Vaccine Success, Media Misery: Is Good News Taboo in the Trump Age?

Even in a moment of national triumph, Americans are a fellowship of the miserable, stuck in a bitter blame war. Why the "pandemic of the unvaccinated" proves it's time to end the jihad

Last week’s headline above a New York Times column by Ezra Klein read:

What if the Unvaccinated Can’t Be Persuaded?

The lede:

I hate that I believe the sentence I’m about to write. It undermines much of what I spend my life trying to do. But there is nothing more overrated in politics — and perhaps in life — than the power of persuasion.

It is nearly impossible to convince people of what they don’t want to believe.

The column followed a predictable path: tales of the unvaccinated writhing on deathbeds as they repented too late, reminders about the positive history of vaccine mandates, and a somber conclusion: “I urge those who object to vaccination passports as an unprecedented stricture on liberty to widen their tragic imagination.”

Even though I ostensibly persuade people for a living, I no longer believe persuasion works. Here, have some authoritarian solutions was the basic gist. Whatever happened to Yes We Can? “Nothing to fear but fear itself”? “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro?” So much for the American’s celebrated can-do spirit.

As with the mask and lockdown stories last year, public sneering has also become an important cultural signifier, e.g. this tweet from the editor of the intel community’s favored house organ, Lawfare:

Most everyone who’s heard about the recent upswing in Covid-19 cases has come away believing one of a few versions of events. In one, Republicans presented a wall of resistance to the national vaccination program, converting only recently under the heroic shaming efforts of Democrats and defenders of science in the media. The hesitancy of Trump followers, described by as the Washington Post as an “emblem of conservative identity, a way to own the libs,” is the primary or even the sole cause of the new wave of death. Hence, the “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

In another tale, found on right-wing sites and in the statements of people like Marjorie Taylor Greene and North Carolina Republican Madison Cawthorn, Joe Biden’s “door to door” vaccination efforts are pretense for “medical brown shirts” to take guns and Bibles and perform experiments using dangerous untested medicines. Here the Nazistic state hopes to forcibly sell disfiguring drugs straight into the arms even of children on behalf of rapacious pharmaceutical companies. I don’t read a lot of far right media, but these legends are apparently out there (they’re for sure lovingly described by the misery-hounds at papers like the Washington Post and New York Times).

A third, less-publicized version of reality is that the vaccination program developed under the Trump administration via Operation Warp Speed, and subsequently administered by the Biden administration, has been an incredible accomplishment we should all be… happy about?

A year ago we were all going to bed at night wondering if we’d wake up drowning in our own pleural fluids. Now, 346.9 million doses of a vaccine have been administered as of this week, with 164.9 million Americans fully vaccinated overall. A full 191.8 million Americans have received at least one dose, including 70% of the population above 18 — we missed Biden’s target of 70% by July 4th by weeks — and an amazing 89.9% of the population above 65. The sheer breadth of the achievement, for which both parties can rightly take credit, is a big reason Covid-19 looked to be in retreat as recently as a month ago.

Now the pandemic is on the upswing again, thanks at least in part to the appearance of a new, more contagious “Delta variant” that doctors warn can be contracted “as easily as chickenpox.” In the latest of what’s becoming a long series of awkward message “adjustments,” federal officials also noted the new strain may perhaps be transmitted “just as readily” by the vaccinated. The CDC, whose director Rochelle Walensky not long ago described breakthrough infections among the vaccinated as a rarity, leaked a document noting officials must “acknowledge the war has changed.”

Some of the resurgence might also be seasonal, as experts were predicting even in May when Biden administration officials were celebrating and the disease looked beaten. We went through something similar last year. But because Donald Trump said a triggering thing along these lines last year — “You know, a lot of people think that goes away in April with the heat” — seasonality has since been a bit of a no-no subject in media, leaving some people both overexcited about this spring’s decrease and perhaps unprepared for the disease’s possible late-summer return.

It’s also true that the resurgence of Covid-19 has hit the unvaccinated harder, meaning those people absolutely bear responsibility and should be a focus going forward. But the overall story, of an unprecedented pandemic threat answered with a vaccine rapidly developed and administered across two administrations and implemented aggressively by both Republican and Democratic governors, saving hundreds of thousands of lives at home (and millions more overseas) during a period of utter disunity and political chaos, is the version heard least of all.

The narrative barely interests people. Ask most Americans about the pandemic and they’ll either rage out on some theoretical unvaccinated person in another state — grr fuck him derp! loser! — or they’ll shake their heads in despair, like the hopelessness of everything has just been revealed to them.

Are they angry American scientists didn’t solve the biggest health crisis in history more quickly? Was under a year not fast enough? Of course, it’s not hard to see the frustration — here we are, eight whole months after the first shots were administered, and they have to read about a setback? Outrageous! The whole thing recalls Louis C.K.’s “Everything is amazing and nobody is happy” routine, about Americans who sit in airports with scrunched noses, furious they have to wait a whole second for their cell phones to get signals from space:

What gives? In a political atmosphere in which the most impenetrable taboo is the social problem that doesn’t belong solely to one or the other party, any explanation for the recent resurgence that we can’t stress out and blame someone for has to be downplayed. So we stay steeped in the same orgy of bitching and fault-finding that’s dominated our lives since 2016.

Covid-19’s comeback is Exhibit A for why America needs sweeping changes in the way we organize our lives and our politics. We have the worst and most useless political parties in the world. Neither of our reigning brands is capable of articulating a positive vision for the country, because neither has any identity anymore apart from tireless slander of the other. Democrats, worse on this front, are a rat-hair away from describing the whole GOP as a terrorist organization in need of outlawing. They’re perpetually miserable because being visibly happy while Trump still walks the earth is “normalizing.” Republican leaders meanwhile may still be caught between the Sophie’s Choice of backing Trump and appealing their post-2016 firing as Washington’s most trusted handmaidens of corporate influence, but they at least seem happier in public, probably conscious of how lucky they are to be in office despite a total lack of coherent message.

For all America’s multitudinous problems and injustices, its two political factions were once always able to “manufacture consent” toward optimism in an emergency, whether of the self-created variety (e.g. the invasion of Iraq) or of the unexpected sort (e.g. Hurricane Katrina, or the Deepwater Horizon disaster). Our policy responses in these moments ranged from incompetent to criminal to, at times and especially at the ground level, heroic — think the firefighters after 9/11, or the first responders during this pandemic — but until now, the corresponding propaganda effort never malfunctioned to the point where political leaders stressed defeatism and mutual hatred as a patriotic imperative in the middle of a crisis. Yet this is happening now.

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