Right-wing state legislatures like Montana’s have rushed to stop employers from requiring vaccinations despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that vaccines protect people from Covid-19. Last week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order preventing governments and school districts in the state from requiring people to even wear masks. Monday, Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin urged people to follow the work of Alex Berenson, a notorious crank whose constant misinformation about Covid and the vaccine finally got him booted from Twitter.
The Republican determination to spread the virus among their own voters seems incomprehensible. After all, the campaign against public health measures by conservative politicians and right-wing media figures like Tucker Carlson is having a direct negative impact on Republicans. Why would political figures choose to threaten the health and even the lives of their own voters? Scholars Amy Fried and Douglas B. Harris provide an answer in their new book, out Tuesday, “At War With Government: How Conservatives Weaponized Distrust from Goldwater to Trump.”
While some people on the left also indulge in anti-vaccine nonsense and conspiracy theories, Democratic elected officials have not blocked local efforts to protect the population from Covid-19 nor embraced vaccine denial. They also have not called an election fraudulent to try to secure their hold on the White House and then encouraged and downplayed a violent attack on the American seat of government.
Republicans, though, are different. Fried and Harris point out that the conservative movement for the last 50 years has been built largely around creating a “political identity emphasizing suspicion, hostility, and antipathy toward the government, particularly the social welfare state.” The right has tied its political fortunes to railing against, and eroding, collective government and civic responsibility. Forced to choose between saving lives and the paranoia that has helped their hold on their political power for decades, they have, once again, chosen paranoia.
Fried and Harris trace the anti-government movement that has fueled the GOP’s support for insurrection and plague back to the conservative resurgence galvanized by Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona in the 1960s and implemented by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
Pop culture narratives often attribute disillusion with government after the 1960s and ’70s to the military defeat in Vietnam, the assassination of prominent figures such as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. and the shameless corruption revealed in the Watergate scandal. Fried and Harris, though, argue that undermining faith in government has been a deliberate tactic embraced by Republican elites.
Franklin Roosevelt and administrations after his, including those of Republicans Dwight Eisenhower and even Richard Nixon, had promoted the achievements of government in expanding the social net by providing Social Security and Medicare as well as other federal actions. Reagan, though, famously declared, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government, and I'm here to help." He also implied that certain people who received government aid — racialized “welfare queens” — were unworthy grifters, essentially stealing money from hard-working people (which is to say, white men).
Government in Reagan’s vision wasn’t a source of aid for everyday people. It was a nefarious bureaucracy that, among other ills, empowered racialized crooks and outsiders to rob good, white heartland Americans. This mistrust of government, Fried and Harris explain, allowed conservatives “to build political organizations, to win elections, to channel power toward institutions they controlled … and to promote or thwart policy proposals.”
For instance, the tea party claimed President Barack Obama’s health care reform created “death panels” — bureaucracies to determine who deserved to live or die. This was complete nonsense. But the scare-mongering was an effective rallying tool, and helped Republicans to a sweeping victory in the 2010 midterms.
Indeed, anti-government messaging doesn’t necessarily produce apathy. It can generate fear, anger — and engagement. It can also allow political leaders to cut themselves loose from the dry, limiting discipline of facts. Anti-establishment, anti-government narratives are innately conspiratorial. The official story provided by people in power is, supposedly, malevolent disinformation. Only those on your side will tell you the truth.
There are also downsides to creating a politics based on outsider posturing and outright lies, of course. As Fried and Harris point out repeatedly, mistrust is volatile. It can consume the same elites who stoke it.
Politicians such as House leaders John Boehner and Eric Cantor, who were lifted into the majority by the tea party wave, were eventually pushed from office by those same forces. In the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, Trump prevailed over his strongest challenger, tea party Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, in part by painting him as an establishment shill and baselessly claiming that Cruz’s father had helped assassinate John F. Kennedy. More recently, Trump’s refusal to acknowledge that he lost the November 2020 election probably cost the GOP control of the Senate when the party lost two January Senate runoffs in Georgia.
It would be nice if these setbacks led Republicans to reconsider their strategy of mistrust, division and lies. But there’s little indication that that will happen. A couple of outliers, like Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, have denounced Trump’s claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him by Democrats, as well as the Jan. 6 insurrection. For their pains, almost everyone else in the GOP has turned against them, and there is a movement to boot them from the party.
Neither insurrection nor mass death has convinced the GOP to change its ways. It has been a party promoting mistrust and hate for half a century, and it is not going to alter course now. So it’s up to everyone else to shore up democracy. Fried and Harris suggest that “a coalition in support of government efforts should emphasize the many instances when government has saved the day.”
That recommendation is reasonable as far as it goes. But it isn’t actually a change in direction. The Biden administration and Democrats already highlight policy successes and the value of government programs like the Affordable Care Act. The problem is that Republican opposition makes government less effective, sowing further distrust and anger.
Republican opposition to vaccination, for example, has led many GOP voters to refuse vaccines; partly as a result, the U.S. is struggling to get more than 50 percent of the population fully vaccinated, which keeps Covid raging. In other words, mistrust makes it hard for government to function, which increases mistrust, which makes it even harder for government to function. The fact that government is sometimes legitimately untrustworthy — as the seemingly endless string of police shootings of Black people demonstrates — only makes matters worse.
Even if there’s no ready solution, it’s important to understand the problem. There are often good reasons to restrain government power and to question government pronouncements. But large masses of people don’t turn against vaccines or elections out of some spontaneous mistrust of elites. On the contrary, many Republicans embrace hatred of government and conspiracy theories because they trust elites like Abbott and Carlson, even if they’re harming their own followers in their quest for power. If we’re ever going to get to a better America, we need to state that truth clearly. Fried and Harris’ book gives us some of the background we need to do so.