As the coronavirus began pushing the nation into lockdown in March 2020, Joshua Coleman, an anti-vaccine campaigner who organizes anti-vaccine rallies, went on Facebook Live to give his followers a rallying speech. He laid out what he thought the pandemic really was: an opportunity.
“This is the one time in human history where every single human being across this country, possibly across the planet, but especially in this country, are all going to have an interest in vaccination and vaccines,” he said. “So it’s time for us to educate.”
By “educate,” he meant to spread misinformation about vaccines.
The approach that Mr. Coleman displayed in his nearly 10-minute-long appearance — turning any negative event into a marketing opportunity — is characteristic of anti-vaccine activists. Their versatility and ability to read and assimilate the language and culture of different social groups have been key to their success. But Mr. Coleman’s speech also encapsulated a yearslong campaign during which the anti-vaccine movement has maneuvered itself to exploit what Mr. Coleman called “a very unique position in this moment in time.”
Over the last six years, anti-vaccine groups and leaders have begun to organize politically at a level like never before. They’ve founded state political action committees, formed coalitions with other constituencies, and built a vast network that is now the foundation of vaccination opposition by conservative groups and legislators across the country. They have taken common-sense concepts — that parents should be able to raise their children as they see fit, and that medical decisions should be autonomous and private — and warped them in ways that have set back decades of public health advances.
The power of anti-vaccine mobilization is particularly evident now in efforts to protect Americans against Covid-19. Only about 61 percent of eligible Americans are fully vaccinated — not enough to provide national protection — even though the vaccines are free and are the best tool for keeping people out of overcrowded hospitals. But those who are baffled by the outsize influence of the anti-vaccine movement must understand how carefully its leaders have navigated their way to this point.
Vaccine hesitancy has existed in some form since the development of the first vaccine over 200 years ago. But the 2014-2015 measles outbreak, which began among mostly unvaccinated visitors at Disneyland in California and led to more than 125 cases, woke up the nation to the threat of that hesitancy. The only reason measles had gained a foothold was that pockets of the country with low vaccination rates had led to the erosion of herd immunity in those places.
In years leading up to that outbreak, vaccines had not been a partisan issue in the United States. But something was changing. Politicians like Chris Christie and Rand Paul called for respecting parents’ choice to vaccinate their children or not (although Mr. Christie later backpedaled a bit).
Meanwhile, public outcry followed the discovery that the outbreak began with unvaccinated children, with everyone from soccer moms to late-night television hosts lambasting parents who refused to vaccinate their kids. A coalition of parents led by Leah Russin, co-founder of the nonprofit group Vaccinate California, worked with California legislators like Richard Pan, a state senator and pediatrician, to push for a bill that would remove all nonmedical exemptions for school vaccine requirements, which had grown in recent years to allow pockets of low vaccination coverage to spring up.
But the mockery of “anti-vaxxers” in that uproar also mobilized the movement.
Anti-vaccine activists of all political stripes pushed back — hard — against the bill. When they found that inaccurate claims about vaccines didn’t sway California legislators, they shifted gears and asserted that removing nonmedical exemptions impinged on their freedom to raise their children as they wanted. In the late-Tea Party era, that argument had traction.
Renée DiResta, a researcher at Stanford, found through Twitter analysis that there was “an evolution in messaging.” The movement discovered that a focus on freedom “was more resonant with legislators and would help them actually achieve their political goals,” Ms. DiResta said to me. Anti-vaccine Twitter accounts that had been posting for years about autism and toxins pivoted to Tea Party-esque ideas, leading to the emergence of a new cluster of accounts focused on “vaccine choice” messaging, Ms. DiResta said.
Anti-vaccine activists used the measles outbreak and others to claim public officials would force “harmful” vaccines on people. They also found new ways to court politicians, especially those who take pride in bucking the system.
Just a week after the California bill had been filed, a well-meaning Republican legislator in Texas, Jason Villalba, filed a similar bill in Austin. But Mr. Villalba didn’t realize that anti-vaccine sentiment had been growing in his state, and his bill unwittingly “kicked the hornet’s nest,” said Rekha Lakshmanan, director of advocacy and public policy for a Texas-based nonprofit group, the Immunization Partnership. “All of a sudden we saw a kind of new generation of the anti-vaccine movement in Texas emerge.”
