It's easy to dismiss Trump supporters as largely uneducated, and uninformed — stupid people swept up in a cult of hate that plays upon the biases rampant in American culture.
It is true that Trumpism is a cult of hate, and it's true that it emboldens bigotry and white grievance.
But most people know some highly educated people who are supporters of Donald Trump, people who have deeply studied science and history.
And when we look at the GOP we see that only a small handful of what we'd call the educated elites of the party, the Bill Kristols and the David Frums of the world, broke away and became Never Trumpers. These people and many others in the GOP of course laid the groundwork for Trump over a period of decades, going back to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, courting bigots via dog whistles — or looking the other way as others did. Then Trump just came in and said it more blatantly.
While that was just too overt for a few of them, causing their defections, there are plenty of educated Republicans who stayed, grudgingly supporting Trump at first and then often becoming completely enthusiastic backers, giving him lots of money and fighting off any detractors.
There have been many studies on political peer pressure, and how people's political affiliation and the candidates they support are driven by their communities — family, friends, and co-workers — and how it sometimes changes dramatically as the groups pressuring them change. So it's not shocking that this happened, as horrifying as it is.
But what then could make otherwise intelligent people who've always supported medical science — some of them scientists themselves — become anti-vaxxers amid a global pandemic killing millions?
Not all of the Trumpist GOP is anti-vax of course. Trump himself got vaccinated. Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida has told people to get vaccinated, if not so emphatically.
But at the same time they and other Republican leaders promoted the very anti-science conspiracies about Covid and about vaccines as part of their larger attack on government institutions. It's almost as if Trump's having been vaccinated is not believed — or is ignored by his followers — and his overriding attacks on government send a larger message not to trust the CDC and thus the vaccines.
A fascinating and scary example arose on my SiriusXM program last week when Eric from New Jersey, a retired Naval officer who served on submarines, called in. He talked about a Facebook group of fellow former Naval officers to which he belonged. As has happened with many of us, these people found one another on Facebook years after having been in each others' lives, and then connected regularly. At first it was great reminiscing and chatting.
But then came the 2016 election, and the battles over Trump and Hillary Clinton. Eric explained how, going way back, "we were all Reagan Republicans" (and you can listen to the call above), but these individuals weren't very political nor talked much about politics. They were Republican, he said, in the way many in the military have tended to be Republican, almost as a cultural identification rather than a political one.
But "when this whole Trump thing started" in 2016 the arguments in the group became tense. He agreed that some were grudgingly behind Trump but then became full on. You can understand how this happens because, while "Reagan Republican" might seem very different, it's actually just a less bombastic version of a Trump Republican. Surely the road from Reagan supporter to Trump supporter is a lot shorter than the road from Reagan supporter to Hillary Clinton supporter.
Eric didn't support Trump and was caught in the middle of the battles in the group but stayed in it during Trump's four years. It was only after the pandemic, when members started to promote anti-vaccine propaganda, that he decided he had to finally leave the group. He had to actually counter conspiracies, and explain that no, "5G, has nothing to do with [the vaccines,] and that vaccine technology has been around for hundreds of years."
Some of these people were nuclear engineers, educated scientists with multiple degrees. But he said they'd respond with personal attacks, calling him a a "village idiot" or saying "I've been sick of you since Hillary." And they'd further push the distortions and lies.
That is a frightening progression, which both explains some of what we're seeing now, and underscores the dangers we face. It shows that political peer pressure works — not just with regard to party affiliation and candidates, as extreme as they might be, but with regard to even anti-science, crazy propaganda.
These are people for whom it was more comfortable, as long-time Republicans, to stay with Trump than move away. And then, it was more comfortable to hitch on to anti-vaccine dogma that had taken over the Republican Party — and presumably taken over their friends, families and co-workers — even if it went against everything they'd been taught.
I'm just speculating, but perhaps some of these people still know better and secretly got a vaccine — or even more quietly did so, like Trump, saying it while still promoting skepticism of government.
But others probably have so bought into it that they haven't been vaccinated and have encouraged the same among people they know.
Eric said what he experienced, what he saw, was something like "brainwashing and cultism."
It made me realize that, even if Trump made a pro-vaccine video urging people to get vaccinated — as many have urged him to do — it would be far too little, too late. He'd need to completely overhaul his message that government — and government science — is evil and go on a speaking tour or do ad after ad, interview after interview. And even then, these people, having so re-oriented their thinking, would have to buy it, making a complete turnaround. Even when he does briefly mention the vaccine at his rallies — and tried to take credit for them — the crowd is pretty silent.
At least with regard to this particular kind of anti-vaxxer, the Trumpian resisters — and Republican men are the largest group resisting vaccines — there really is no turning them around. Vaccine mandates by local governments, employers, schools and businesses such as restaurants, movie theaters and indoor sporting arenas are the only answer.