Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said Tuesday that he is “perplexed” by the ongoing unwillingness of some Americans to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
“We need to keep preaching that getting the vaccine is important,” he told reporters. “Part of it is just convincing the American people of the importance of doing this.”
While McConnell didn’t say as much, that message is particularly important for members of his own party. Republicans and conservatives are much more likely than others to tell pollsters that they have not and do not plan to take the vaccines, even amid a surge of new U.S. cases and with data showing hospitalizations and deaths almost entirely concentrated among unvaccinated populations.
What is driving this refusal by Republicans to get vaccinated? One factor is their party’s success in inoculating them against something conservatives have long considered a major threat -- mainstream journalism.
Generations of GOP leaders urged their supporters to ignore the mainstream press and instead patronize and trust a parallel apparatus of right-wing propaganda outlets. This campaign encased the Republican base in an impermeable bubble of lies, paranoid demagoguery, and reflexive opposition to Democrats, creating a politically potent echo chamber that served the party well for years.
But now -- whether from hope of political gain, fear of losing market share, genuine stupidity, or some combination thereof -- that right-wing media apparatus is using the same tools to sabotage the coronavirus vaccination campaign for its own audience.
These are all from the last few days. That's the message conservatives get from the TV hosts they've been told they should trust. Mission accomplished. pic.twitter.com/YWyn7uPknW
— Matthew Gertz (@MattGertz) July 13, 2021
Hours after McConnell spoke to reporters, Fox prime-time host Laura Ingraham devoted a segment to the superiority of “natural immunity” -- achieved by getting and recovering from the virus -- over vaccination. Earlier Tuesday evening, Lara Trump, former President Donald Trump’s daughter-in-law and a Fox contributor, told Sean Hannity that the vaccination effort is part of a public health approach that has “been about control from day one.” Tucker Carlson, the face of the network, offered a similar comment about the vaccine as “social control” on Monday.
Fox’s right-wing cable TV competitors are, if anything, even less responsible.
Newsmax viewers have been subject to a broad network campaign to dissuade them from taking the vaccine; one of its hosts recently made news by claiming that vaccines go “against nature” because some diseases are “supposed to wipe out a certain amount of people.”
And over on One America News, this week alone the audience has been told that the vaccines are “a threat to everyone that gets them” and that the mainstream media have ignored the “man-made disaster” of mounting “deaths from the coronavirus vaccines.”
Those outlets have smaller audiences and are less influential than Fox, but their behavior creates a strong incentive for Fox to behave irresponsibly to retain its market dominance.
Republicans are getting the same message of skepticism about the vaccines and the vaccination campaign from other parts of the right-wing media apparatus, from digital outlets to talk radio to podcast shows to Sinclair Broadcast stations to the new generation of social media influencers. There are a handful of conservative media figures who try to push back against this tide, but they largely lack influence, having been marginalized within the movement for their insufficient Trump support.
McConnell wants more “preaching” to help get the Republican flock vaccinated. But the media figures who the GOP’s strategy placed in the pulpit have lined up against the effort. It’s going to get their audience members killed, and they don’t seem to care.