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State Republicans Are Gambling with the Delta Surge

State Republicans Are Gambling with the Delta Surge

The question was straightforward enough; it was the answer that proved more revealing. When a local reporter asked Representative Glenn Grothman, a Wisconsin Republican, whether he had been vaccinated against COVID-19, he replied, “I don’t like to get into taking sides on it.” He then walked out of the camera frame. As a Trump loyalist, with a ninety-six-per-cent rating from the American Conservative Union, Grothman is an unsurprising opponent of vaccine mandates. After a town-hall meeting in Green Lake—just seven miles from the birthplace of the Republican Party—which was held outdoors, owing to the Delta variant, he stood on the grass and said, “I’m not going to play doctor.”

No one, of course, is asking Grothman to play doctor. His job is to be a well-informed leader and to share the expertise of doctors and scientists who agree, based on mountainous evidence, that vaccines are the best way to counter the gravest pandemic in a century. He surely knows that more than six hundred thousand Americans have died, that the daily average of Delta cases in Wisconsin is more than ten times higher than it was last month, and that COVID-19 poses an immensely greater threat to society than any of the vaccines do. Yet Grothman and other Republicans in his state refuse to endorse proven solutions. The G.O.P.-led legislature battled to stop mask mandates imposed by the Democratic governor, Tony Evers. Like-minded politicians elsewhere are similarly giving nonbelievers license to continue not believing. Ted Cruz, the Texas senator, opposes efforts to require people to be vaccinated and to produce evidence (“vaccine passports”) that they have been. Rand Paul, the Kentucky senator, has vowed not to get vaccinated and has been suspended from YouTube in recent weeks for saying, falsely, that cloth masks don’t work. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Georgia congresswoman, had her Twitter account suspended for seven days this month, after posting that vaccines “do not reduce the spread of the virus & neither do masks.”

There are consequences when leaders choose not to lead amid a pandemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control, unvaccinated patients currently account for at least nineteen out of every twenty COVID-19 hospitalizations in the United States. COVID is killing more than five hundred Americans a day, nearly triple the rate in July, and the numbers are rising.

The demagoguery and misdirection is not a case of G.O.P. leaders taking opaque positions on obscure issues that voters will scarcely notice. Rather, the politicians who disdain COVID vaccinations—but likely have been vaccinated against, say, tetanus and polio—are going public with a purpose, sticking to an anti-science message that equates some of the most routine public functions with tyranny. The 2022 primaries are less than a year away, and giving the middle finger to authority, to Washington, to people in lab coats, to Democrats, to government as a whole, has been a winning strategy for many Republicans—so far, at least. Ron DeSantis, the Florida Governor, who is up for reëlection next year and widely seen as a Presidential hopeful, has marketed “Don’t Fauci My Florida” T-shirts amid a record rate of COVID hospitalizations in his state.

It is incontrovertible that the backlash against COVID vaccines is political. No crowds are gathering, for example, at school-board meetings to protest long-standing requirements that kindergartners be vaccinated against diphtheria, pertussis, chicken pox, and Hepatitis B. No one is suggesting that driver’s licenses, which could also be considered “driver’s passports,” be banned, or that drunk driving be considered a matter of “personal responsibility,” unregulated by the state. Yet, Chris Kapenga, the president of Wisconsin’s state senate, said that health-care executives who are requiring their employees to be vaccinated are “bowing to the woke culture being pushed by the left,” and he urged workers to resist. This followed a demand by state-senate Republicans that the twenty-six campuses of the University of Wisconsin submit all COVID safety protocols to legislators for approval. A few hours later, the University of Wisconsin at Madison announced indoor mask requirements to protect students and staff. “Today’s action feels like a political statement,” a university spokesman told reporters, explaining that university leaders “are doing what needs to be done now to safely open for in-person teaching this fall.” (The university system is led by Tommy Thompson, a pragmatic Republican former governor, who once served as the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.) The task remains difficult: A Marquette Law School poll, released on Wednesday, found that, though eighty-seven per cent of Democratic respondents have had a shot, only forty-five per cent of Republicans in Wisconsin have. Roughly half the unvaccinated said that they definitely will not get vaccinated. Another twenty-seven per cent said that they probably will not.

Wisconsin has no greater talent at muddying the public-health message on COVID than its Republican U.S. senator, Ron Johnson, who has a record of misleading Wisconsinites on important issues. He said that the January 6th rioters at the Capitol “would never do anything to break the law, and so I wasn’t concerned.” He recently mouthed the word “bullshit” in describing climate change. He convened a Senate hearing to elevate baseless claims of fraud in last November’s election. James Widgerson, the editor of the conservative news outlet RIGHTWisconsin, told Jessie Opoien, a political reporter for the Capital Times, “The only standard Johnson seems to be holding himself to is that if it upsets the left, then he’s now in favor of it, regardless of how ridiculous he sounds in the process.”

Regarding the coronavirus, Johnson has said that health agencies “haven’t been honest” about the research and have joined “the media” in suppressing information. He opposes mass vaccination, saying that “it creeps me out.” He remains an ardent supporter of Donald Trump, who issued a statement, in April, encouraging Johnson to “run, Ron, run!” (Johnson is up for reëlection next year, but has not yet said whether he will run.) And Johnson continues to talk up the use of hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, drugs shown to be ineffective in treating COVID-19 symptoms. The Washington Post gave Johnson four Pinocchios for his claims, not long after he convened a session in Milwaukee to highlight adverse reactions to the vaccine. When challenged, Johnson says that he is playing the honest broker, simply wanting listeners to have all the information so that they can make their own decisions.

This is also the animating theme behind Governor Greg Abbott’s contortions in Texas, where he is seeking to prohibit school boards and city councils from imposing mask requirements. He argues, without the slightest nod to public health or the common good, that a state mandate against local mandates allows individuals to act on their own preferences. He calls it a matter of “defending Texans’ liberty.” The standard response to those who protest that Abbott’s order eviscerates local control, a supposed principle of conservative leadership, is that the ultimate expression of local control is individual choice. (Except, apparently, when it comes to a woman’s individual choice about abortion.) Local officials across the state are defying Abbott, and imposing mask mandates, only to be challenged in court by the Governor and the state attorney general, Ken Paxton. Though several judges have issued temporary orders blocking Abbott’s move, the issue seems destined to reach the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court, which has supported the Governor’s use of emergency powers.

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