‘Trump is not my God’: how the former president’s only vaccine victory turned sour

<span>Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
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She is fiercely loyal to Donald Trump. But when the former US president came to her home city and praised coronavirus vaccines, Flora Moore did something she never thought possible. She booed him.

Related: Trump booed after telling supporters to get Covid vaccine

“He said take the vaccine but we all booed and said no,” she recalled of Trump’s event with broadcaster Bill O’Reilly in Orlando, Florida. He heard us loud and clear because the Amway Center was packed. We let him know ‘no’ and a couple of us even hollered out, ‘It’s killing people!’

There is no scientific basis to the claim that the vaccines are killing people. In fact, they have demonstrably saved thousands of lives. But Moore is indicative of the extreme anti-vaccine sentiment consuming the base of the Republican party – a monster that Trump himself can no longer control.

America is exhausted by a pandemic still killing more than 2,400 people a day, the overwhelming majority of whom are unvaccinated, bringing the total death toll to 900,000.

In more conventional times, Trump’s Operation Warp Speed, which developed vaccines in record time, would be a source of pride for his voters. Even his successor, Joe Biden, has praised the initiative, stating: “Thanks to the prior administration and our scientific community, America was one of the first countries to get the vaccine.”

But Trump’s eagerness to claim credit has been undone by conservatives’ backlash against Biden’s efforts to legally require worker vaccinations, which they cast as a threat to individual freedom. The ex-president’s customary applause turned to jeers when he encouraged supporters to get vaccinated and told O’Reilly that he received a booster himself.

What was arguably Trump’s most important legacy from an otherwise disastrous pandemic response, and a divisive four-year presidency, has turned into a political liability, threatening to turn his own fans against him. Laurie Garrett, an award-winning science writer, observed: “It’s probably the only time his base has ever booed him about anything. If he can no longer brag about Operation Warp Speed, what can he brag about regarding how he handled Covid?

Trump supporters gathered at the World Wide Rally for Freedom, an anti-mask and anti-vaccine rally in New Hampshire on 15 May 2021.
Trump supporters gathered at the World Wide Rally for Freedom, an anti-mask and anti-vaccine rally in New Hampshire on 15 May 2021. Photograph: Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images

The anti-vaccine fervor has been stoked by some Republican politicians as well as rightwing media. Last month, Fox News host Tucker Carlson, a notorious sceptic, gave writer Alex Berenson a platform to baselessly proclaim, “The mRNA Covid vaccines need to be withdrawn from the market now. No one should get them. No one should get boosted. No one should get double-boosted.”

The web has also become a place for unscientific conspiracy theories to thrive. Moore, the Trump supporter in Florida, said she gets her information from her 30,000 followers on Facebook as well as Telegram, Twitter and YouTube.

She said: “I don’t trust the government. I don’t trust the pharmaceutical companies. I’m active in politics here and found out lots of people were having complications and dropping dead. There’s a lot of jobs I wont’t even take because they want me to get a vaccine.”

The commercial analyst, who is in her 40s, refuses to wear a face mask in restaurants or at work. Her radical views on the issue outweigh even her faith in Trump.

“I trust him on certain things, but he’s not my God,” she said.

Trump appears to have heeded the shift and recalibrated. At a rally in Conroe, Texas, last Saturday, where anti-vaccine views were again rampant, he channeled the crowd’s anger towards Biden’s mandate for federal government workers (a similar mandate for businesses was rejected by the supreme court).

It is time for the American people to declare independence from every last Covid mandate,” Trump said to cheers. “We have to tell this band of hypocrites, tyrants and racists that we’re done with having them control our lives, mess with our children and close our businesses. We’re moving on from Covid.”

He then added briskly: “We did a great job. Operation Warp Speed has been praised by everybody but it’s now time to move on.” Notably in the remarks he did not use the word “vaccines” at all. It was a pivot that appeared to acknowledge the political threat and it is enough to satisfy voters such as Moore.

The one thing Republicans could claim as a great benefit that was saving lives, they’re now being compelled by their own base to renounce

Laurie Garrett

She commented: “I think he’s gotten the message that he can say he took the vaccine and nothing happened to him and if you desire to take it, take it, but if you don’t want to, leave it alone.”

