How Republican Vaccine Opposition Got to This Point

In recent months, Republican skepticism of Covid vaccines and their rollout has grown louder: One recent poll found that 47 percent said they weren’t likely to get vaccinated.


By Lisa Lerer

After Sherri Tenpenny, a Cleveland-area doctor, falsely suggested during a hearing last month in the Ohio House of Representatives that Covid vaccines left people “magnetized” and could “interface” with 5G cellular towers, Republican lawmakers thanked her for her “enlightening” testimony.

In Congress, Republicans who once praised the Trump administration for its work facilitating the swift development of the vaccines now wage campaigns of vaccine misinformation, sowing doubts about safety and effectiveness from the Capitol.

And this week, Republican state lawmakers in Tennessee successfully pressured health officials to stop outreach to children for all vaccines. The guidance prohibits sending reminders about the second dose of a Covid vaccine to adolescents who had received one shot and communicating about routine inoculations, like the flu shot.

A wave of opposition to Covid vaccines has risen within the Republican Party, as conservative news outlets produce a steady diet of misinformation about vaccines and some G.O.P. lawmakers invite anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists to testify in statehouses and Congress. With very little resistance from party leaders, these Republican efforts have elevated falsehoods and doubts about vaccinations from the fringes of American life to the center of our political conversation.

It’s a pattern that was seen throughout the Trump administration: Rather than rebuke conspiratorial thinking and inaccuracies when they begin spreading among their party’s base, many Republicans tolerate extremist misinformation.

Some conservatives promulgate the falsehoods as a way to rally their political base, embracing ideas like a stolen election, rampant voter fraud and revisionist history about the deadly siege at the Capitol. Many others say very little at all, preferring to dodge questions from the news media.

Those who do speak up remain reluctant to specifically name colleagues who have given voice to misinformation, or to call out media personalities who have done so, like Tucker Carlson of Fox News.

“We don’t control conservative media figures so far as I know — at least I don’t,” Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, told The New York Times recently. “That being said, I think it’s an enormous error for anyone to suggest that we shouldn’t be taking vaccines.”

Anti-vaccination sentiment isn’t new to Republican voters. During the 2016 Republican presidential primary race, a number of candidates, including Donald J. Trump, repeated debunked theories that vaccines caused autism in children. Around that time, Republican state legislators began opposing laws that would tighten vaccine requirements for children.

But over the past few months, the shift within the party has accelerated, as some supporters of Mr. Trump embrace the belief that the national effort to promote Covid vaccinations is harmful, unconstitutional or perhaps even a sign of a nefarious government plot.

“Think about what those mechanisms could be used for,” Representative Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina said of the Biden administration’s plan to go door-to-door to reach millions of unvaccinated Americans, going on to claim without evidence: “They could then go door-to-door to take your guns. They could go door-to-door to take your Bibles.”

In a report this month, the Kaiser Family Foundation found a growing vaccination divide between Republican and Democratic areas, with nearly 47 percent of people in counties won by President Biden fully vaccinated, compared with 35 percent of people in Trump counties. In a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 47 percent of Republicans said they weren’t likely to get vaccinated, compared with just 6 percent of Democrats.

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