As the Delta variant spreads across the United States, cases of COVID-19 have surged by 1,000 percent from late June. More people are hospitalized with the coronavirus than at any time since February. Southern states, led by Republicans who have frequently refused to support vaccination, have been hit especially hard. But some Republican politicians are shifting their rhetoric: Alabama Governor Kay Ivey chastised unvaccinated people for “letting down” Alabamans by driving a spike in infections, with her state holding the lowest vaccination rate in the country. Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson reversed his position on mask mandates, saying he had made a mistake by signing a ban on mandates into law. The Fox News host Steve Doocy, a reliable bearer of Republican messaging, has started encouraging viewers to get vaccinated. Is the party changing its stance on the pandemic?
According to Norm Ornstein, an emeritus scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, some Republicans are finally admitting that masks and vaccinations can help control the pandemic—but most continue to reject the view. As Ornstein sees it, party leaders and voters have become rigid in beliefs that prevent them from accepting a vaccine that could save their lives. For decades, Republican elites have disregarded scientific findings for political ends, as they’re doing now with data on the virus, masking, and vaccines. At the same time, with partisan hostility toward Democrats increasing, more and more Republicans reflexively oppose any position Democrats hold, including support for mask mandates and vaccination requirements. And an ongoing devotion to Donald Trump has led many to follow his example on science denialism, Ornstein says, despite the former president having been vaccinated in January.
Michael Bluhm: Do you see a shift in Republicans’ position on vaccination?
Norm Ornstein: It’s a shift among some, and we see that with some members of the Senate, as well. But it’s overwhelmed by the opposite reality. We’re seeing with Kay Ivey and Asa Hutchinson the realization that their own people are dying and their states are getting overwhelmed, with hospitals unable to do anything else.
We just saw Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who has been among the most aggressive anti-vaccination, anti-mask people, calling for outside medical personnel because their health system is overwhelmed. But he hasn’t said, Oops, I was wrong—everybody get vaccinated.
What we see on Fox News is a lonely voice here and there. But the evening shows—the real opinion leaders—continue to push anti-vaccine, anti-masking realities.
For a long time, Republicans were touting Operation Warp Speed and saying, Donald Trump deserves a great deal of credit, because he’s the one responsible for these vaccines. Then they turned around and said, These vaccines, they’re terrible.
Donald Trump, who got vaccinated privately along with his family in the White House, did not come out and do it in public or say, These vaccines are wonderful. Everybody should get them. The signal that it sent to Republicans in a tribal world was, If they’re for it, we’re against it. Donald Trump had enough influence to make the difference here.
Bluhm: What’s behind the party’s rejection of vaccination?
Ornstein: One is a conservative philosophy run amok. It’s about “freedom,” and government imposing its will is bad no matter what. That’s going to overrule everything else.
That’s not conservative. Public health—especially if we’re dealing with contagious, deadly infections—always has a role for government to keep people from endangering others. It’s not about your freedom; it’s a question of whether you have the freedom to endanger or kill others.
Combined with that, a lot of people may be well-meaning but are getting their information from sources that are feeding them misinformation or disinformation. This isn’t just the right—the anti-vaxxers include many on the left, but they’re putting out stuff that’s simply wrong.
A tweet by a longtime Republican operative said the evidence is that masks don’t work. That’s ignoring all the evidence and the overwhelming consensus of health experts. But I think that is something he actually believes, because he’s looking at ridiculous sources of information.
We’re seeing, every day, people in intensive-care units saying, I listened to these bogus reports, and that’s why I didn’t get vaccinated. Boy, was I wrong.
Bluhm: You say that conservative philosophy has run amok, but who’s responsible for that? I’m asking because the party, even very recently, was not monolithic in its positions. In 2015, Republican leaders tried to prevent Donald Trump from gaining the nomination. But it was quite clear that the party elites had lost control of the party, or at least control of those who vote in primaries. At that time, there were factions within the party—Big Business, libertarians, evangelical Christians, and others. Today, the Republican Party has become the party of Donald Trump. Yet this transformation of conservative ideology predates Trump—he’s both a symptom and a cause. What happened to that ideology?
For a long time, Republicans were touting Operation Warp Speed and saying, “Donald Trump deserves a great deal of credit, because he’s the one responsible for these vaccines.” Then they turned around and said, “These vaccines, they’re terrible.”
Ornstein: I don’t think you have a conservative Republican Party anymore. It is a radical party. And it’s not even really a party—it’s a cult.
Conservative ideology is that we want to emphasize the private sector first. We do not want big government. We want balanced budgets. But there is some government that’s absolutely necessary; we want to fund the parts of government that are necessary, and we want them to work well. There’s a balance, and in many cases, it’s better to use the tax system for incentives than to have bureaucrats making mandates. We want competent people, and we believe in facts. If we can’t balance a budget by cutting spending, then we have revenues to do so. That’s an ideology.