The number of anti-vaxxers in the Republican base is hard to estimate. The Guardian interviewed half a dozen Trump rally attendees last week and found that most had got the shots. They included Jered Pettis, from Phoenix, Arizona, who had changed his mind on the topic.

We were totally anti-vaccine, didn’t really believe in it, didn’t want to get it,” he said. “Then a friend got it pretty severe: he could hardly breathe and felt like his head was going to explode. He didn’t go to the hospital but he was very, very sick to the point where he told me, ‘Hey, Jered. I’m very thankful for every breath of air that I get now’. After I had seen and heard one of my best friends go through that, I changed my mind in a heartbeat.”

Pettis received two Pfizer doses, then caught the virus just over a month ago. “So thank God, because I would have been a lot sicker than I was. It was almost like a mild cold. I could just imagine if I was not vaccinated.”

The 50-year-old exterior designer describes the recent booing as “absolutely ridiculous” and believes that Trump deserves credit, not criticism, for the vaccines. “Even though you may be anti-vaccine, you’ll change your mind if you get sick or you get somebody around you that dies.

Even so, deep-seated suspicion of the vaccines could deprive Republicans of what might have been a powerful boast going into November’s midterm elections. Garrett, author of The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance, points out that counties that voted for Trump in 2020 have a far higher mortality rate than counties that voted for Biden.

Trump at the Alabama rally where he got booed.
Trump was booed in Alabama when he urged fans to get the vaccine. Photograph: Marvin Gentry/Reuters

“The Republicans are in a bind,” she said. “They are experiencing a higher death rate in their ranks and it is directly linked to their positions on Covid. The one thing they could claim as a great benefit that was saving lives, vaccination, they’re now being compelled by their own base to renounce.”

Vaccine scepticism has never been a solely rightwing stance. Some libertarians on the left have opposed profit-driven big pharma and championed holistic alternatives. But on Covid-19, at least, this group appears to be significantly smaller than the conservative holdouts.

Garrett said: “All the polls are showing tremendous partisan differential in everything to do with vaccines and it has been increasing steadily for the last two years. It’s very much driven by the rightwing myths and narratives around Covid.

There still are some of those ex-hippie types that don’t want to get vaccinated, but if you look at the breakdown on political sentiment about vaccination, willingness to get a third booster or even a fourth if it becomes available, it’s so Democrat. It’s incredible” Garrett said. “I never thought in my life I would see something like this. It is an absolute partisan divide and it’s widening.”

About nine in 10 Democrats and six in 10 Republicans have been vaccinated, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, while 62% of Democrats and just 32% of Republicans have been both vaccinated and boosted. The trend suggests that Republican candidates for the midterm elections are likely to follow Trump’s lead in attacking Biden’s mandates rather than celebrating Trump’s vaccines.

Giving up on Trump is like giving up on their dreams. Trump was their savior.

Monika McDermott

But if any Republican can outflank Trump on the issue ahead of the 2024 presidential election, it may be the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, who has refused to say whether he received a booster. The New York Times reported that Patrick Ruffini, a Republican pollster, found Trump’s lead over DeSantis closing to just nine points among party members who like both men.

Monika McDermott, a political science professor at Fordham University in New York, said: “They can get disgruntled with Trump, certainly, and DeSantis is the obvious choice for people who are anti-vax. But giving up on Trump is like giving up on their dreams at this point. Trump was their savior. Trump brought about the wholesale remasculization of that portion of the American psyche.”

Indeed, despite the possible split with his Make America Great Again movement on vaccines, Trump remains by far the biggest beast in the Republican jungle and this week announced that he is entering 2022 with a staggering $122m in campaign funds.

Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman active on social media, said: “I talk to the extremists all the time and I agree with Trump’s people that they’re locked with him. They’re not going to anybody else.”

Walsh finds that 90% of the base are anti-vaccine, do not believe Biden won and either have no problem with the 6 January insurrection or regard it as a patriotic day.

“You could not as a Republican candidate run for office if you told people to get vaccinated or if you said Joe Biden won fair and square,” he added. “If you said either one of those two things, you couldn’t win a Republican primary.”