On two occasions in the past several days, former President Donald Trump made strong endorsements of the coronavirus vaccines, surprising political analysts who have become accustomed to his relative silence on the issue and angering some of his anti-vaccine supporters.
The first endorsement came last Sunday, when Trump revealed during an interview with former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly that he had received his booster shot — a statement that prompted boos from a small number of audience members. A few days later, Trump was even more forceful in his pro-vaccine statements while speaking with conservative pundit Candace Owens.
“The vaccine is one of the greatest achievements of mankind,” he said. He also pushed back when Owens questioned how much protection the vaccines really provide. “The vaccine worked. But some people aren’t taking it. The ones that get very sick and go to the hospital are the ones who don’t take the vaccine.”
Trump, who got sick with COVID-19 after downplaying the pandemic for months, reportedly exerted heavy pressure on scientists to complete development of the vaccines at a record pace. But he has been far less vocal in encouraging his supporters to get them than many health experts would like. He was quietly vaccinated while still president, a fact that wasn’t revealed until months after he’d left office. As a private citizen, he had made only a handful of pro-vaccine statements before his recent comments, and he had previously called boosters a “money-making operation” by pharmaceutical companies. His latest comments came with the caveat that he’s “100% AGAINST” mandates. He also has a history of promoting conspiracies linking vaccines to autism.
Why there’s debate
Trump’s sudden vaccine embrace has raised two major areas of debate. The first and most important is whether his statements will persuade Republican voters to get vaccinated. The second is whether they will have any impact politically.
President Biden welcomed Trump’s comments, calling his support for boosters “one of the few things he and I agree on.” Some analysts and health experts believe that Trump’s endorsement could make a measurable difference in vaccination rates among the GOP base, who are far less likely to be vaccinated than Democrats. Dr. Anthony Fauci, on the other hand, said Trump’s comments come too late after “poisoning the well early on” by widening the political divide on COVID. That view is bolstered by a recent poll, in which nearly half of unvaccinated Americans said nothing can change their minds about the shots.
As far as the political impact, some analysts see signs that Trump’s pro-vaccine stance may hurt his support among groups that have historically been his most ardent supporters. Some of the biggest names in far-right media — including conspiracist radio host Alex Jones — lashed out at Trump in response to his comments.
But a number of pollsters have suggested that coming out in favor of the vaccines is actually a savvy political play on Trump’s part. They point out that though Republicans make up an outsize share of the unvaccinated, a majority of GOP voters have gotten the shot. The most intense anti-vaccine sentiments may be held by only a smaller wing of the party, not the broader base, they argue.
It won’t be clear for some time whether Trump’s statements have persuaded a significant share of his supporters to get the vaccines. It also remains to be seen whether Trump will continue to promote the vaccines going forward, or if he will go back to mostly avoiding the topic in future.
Trump and Biden working in tandem is a big win for the vaccine campaign
“President Biden is hopefully recognizing that his rhetoric about an ‘unvaccinated winter of death’ is far less convincing to Republican voters than anything the former president could say about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines. Wittingly or not, both Biden and Trump were central to making that happen.” — Bethany Mandel, Deseret News
Trump has more power to influence GOP voters than any other person
“He might not be championing the vaccines for the right reasons, but given that he’s likely the single-most influential person in America when it comes to convincing establishment-skeptical conservatives to get the jab, the consequences are beneficial for our country.” — Zeeshan Aleem, MSNBC
Not even Trump can change vaccine skeptics’ minds
“It’s a different angle of rhetoric and an obviously self-serving one, but if it gets people vaccinated, who can complain? The problem is that even a direct, robust call from Trump for his base to get vaccinated probably wouldn’t change many minds.” — Philip Bump, Washington Post
Trump has already done too much to undermine the vaccine rollout
“This is what Trump should have been doing all along. If he’d been willing to get his initial vaccine shots publicly, or if he’s spent 2021 urging Republicans to do the same, it’s possible that a lot of lives would have been saved. Would Fox News have done so much work to sow doubts about vaccines if Trump had argued more vocally in their favor? Unlikely.” — Joel Mathis, The Week
Trump will need to mount a sustained pro-vaccine campaign to make a difference
“Covid vaccines are as Trumpian as medicine can get! This would be a perfect time for a formal campaign led by... hm, how about Trump? Such a message would land with a wallop among the unvaccinated. … A Trump-led publicity campaign might persuade a few million of his supporters that the vaccine was a universal medicine, not Joe’s private-label tonic.” — Jack Shafer, Politico
Promoting the vaccines is both the right thing to do and a smart political tactic
“72.5 percent of adults have been fully vaccinated against the disease. Most people believe the vaccines to be an extremely useful — if not foolproof — way to mitigate the consequences of Covid’s continued existence. Placing yourself on the other side of a 70–30 issue is never politically savvy, even if it’s a moral necessity. In this case, the political incentives align with the moral imperatives.” — Isaac Schorr, National Review
Trump may have irrevocably hurt his support among the far-right
“For much of his presidency, it seemed that American populism was whatever Trump did. As recently as this year, it was forgivable to ask if the movement could exist without him. It is now clear that it can exist in active defiance of him. It has substance and momentum that is independent of any leadership.” — Janan Ganesh, Financial Times