During a Sunday interview with Fox News host Mark Levin, President Donald Trump accused Democrats of “denigrating” possible coronavirus vaccines because they don’t want him to get credit for having a vaccine “in record time.”
Trump’s comments echo a narrative that’s been gaining traction on the right in recent weeks, which has attempted to frame Democrats as being anti-science and anti-vaccine, stemming from an interview vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) did with CNN. Harris was asked whether she would get a vaccine if it was approved and distributed before Election Day, to which she responded that she was concerned about scientists being “muzzled,” adding, “I will say that I would not trust Donald Trump, and it would have to be a credible source of information that talks about the efficacy and the reliability of whatever he's talking about.”
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden gave a similar answer when asked whether he trusts a vaccine developed and distributed during the Trump administration, saying, “I trust vaccines. I trust scientists. But I don’t trust Donald Trump. And at this point, the American people can’t either.”
In both instances, Harris and Biden were clear in that they support safe and effective vaccines as soon as they became available. Biden has gone so far as to say, “If I could get a vaccine tomorrow, I'd do it. If it cost me the election I would do it. We need a vaccine and we need it now. We have to listen to the scientists.”
The narrative that Democrats are trafficking in “anti-vaccine” rhetoric has picked up on the right, and even spilled over into mainstream news coverage.
“Democrats love to claim to be ‘the party of science!’ but it is they who are acting like science deniers,” wrote Jonathan Tobin at The Federalist. “By undermining faith in a vaccine for COVID-19, they lay further groundwork for a movement that may have already grown strong enough to destroy any hope that a vaccine will end the COVID nightmare.”
There’s some irony in The Federalist, of all outlets, publishing an article that claims that Democrats “could cost lives” with phantom opposition to a coronavirus vaccine. After all, it’s The Federalist that has published pieces promoting unproven COVID-19 treatments like hydroxychloroquine, urging people to resist pressure to wear masks, spreading a conspiracy theory that Biden will intentionally let the coronavirus continue to spread for political reasons if elected, cheering Sweden’s flawed national approach to the pandemic, and even promoting the idea of people intentionally infecting themselves.
Conservative Washington Post columnist and Trump fanboy Marc Thiessen wrote a piece calling Harris’ comment “shameful” and claiming that she “seems to care more about playing politics than saving lives.” A Washington Examiner editorial called Harris’ “anti-vaccine flirtation … dangerously irresponsible.” The right-leaning Detroit News editorial board accused Democrats of “building a false narrative that Trump could somehow rush a defective vaccine into circulation.”
The talking point continued to gain traction, making its way into mainstream coverage in a Saturday article published by The Associated Press. “Democrats face quandary on vaccine support as election nears,” read the headline of a piece discussing the “balancing act” Democrats must take on regarding a possible vaccine. While it may be fair to discuss the challenges of ensuring that any vaccine released will be safe without inadvertently making the public less likely to take it, the AP story framed this entirely in political terms.
Should they attack Trump’s vaccine claims too aggressively, Democrats risk further undermining public confidence in a possible lifesaving medicine while looking as though they are rooting against a potential cure. But if they don’t push back, it makes it easier for Trump to use the real or imagined prospect of a vaccine to boost his reelection campaign.
Democrats have made clear that their concerns stem from Trump’s rampant politicization of the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Department of Health and Human Services. The article made no mention that just days earlier Trump had contradicted CDC Director Robert Redfield after Redfield said that vaccines wouldn’t likely be widely available to the general public until the middle of 2021. There was no mention of HHS spokesperson Michael Caputo’s recent paranoid rant accusing scientists of being part of a “deep state” conspiracy to hurt Trump’s reelection chances or his meddling in the CDC reports. Nor was there a mention of Trump’s own tweets accusing the FDA head of being part of a “deep state” conspiracy against him. There was no mention of Trump’s overtly political comment that a vaccine released before November 3 “wins the election for me.” The AP didn’t include anything about Trump’s repeated efforts to push phony miracle treatments like hydroxychloroquine and plasma, nor did it note that Trump misled the public from the start about the threat of the novel coronavirus, presumably for political gains.
Rather than framing the cause of Democratic concern as being driven by months of lies, failures, and misdirection on Trump’s part, the AP bought into the false narrative being spun by conservative media and Republicans’ own communication teams.
Polling consistently shows that Democratic voters support a vaccine as much or more than their Republican counterparts.
Though Democrats are more concerned than Republicans that Trump will rush a vaccine through the approval process for political gain -- 82% Democrats compared to 72% Republicans agree that politics is taking precedence over science according to a recent STAT/Harris Poll survey -- they are more trusting that the Food and Drug Administration will only approve a vaccine if it is safe (73% compared to 68%).
The most recent Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll found that in the event that the FDA approved a vaccine and it was hypothetically made available for free to everyone who wanted it before the November election, 50% of Democrats and just 36% of Republicans would get vaccinated. According to a recent Morning Consult survey, 61% of Democrats say they will get a coronavirus vaccine when one becomes available; just 47% of Republicans say the same.
Right-wing media outlets have tried to paint Democrats as “anti-vaccine” to cover for Trump’s failure to manage the virus and retain the trust of the American public.
It is frankly astonishing that pro-Trump media have been able to somewhat successfully spin sensible comments from Democrats about not taking Trump at his word and instead trusting what scientists have to say about the safety and efficacy of any COVID-19 vaccine.
During the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, right-wing commentators like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh repeatedly scaremongered about the safety of the vaccines approved by the FDA. Unlike the Trump administration in 2020, the Obama administration did not spend the 2009 pandemic altering data, silencing scientists, or framing the creation of a vaccine as proof of the president’s success. Even so, Beck suggested in 2009 that the H1N1 vaccine could be “deadly” and that he’d “do the exact opposite of what the Homeland Security says” about vaccination, baselessly warning that it was possible the vaccine would cause neurological damage. Limbaugh told his audience that they’ll be “healthier” if they don’t listen to what the government has to say about vaccines and that he would defy any efforts to mandate vaccination out of principle. Limbaugh went so far as to say that it “seems perfectly within the realm of reality” that the government specifically developed the H1N1 vaccine to kill people.
And the president himself has a well-documented history of pushing conspiracy theories about vaccines.
As happens so very often, conservative media outlets are presently accusing Democrats of doing the same exact thing some right-wing pundits did when the roles of power were reversed. Sometimes such projection is irresponsible; on this topic, it’s deadly.