a label might have secured the goal that thousands of public-service announcements have failed to achieve: Greater conservative support for the vaccine.

Instead, of course, we’ve seen the complete opposite. Right-wing commentators and politicians have started yet another culture war over these lifesaving shots, finding ways to sow doubt and outrage at every turn.

Take Rob Schmitt, a prime-time host at the conservative network Newsmax, who recently declared vaccines “against nature.” Or Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, who pulled out-of-context numbers from unverified sources to claim that “almost 4,000 people died after getting the Covid vaccines” (doesn’t mean that’s what killed them). Or his network colleague Laura Ingraham, who last week provided her prime-time platform to a cardiologist who falsely said the delta variant is not responsive to the vaccines, opining that there’s “no clinical reason to go get vaccinated.”

To be sure, Fox has run some pro-vaccine messages, notably from morning host Steve Doocy. But Carlson and Ingraham both revved up the outrage machine to take on a Biden administration effort that would promote the vaccine door-to-door. “Creepy stuff,” Ingraham called it, while Carlson told his 2.9 million viewers that it would “force people to take medicine they don’t want or need ... the greatest scandal in my lifetime, by far.”

Sadly, it seems to be resonating: At the Conservative Political Action Convention earlier this month, the audience actually cheered when pundit Alex Berenson (“the pandemic’s wrongest man,” according to the Atlantic) noted that the United States has missed its immunization goals. The result of this right-wing media rhetoric: Americans with conservative political views are far less likely to have been vaccinated or to say they plan to, and residents of red states are much more likely to be unvaccinated than their blue-state counterparts.

And now, just as case rates seemed to be under control, they are surging again — and this time, said Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky, “This is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

It didn’t have to be this way. And in theory, it still doesn’t. Conservative media could still save lives and spare their viewers from suffering, without betraying its hard-wired impulse to toss red meat into the maw of the culture war.

What would that look like?

They could promote the cause of vaccination by tying it tight to everything that Trump claims to stand for.

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“Get your American-made, America First vaccine, developed by American free enterprise under President Donald J. Trump,” joked Republican pollster and strategist Patrick Ruffini on Twitter recently, but he’s on to something.

Why aren’t conservatives pounding away that it was their guy who started the development of the vaccine under his overstated moniker Operation Warp Speed? For good measure, they could even trash the Biden administration for taking credit for their hero’s unbelievable wisdom and execution.

Trump himself would certainly be happy to play along.

“Operation Warp Speed and our decision to purchase billions of dollars of vaccine before it was even approved, has been ‘One of the greatest miracles of the ages,’ according to many,” Trump bragged in April.

And just this week, he stirred the culture wars pot, pointing to Biden: “He’s way behind schedule, and people are refusing to take the Vaccine because they don’t trust his Administration, they don’t trust the Election results and they certainly don’t trust the Fake News, which is refusing to tell the Truth.” (Hmmm, I wonder who is doing more than anyone to diminish that trust?)

So why hasn’t right-wing media gone this route? Probably because there’s such a strong strain of contrarianism built in to the current conservative mind-set: Whatever the establishment says must be wrong.

If the elites — scientists, for example — think it’s good, let’s disparage it as bad.

There’s a calculation here, and a cynical one: It’s better grist for the culture war to oppose vaccination than to be a booster for it. Simply put, it plays better. Still, one can dream of what could happen if Geraldo’s seed took root.

Crowded vaccination sites, overflowing with red MAGA caps and anti-Biden signs. Charlie Kirk and Marjorie Taylor Greene cheering from the sidelines. Tucker Carlson smiling smugly on screen.

Oh, it would be maddening, of course, to see Trump credited with the solution to a crisis he helped create. But given the alternative — more death, more suffering and the endless spread of disease — I think I could live with it.

And, quite literally, so could thousands of others.

Margaret Sullivan writes for

The Washington Post.


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