It’s a typically American tragedy that our nation’s response to the coronavirus became so badly politicized. Donald Trump and Fox News were largely responsible for cleaving the electorate’s pandemic perspective along partisan lines. Now that that politicization has manifested itself as significant vaccine hesitancy among white male Republicans, Trump and Fox have a responsibility to help solve the problem they did so much to create.
Donald and Melania Trump have both been vaccinated. After shamelessly politicizing the COVID-19 pandemic for re-election purposes, Trump should now forcefully and repeatedly urge his supporters to get vaccinated, too. Fox News, meanwhile, needs to cease its anti-vaccine nonsense and act, briefly, like a responsible, fact-based news outlet.
Although our four other living ex-presidents and first ladies are appearing in a public service announcement urging everyone to get vaccinated, Trump is not. So far, his highest profile comment has come in a call-in appearance on Fox News, where he noted that “it’s a great vaccine, it’s a safe vaccine, and it’s something that works.” In response to a query from host Maria Bartiromo, Trump said that he would “recommend it [the vaccine] to a lot of people who don’t want to get it, and a lot of those people voted for me, frankly.”
Yes they did. A new Yahoo News/YouGov survey found that among those Trump 2020 voters who have not yet been vaccinated, half say they will never be. Another survey, this one by Marist for NPR and PBS, showed similar results: 49 percent of Republican men said they would never be vaccinated, as did 41 percent of all Trump supporters, and 40 percent of white men without a college degree. Demographically, this is obviously an audience that has been and can be influenced by Trump and Fox.
Last year, these people were badly disserved by both. Echoing Trump, Fox’s prime-time hosts went to great lengths to portray the pandemic as overhyped, a political cudgel being used to hurt Trump’s re-election chances. Fox cast doubt on government-mandated shutdowns and mask edicts.
Nor, despite the huge death toll from COVID-19, has that stopped. Tucker Carlson, Fox’s self-styled ombudsman-for-the-everyday-ignoramus, is busy sowing doubts about the vaccination efforts. Spreading falsehoods posed as questions, Carlson has accused government authorities of telling unspecified lies about the vaccines. Given the seriousness of the consequences here, it would behoove Fox News’ higher-ups, including (already vaccinated) Rupert Murdoch, to instruct its hosts to treat the inoculation effort as deserving of more thoughtful and less polemical treatment than, say, the supposed war on Christmas, the cancelation of certain Dr. Seuss books, or the latest perceived Hollywood insult to all that is good and true with America.
If vaccine hesitancy continues among the Trump/Fox demographics, it could hinder the quest for the United States to achieve herd immunity, and thus put the coronavirus on a path toward dying out. That threshold was originally pegged at 60 to 70 percent of the population, but Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Biden, now suspects it is somewhere between 70 and 90 percent. If so, it’s obviously a real problem that upward of 30 percent of Americans are telling pollsters they won’t get vaccinated.
There are steep hurdles of fear, suspicion, and resentment to overcome. Some of it emanates from the so-called anti-vaxxers, who harbor scientifically unfounded fears about the supposed perils of vaccines. Shamefully, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has joined their ranks, dunderheadedly using his celebrity status to spread false or misinterpreted information about this vaccination effort.
But given that the biggest resistance comes from Trump’s base, the former president needs to do more here. He should be repeating the message he delivered by phone on Fox News again and again. Although Trump himself has been banned from Twitter and Facebook, Melania, Don Jr., and Ivanka could all act as his proxies there. Meanwhile, he should volunteer to do a public-service announcement of his own and also use his campaign’s extensive e-mail lists to reach supporters directly with a pro-vaccine message.
Dr. Fauci says he believes an urging from Trump would be very important in persuading more Republicans to receive the vaccine. There, he’s likely right. Trump supporters tend toward conspiracy theories and have a deep distrust of the political and scientific establishment. But they invest great faith in Trump.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki has also signaled that Trump’s help wouldn’t be unwelcome. “Every other living former President . . . has participated in public [awareness] campaigns,” she said this week. “They did not need an engraved invitation to do so. So he may decide he should do that. If so, great.”
Although her tone was snarky, Psaki’s point was right. Trump shouldn’t have to be asked. Nor should his participation be considered a favor to the nation. It should fall into the category of penitential responsibility because of the damage he did by mocking mask-wearing, minimizing the perils of the pandemic, pressing governors for premature reopening, and setting a terrible national example by holding crowded, unmasked public events.
Participating energetically in a pro-vaccination campaign won’t make any of that better. But it might well save the lives of some who put their trust in him. Or in Fox News.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.