Though Mr. Villalba’s bill never got to a vote, it helped drive the new guard to form Texans for Vaccine Choice, which would become a PAC, to lobby against the legislation. Other influential conservative state PACs took notice and may have joined forces with Texans for Vaccine Choice behind the scenes. The group’s emphasis on parents’ rights and medical freedom were a natural fit, aligning them with Tea Party-type Republicans like Jonathan Stickland, whose ringing cry for any issue was “freedom.”
Likely under the tutelage of conservative grass-roots groups, the fledgling anti-vaccine PAC learned effective political electioneering. It backed a champion for its cause to challenge Mr. Villalba in the Republican primary, a far-right politician named Lisa Luby Ryan. When Ms. Ryan defeated Mr. Villalba, Texans for Vaccine Choice cried victory. That Ms. Ryan eventually lost the general election was beside the point. Anti-vaccine activists had shown they were a formidable force, and Texas Republicans learned it was “politically expedient” to stay silent when, for example, Mr. Stickland attacked vaccine scientists, as The Houston Chronicle editorial board wrote.
With vaccine refusal reframed as “parent choice,” Republicans could no longer risk appearing to oppose “freedom of choice” on any issue. More state anti-vaccine PACs and nonprofit groups formed, and social media allowed greater collaboration. The “freedom” messaging united anti-vaccine groups, particularly those in Texas and California, and withstood social media platforms’ growing attempts to stanch false claims.
New anti-vaccine organizations also began fund-raising in earnest, bringing in millions of dollars, both from wealthy donors and by selling fear. They use this money to create slick propaganda for larger audiences, such as a spate of anti-vaccine films like “Vaxxed,” which provided a blueprint for pandemic denialism films like “Plandemic.” And they donate funds to the politicians they hope to win over.
At the anti-vaccine Health Freedom Summit in 2020, several anti-vaccine activists spoke. Jennifer Larson, who believes vaccination caused her child’s autism, described how she had worked to gain the trust of Minnesota legislators. She and another vaccine opponent, Mark Blaxill, had formed a political party in 2011 to run candidates who oppose vaccine mandates and “medical injury,” but the two-party system was too entrenched. So they pivoted to supporting major-party politicians who would champion their causes.
“If they say something that might be considered controversial, we have a community of people who will run to have their back and support them,” Ms. Larson said at the gathering. “If you can, get involved … Get to know them, get them to trust you.”
That became the anti-vaccine playbook across the nation. And in state after state, vaccine opponents have gradually leveraged their state and local Republican parties to their ends, riding the “freedom” wave that has become so central to party messaging today. Hence the seamless marriage between anti-vaccine activists and groups protesting mask mandates and lockdowns.
As one example, by 2020, anti-vaccine groups joined anti-mask groups in Ohio to support a Republican-sponsored bill to curtail the Department of Health’s ability to issue quarantine orders and allow legislators to rescind health department orders. Though that attempt failed, Republican legislators eventually succeeded in 2021 in barring public schools and colleges from requiring Covid-19 vaccination before the vaccines had full FDA approval. States like Texas and Florida are now trying to stop businesses from requiring Covid vaccines.
“The most dangerous thing that could happen,” Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, told me he had worried in recent years, “is the Republican Party adopts anti-vaccine anti-science to the major platform. … This is the nightmare situation I’d hoped to avoid.”
Tennessee offers a glimpse of that nightmare.
Dr. Michelle Fiscus, Tennessee’s medical director in charge of vaccinations, was fired in mid-July after promoting vaccination to young people, an effort state legislators like Scott Cepicky, a Republican representative, found “reprehensible.” And then the state suspended vaccination outreach for all vaccines.
Dr. Fiscus says the anti-vaccine movement is partly to blame. “I think it’s been this insidious growth of their influence on susceptible legislators,” she said, “especially in Southern states where they have taken the ‘medical freedom’ kind of angle.”
Though Tennessee has since resumed most of those programs, the pause was a bellwether. Had widespread Republican opposition to Covid vaccination now apparently reached the point of interfering with routine childhood vaccinations?
Those of us who have followed the anti-vaccine movement for years know that’s been the plan all along. Although the movement’s leaders could not have known a pandemic was coming, they were more ready to take advantage of the moment with their messaging than public health experts and policymakers were to combat it.
The nature of the scientific process during a pandemic, with its unrelenting influx of new data and constantly evolving understanding of it, makes health communication incredibly challenging. That reality, combined with botched messaging from public health agencies, has emboldened vaccine opponents.
