Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” and co-author, with Peter Eisner, of the book “High Crimes: The Corruption, Impunity, and Impeachment of Donald Trump.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
In a widely circulated video from January 6, Paul Hodgkins stands on the floor of the Senate with the staff of his red Trump flag resting on his shoulder. He sports a moustache, a beard, and shoulder-length hair. His arms are protected by leathery cuffs like those sold with “Game of Thrones” costumes. Goggles dangle from his neck. Behind him, in the presiding officer’s spot, half-naked Q-Anon Shaman Jacob Chansley, rants about “communists and globalists within our government.”
Today, Chansley is a ward of the government, which is trying to determine if he’s psychologically fit to face criminal charges. Hodgkins is the first of those federally charged in the Trumpist attack on the Capitol to be sentenced to prison. In the wake of his sentencing, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that years of lies and propaganda issued by former President Donald Trump and others set the conditions for thousands of people to battle police until they gained control of the Capitol, driving senators, representatives and the Vice President out of their chambers and into hiding.
“We were battling 15,000 people. It looked like a medieval battle scene,” said police officer Michael Fanone, a week after the melee. He suffered a mild heart attack after being shocked by a stun gun. He heard someone shout, “Kill him with his own gun.”
The battle that terrified Fanone exhilarated many of the attackers, who seemed to feel as if they were engaging in dramatic patriotic action even if their grasp of the situation was shaky, as demonstrated by the Capitol rioter who thought he was in the White House. Another, who wore a gladiator costume, filmed himself saying, “Wow Mom. I wish you were here with me.” It is in this feeling, and in the costuming and weaponry so many brought to the Capitol, that we can find clues to the enduring power of Trump. On January 6, the world saw people who felt called to action by a king-like figure who needed his political tribe’s help to retore his rule. They responded as if they were part of a giant live action role playing (LARP) game, and not real-world people who would be held accountable.
In a similar way, millions of Americans are now demonstrating their loyalty to Trump and their tribe by risking their lives, and the lives others, as they refuse to be vaccinated against Covid-19 – despite the fact that Trump himself reportedly received the vaccine in January.
Vaccine skepticism has been a problem in Trump country as the government races to defeat the virus by using inoculation to achieve so-called “herd immunity.” As president Trump had modeled anti-science skepticism by generally refusing to wear a face mask and ridiculing the top pandemic advisor, Dr. Anthony Fauci. He held mass campaign rallies against expert advice, was so effective in politicizing the pandemic that even after he publicly agreed the vaccines were safe, his followers lagged in taking it.
The bond Trump forged with his followers was created in large part by his appeal to their pre-existing resentment of elites, including experts on everything from climate change to medicine (Remember how he mused about treating Covid-19 infections with light and disinfectant?). Republicans have played this game for years, which may explain why GOP voters have far less confidence in science than Democrats. Indeed, as historian Naomi Oreskes noted recently, GOP spokespeople have criticized scientists for decades and even invented controversies to challenge experts on concerns such as climate change. With the pandemic the mindset created by the anti-expert drumbeat made it natural for Republican governors to resist scientists who called for life-saving measures like mask mandates for public spaces.
In the case of vaccines, even the fact that they were developed with funds provided by the Trump administration doesn’t seem to have much effect. A Washington Post-ABCNews poll released two weeks ago found that while 93 percent of Democrats either have gotten their shots or plan to, only 49 percent of Republicans fall into the same category. Although income was also related to attitudes about the shot, with less-wealthy people showing more skepticism, this factor was not nearly as important as was loyalty to the GOP and Trump.
Anecdotally, it can seem as if vaccine resistance has become part of the culture of resentment that Trump exploited in his campaigns. After years of hearing their man demonize the media, Trump’s followers may reflexively turn-out information that could save their lives. When political consultant Frank Luntz convened a focus group to discuss vaccines, one woman said, “A lot of the hesitancy that’s coming from the right is just from being bullied, being humiliated, basically, by the media,” adding, “I don’t really see the point in getting it if nothing is going to change, and I haven’t gotten sick.”
As regions of under-vaccinated Trump Country experience surges in cases, many in right-wing media are fighting against the government’s best efforts to save people from a virus that has already killed 600,000 Americans. Pro-Trump activist Charlie Kirk went on Fox News recently to compare vaccine guidelines to apartheid in South Africa. Meanwhile Fox News opinion hosts have repeatedly misrepresented government policy as they have the vaccine effort. Though notably, Sean Hannity issued an impassioned plea Monday night for his viewers to take Covid seriously, and to consider taking the vaccine.
Like supporting Trump’s Big Lie that says the last election was stolen from him, opposition to the vaccine may be shaping up to be a requirement for those who would claim to remain on Team Trump. That this stance requires taking a dramatic risk – one’s own life – aligns with the type of thinking that led so many of his followers to heed his call to come to Washington, DC, and then attack the Capitol with the hope of stopping the final certification of the election results.
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In both cases, Trumpists caught up in something akin to LARPing will inevitably encounter real life consequences in the form of prison terms, hospital stays, or even funerals. Their enablers and defenders will want to blame Trump or argue that their only victims are themselves. Trump and his amen chorus obviously deserve real blame. But let’s also recognize that the actions of these true believers have ripple effects: The nation was wounded by the January 6 attack and it suffers with every hospitalization and death of an unvaccinated Trump voter. Enough with the LARPing.