A theology is, All government is bad. If any part of it works, that’s bad, because people will like it, and they’ll want more of it. And the theology is, you cut taxes whether times are good or bad, whether you have a surplus or a big deficit. You say you’ll raise more revenue by cutting taxes, and when you don’t, you keep coming back to it. That’s a theology.
Political theologies do not like science, because science can cast doubt on their credo. One of the kickoff moments of the anti-science trend in the Republican Party was when [former House Speaker] Newt Gingrich eliminated the congressional Office of Technology Assessment. This was a robust office, like the Congressional Research Service or the Congressional Budget Office, that had scientific experts.
You had disputes during the Reagan years about the B-1 bomber or the MX missile and whether it was cost-effective, whether it would actually work; whether Star Wars—the Strategic Defense Initiative—could work. You had lots of scientists casting doubt on things that Reagan and the Republicans wanted, so the easiest thing to do—rather than amass your own scientific evidence, especially if the weight of the evidence wasn’t working for you—was to cast doubt on the credibility of the scientists.
That was true with environmental matters; it became true of climate; and now it’s become true of public health in the pandemic, as well.
Getting to a larger point that you made about the different factions in the Republican Party, after Barack Obama became president, the self-proclaimed young guns in the House—Kevin McCarthy, Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor—traveled around the country, igniting Tea Party anger, to win control of Congress in 2010. It worked like a charm for them.
They thought they could co-opt the Tea Party movement, which was not just based on economic frustration and anxiety—there was a deeper racial and nativist undertone to it. But the Tea Party movement co-opted them.
When you had Republican leaders unite against Donald Trump, it was for two reasons. One, they thought he would lose, and they would have a better shot with somebody else. The second was a belief that he would take them in a very dangerous direction that could mean their destruction as a party. Nobody was more vocal about this than [U.S. Senator] Lindsey Graham, who said Donald Trump is a narcissistic sociopath, and if he wins, there will be no more Republican Party.
I don’t think you have a conservative Republican Party anymore. It is a radical party. And it’s not even really a party—it’s a cult.
What happened? Nobody got co-opted more than Lindsey Graham, because the larger Republican electorate resonated to Donald Trump. He met all their needs and their anxieties, and he’s still a potent force.
Bluhm: You mention Newt Gingrich, whose Contract with America platform in 1994 openly made all-out obstructionism the Republican strategy in Congress. You describe a transition from ideology into theology, but when it comes to a deadly pandemic and vaccine that almost entirely prevents the COVID-19 disease, this theology is going to conflict with the most basic instinct for survival. How do Republican beliefs make the leap from distrust of government and obstructing Democrats to rejecting a potentially life-saving vaccine?
Ornstein: Newt began a process of converting ideology to theology. He’s not the only one. The tribal media and social media contributed to all of that. But at the same time, what Newt did was to generate the tribalism that moved us from polarization—you can be polarized and still work together to solve problems.
But if you become tribal, there are a couple of components to that. The first is, you start believing that if they’re for it, you have to be against it. But more important than that is the larger overlay. You start believing that they are not really Americans like you—they are evil and trying to destroy our way of life. So any steps you take that can bring them down is good, because you can preserve your way of life.
Right now, the “way of life” is white Americans who fear that their standing in the country is being eroded or taken away. That’s a major part of it.
Overturning election results? If they’re evil, then your ends justify the means, because they will do evil things and destroy your way of life.
If you require mayhem and death to accomplish your goals, then those are justified. When Tucker Carlson or Laura Ingraham talk, what Donald Trump has said and done—it’s all playing into that narrative.
That’s the frightening element of this: They’re willing to accept deaths among their supporters, because that’s going to help make sure the evil people don’t take over and destroy their way of life.
Bluhm: You’re describing how partisan polarization turns into tribalism. But if Republicans will do anything and everything—including tolerate their supporters’ deaths—to accomplish political goals, then why did Republican senators vote to approve the infrastructure bill?
Ornstein: [The senate minority leader and U.S. senator from Kentucky] Mitch McConnell famously said in 2010, My number-one goal is to make Barack Obama a one-term president. He said this year, 100 percent of my effort is to block everything in Joe Biden’s agenda. His number-one goal right now is not to make Joe Biden a one-term president; his number-one goal is to make Mitch McConnell the majority leader—to bring back a Republican majority in the Senate.
If you become tribal, there are a couple of components to that. The first is, you start believing that if they’re for it, you have to be against it. But more important than that is the larger overlay. You start believing that they are not really Americans like you—they are evil and trying to destroy our way of life. So any steps you take that can bring them down is good, because you can preserve your way of life.
He’s got many Republicans who are up for re-election in 2022. Several of those seats are vulnerable—Ohio, Wisconsin.