Americans hoping to fight the anti-vaccine movement must learn to use the same tools of political rhetoric and mobilization, to speak up against misinformation and to swarm lawmakers’ phone lines to oppose bills that harm public health. Republican legislators must defend the importance of public health more forcefully.
The Covid vaccine hesitancy running through the Republican Party threatens to do more than prolong this pandemic. It also threatens America’s ability to fight other diseases, of the past and the future.
–Bobby Azarian, cognitive neuroscientist and blogger for Psychology Today, joins David to discuss how Donald trump continues to hold on to his base’s support
reason that this is relates to theunwavering support so this effect is isamplified in conservatives becauseconservatives have this hypersensitivityto threat generally speaking so by thatI mean they tend to focus on threat moreand they tend to have this exaggeratedfear response to threatening messages sowe know this from a number of differentstudies for example one study tooksir motives and liberals and had themsit in front of a computer screen wherethey showed a bunch of different imagessome of the images were threateningsomewhere neutrals some are positive andthey track their eye movements and whatthey found is that conservatives fixatedon the threatening images longer andthey oriented toward the threateningimages more quickly then liberals soyeah we call that being hyper-vigilantfor threat and a couple other studiesshowed that conservatives tend to have alarger amygdala and a more reactiveamygdala in response to threat yes ohthe amygdala is a brain structure thatis involved in processing threat andit’s also associated with the fearresponseso when Donald Trump is saying thesescary messages their brains are engagedeven more strongly his messages are moresalient because they’re in a way tunedinto threat and I’m not really trying topick on conservatives here that’s whatthe studies show also you know someonecould interpret that differently and youcould see it as Republicans orconservatives might also be betterequipped to respond to a threat in thecase that you know something does happenbecause they’re they’re hyper vigilantabsolutely fascinating stuff we’ve beenspeaking with cognitive neuroscientistBobby Azarian who also blogs forPsychology Today you can follow him ontwitter at bobby Azarian and check out
–Bobby Azarian, cognitive neuroscientist and blogger for Psychology Today, joins David to discuss how Donald trump continues to hold on to his base’s support
The history of evangelicalism in America is shot through with fear—but it also contains an alternative.
White conservative evangelicals in America are anxious people. I know because I am one.
Our sense of fear, perhaps more than any other factor, explains why evangelicals voted in such large numbers for Donald Trump in 2016 and continue to support his presidency.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson once wrote, “Fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” The great poet of the Jersey shore, Bruce Springsteen, sings, “Fear’s a dangerous thing, it can turn your heart black, you can trust. It’ll take your God-filled soul and fill it with devils and dust.”
Robinson and Springsteen echo verses in nearly every book of the Bible, the sacred text that serves as the source of spiritual authority in evangelical life. Moses told the Israelites to “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today.” The Hebrew God told Job: “At the destruction and famine you shall laugh, and shall not fear the beasts of the earth.” The Psalmist wrote: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me.”
The Gospel of John teaches Christians that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” St. Luke writes: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
Despite all these scriptural passages, it is still possible to write an entire history of American evangelicalism as the story of a people failing miserably at overcoming fear with hope, trust, and faith in their God. But it is also possible to find evangelicals, drawing deeply from Christian theological resources, who sought to forge an alternative history.
A history of evangelical fear might begin with the 17th-century Puritans in Salem, Massachusetts, who feared that there were witches in their midst threatening their “city upon a hill” and their status as God’s new Israel. They responded to this fear by hanging 19 people.
But other evangelical options were available. As Puritans began to lose control over Massachusetts Bay, they might have turned to their sovereign God for guidance and trusted in his protection to lead them through a new phase in the history of the colony. Or they could have heeded the warnings put forth by those—such as Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, or the growing number of Baptists in the colony—who saw potential problems with such a close relationship between church and state.
Our history of evangelical fear might also include a chapter on the early 19th-century Protestants who feared the arrival of massive numbers of Catholic immigrants to American shores. They translated their panic into political organizations such as the nativist Know-Nothing Party and religious tracts cautioning fellow believers of the threat that such “popery” posed to their Christian nation.
But other evangelical options were available. Biblical faith requires evangelicals to welcome strangers in their midst as a sign of Christian hospitality. While some of the most prominent evangelicals of the era, such as Charles Finney and Lyman Beecher, were spewing anti-Catholic rhetoric, other evangelicals could not reconcile such hatred with Christian love. These evangelicals, as the historian Richard Cawardine has written, “could be found in all evangelical denominations” in the 1840 and 1850s.
A history of evangelical fear might also note that Catholics made up just one front in the battle for a Protestant America. “Infidels” made up the other front. At the turn of the 19th century, evangelicals went to war against unbelievers, deists, skeptics, freethinkers, and other assorted heretics who threatened the Godly character of the republic.
Elias Boudinot, a former president of the Continental Congress, agonized that unless he and his team of evangelical Federalists curbed the influence of the followers of Thomas Paine, the United States would end up like the Church of Laodicea in the Book of Revelation: “Because you are lukewarm [in your faith] … I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
Jedidiah Morse, a Massachusetts minister and the author of geography textbooks, worried that the Bavarian Illuminati, a German anti-Christian secret society, had infiltrated America to “abjure Christianity, justify suicide, advocate sensual pleasures agreeable to Epicurean philosophy, decry marriage, and advocate a promiscuous intercourse among the sexes.”
When “godless” Thomas Jefferson was elected president of the United States in 1800, frightened New England evangelicals thought the Virginian’s henchmen would soon be arriving in their towns and homes on a mission to take away their Bibles.
He’s crisscrossing Europe because he believes it’s a bellwether for the United States. The scary thing is he could be right.
MILAN — Italy is a political laboratory. During the Cold War, the question was whether the United States could keep the Communists from power. Then Italy produced Silvio Berlusconi and scandal-ridden showman politics long before the United States elected Donald Trump. Now, on the eve of European Parliament elections likely to result in a rightist lurch, it has an anti-immigrant, populist government whose strongman, Matteo Salvini, known to his followers as “the Captain,” is the Continent’s most seductive exponent of the new illiberalism.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, has been close to Salvini for a while. That’s no surprise. Bannon is the foremost theorist and propagator of the global nationalist, anti-establishment backlash. He’s Trotsky to the Populist International. He sensed the disease eating at Western democracies — a globalized elite’s abandonment of the working class and the hinterland — before anyone. He spurred a revolt to make the invisible citizen visible and to save Western manufacturing jobs from what he calls the Chinese “totalitarian economic hegemon.”
Now Bannon is crisscrossing Europe ahead of the elections, held Thursday through next Sunday. He’s in Berlin one day, Paris the next. As he explained during several recent conversations and a meeting in New York, he believes that “Europe is six months to a year ahead of the United States on everything.” As with Brexit’s foreshadowing of Trump’s election, a victory for the right in Europe “will energize our base for 2020.” The notion of Wisconsin galvanized by Brussels may seem far-fetched, but then so did a President Trump.
Polls indicate that Salvini’s League party, transformed from a northern secessionist movement into the national face of the xenophobic right, will get over 30 percent of the Italian vote, up from 6.2 percent in 2014. Anti-immigrant and Euroskeptic parties look set to make the greatest gains, taking as many as 35 percent of the seats in Parliament, which influences European Union policy for more than a half-billion people. In France, Marine Le Pen’s nationalists are running neck-and-neck with President Emmanuel Macron’s pro-Europe party. In Britain, Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party has leapt ahead of the center-right and center-left.
Salvini, whose party formed a government a year ago with the out-with-the-old-order Five Star Movement, is a central figure in this shift. The coalition buried mainstream parties. He is, Bannon told me, “the most important guy on the stage right now — he’s charismatic, plain-spoken, and he understands the machinery of government. His rallies are as intense as Trump’s. Italy is the center of politics — a country that has embraced nationalism against globalism, shattered the stereotypes, blown past the old paradigm of left and right.”
For all the upheaval, I found Italy intact, still tempering transactional modernity with humanity, still finding in beauty consolation for dysfunction. The new right has learned from the past. It does not disappear people. It does not do mass militarization. It’s subtler.
- It scapegoats migrants,
- instills fear,
- glorifies an illusory past (what the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called “retrotopia”),
- exalts machismo,
- mocks do-gooder liberalism and
- turns the angry drumbeat of social media into its hypnotic minute-by-minute mass rally.
Salvini, the suave savior, is everywhere other than in his interior minister’s office at Rome’s Viminale Palace. He’s out at rallies or at the local cafe in his trademark blue “Italia” sweatshirt. He’s at village fairs and conventions. He’s posting on Facebook up to 30 times a day to his 3.7 million followers, more than any other European politician. (Macron has 2.6 million followers.) He’s burnishing the profile of the tough young pol (he’s 46) who
- keeps migrants out,
- loosens gun laws,
- brandishes a sniper rifle and
- winks at Fascism —
all leavened with Mr.-Nice-Guy images of him sipping espresso or a Barolo.