Infrastructure is popular with super-majorities among Republicans, Democrats, and independents. So if you can get a package that many of your senators can vote for, then they’re going to be able to take credit for something popular. But also—and this is critical—if you support this infrastructure bill, you may accomplish two additional goals.
One, you may head off the willingness of Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, and others to change the filibuster rule for things that really could hurt you, like election and voting reform. Two, you will have much more justification for all-out obstruction of everything else, because you can say, What do you mean, I’m an obstructionist? Look what we did with infrastructure.
This is not heralding a new age of bipartisanship. This is a tactical move to fit in the larger strategy, which is the really disruptive one.
Bluhm: Even though the party has been co-opted by Trump, there are many senators—as you mentioned—and many House members from safely pro-republican districts who understand and accept the science on vaccines. Why are they silent or not more vocal in calling for vaccinations and masking
Ornstein: There are some elites who really believe all these insane things: Marjorie Taylor Greene, Louie Gohmert, Paul Gosar, Rand Paul.
There are a whole lot of others who don’t, but they’re scared to death, not just of their own voters but of their own peers. And this is a part of what happens with a cult. What keeps a cult together, in part, is the fear of being shunned or excommunicated.
Look at [the U.S. Senator from Tennessee] Lamar Alexander. He was going to retire from the Senate last year. He’s had this long, distinguished career as a governor, cabinet member, widely viewed as a moderate conservative—and he goes all-in on Trump. He’s retiring. He’s not looking for another job. He doesn’t need money. Why would he do this?
Because back home, he doesn’t want to go to his country club and be shunned by people he’s been around—his friends, partners, and treasured relationships—who will view him as the apostate.
There’s an awful lot of that going on. Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, Donald Trump, Donald Trump Jr., and Alex Jones create this atmosphere where the majority of Republicans come to believe lies and crazy things.
Surveys done by Robert Pape at the University of Chicago show an astonishing number of people—not all Republicans, but mostly Republicans—believe that violence is the answer and that our way of life is being threatened. A super-majority of Republicans still believe that Joe Biden didn’t win the election.
If people believe those things, and they’re reinforced in those beliefs, then you’re paying a price to go against it. I would look with disdain on politicians who are too cowardly to stand up to those beliefs when the alternative approach would save lives. Instead, they’re willing to sacrifice lives.
They’re scared to death, not just of their own voters but of their own peers. And this is a part of what happens with a cult. What keeps a cult together, in part, is the fear of being shunned or excommunicated.
We have this violent insurrection on January 6. The video that we’re now seeing is staggering and frightening. We came dangerously close to having many members of Congress killed; members of the House, across the spectrum, believing that they could die. The House reconvenes that evening, and two-thirds of the House Republicans there still vote that the election was rigged. That tells you everything you need to know about where this cult is.
This is not what a normal political party would do. Was it instigated by the elites to get the masses to accomplish their goals? Yes. Who’s running things now? I can’t give you an answer to that. Elites are still throwing gasoline on the fire, suggesting that maybe we’re going to need our Second Amendment rights to stop mask mandates, social distancing, or requiring vaccinations.
We’re in a very bad place overall. And it’s a bad place that is keeping us from doing fundamental public-health protections. It’s not just about the Delta variant and the mayhem that’s causing, but the more people refuse to get protection, the more likely are mutations that will be far more deadly and vaccine-resistant. That’s beyond reckless.
Bluhm: How do you view the potential electoral repercussions of the Republicans’ approach to the pandemic? Of course, it’s impossible to predict turnout for the 2022 midterm elections or predict the course of the pandemic. But could voters possibly punish Republicans for their positions on vaccines and masking, and for the damage of the Delta variant?
Ornstein: We aren’t sure. First, we know that midterm elections tend to work against the president’s party, because the out-party gets angry at what’s been happening—and this is particularly true if you have a united government. There’s a headwind with the very narrow margins in the House and the even split in the Senate. That’s difficult for Democrats.
The second headwind in the House is redistricting. That, in and of itself, gives Republicans more seats. Their ability to hold state legislatures and have many more states that have united Republican governments means that they can do partisan gerrymandering, which will in turn mean that Democrats probably lose several seats, net, before the election campaign begins.
The third factor is laws passed in many states that are not just suppressing votes, but giving more leverage to Republican partisans to overturn election results they don’t like.
Two things will work for Democrats. One, Biden has managed to accomplish remarkable things with those narrow margins—and to do it while holding progressives and moderates together. That accomplishment may turn some voters toward Democrats.
What may also work for them is everything that we’ve talked about: the mayhem that has resulted from decisions made by Republicans, the sense that the radical forces are the dominant ones. Many suburban voters rebelled against Trump in 2018 and gave Democrats the majority in the House—that may happen again.
But if I were the Democrats, I wouldn’t be operating on the assumption that they’re going to have the presidency, the House, and the Senate for the full four years of Biden’s term.