His domination of the headlines is relentless. When, during my visit, a woman was gang raped near Viterbo, his call for “chemical castration” of the perpetrators led the news cycle for 24 hours. Like Trump, he’s a master of saying the unsayable to drown out the rest.
“I find Salvini repugnant, but he seems to have an incredible grip on society,” Nathalie Tocci, the director of Italy’s Institute of International Relations, told me. No wonder then that the European far-right has chosen Milan for its big pre-election rally, bringing together Salvini, Le Pen, Jörg Meuthen of the Alternative for Germany party and many other rightist figures.
A nationalist tide is still rising. “We need to mobilize,” Bannon told me. “This is not an era of persuasion, it’s an era of mobilization. People now move in tribes. Persuasion is highly overrated.”
Bannon gives the impression of a man trying vainly to keep up with the intergalactic speed of his thoughts. Ideas cascade. He offered me a snap dissection of American politics: blue-collar families were suckers: their sons and daughters went off to die in unwon wars; their equity evaporated with the 2008 meltdown, destroyed by “financial weapons of mass destruction”; their jobs migrated to China. All that was needed was somebody to adopt a new vernacular, say to heck with all that, and promise to stop “unlimited illegal immigration” and restore American greatness. His name was Trump. The rest is history.
In Europe, Bannon said, the backlash brew included several of these same factors. The “centralized government of Europe” and its austerity measures, uncontrolled immigration and the sense of people in the provinces that they were “disposable” produced the Salvini phenomenon and its look-alikes across the Continent.
“In Macron’s vision of a United States of Europe, Italy is South Carolina to France’s North Carolina,” Bannon told me. “But Italy wants to be Italy. It does not want to be South Carolina. The European Union has to be a union of nations.”
The fact is Italy is Italy, unmistakably so, with its high unemployment, stagnation, archaic public administration and chasm between the prosperous north (which Salvini’s League once wanted to turn into a secessionist state called Padania) and the southern Mezzogiorno. Salvini’s coalition has done nothing to solve these problems even as it has
- demonized immigrants,
- attacked an independent judiciary and
- extolled an “Italians first” nation.
A federal Europe remains a chimera, even if the euro crisis revealed the need for budgetary integration. Bannon’s vision of Brussels bureaucrats devouring national identity for breakfast is largely a straw-man argument, useful for making the European Union the focus of all 21st-century angst.
The union has delivered peace and stability. It’s the great miracle of the second half of the 20th century; no miracle ever marketed itself so badly. It has also suffered from ideological exhaustion, remoteness, division and the failure to agree on an effective shared immigration policy — opening the way for Salvini’s salvos to hit home in a country that is the first stop for many African migrants.
Salvini grew up in Milan in a middle-class family, dropped out of university, joined the League in its early days in the 1990s and was shaped by years working at Radio Padania where he would listen to Italians’ gripes. “What he heard was complaints about immigrants, Europe, the rich,” Emanuele Fiano, a center-left parliamentarian, told me. “He’s run with that and is now borderline dangerous.”
The danger is not exit from the European Union — the government has come to its senses over that — or some Fascist reincarnation. It’s what Fabrizio Barca, a former minister for territorial cohesion, called the “Orbanization of the country,” in a reference to Viktor Orban, the right-wing Hungarian leader. In other words, insidious domination through the evisceration of independent checks and balances, leading Salvini to the kind of stranglehold on power enjoyed by Orban (with a pat on the back from Trump) or by Vladimir Putin. “The European Union has been ineffective against Orban,” Barca noted. Worse, it has been feckless.
Another threat, as in Trump’s United States, is of moral collapse. “I am not a Fascist but. …” is a phrase increasingly heard in Italy, with some positive judgment on Mussolini to round off the sentence. Salvini, in the judgment of Claudio Gatti, whose book “The Demons of Salvini” was just published in Italian, is “post-Fascist” — he refines many of its methods for a 21st-century audience.
Barca told me the abandonment of rural areas — the closing of small hospitals, marginal train lines, high schools — lay behind Salvini’s rise. Almost 65 percent of Italian land and perhaps 25 percent of its population have been affected by these cuts. “Rural areas and the peripheries, the places where people feel like nobody, are home to the League and Five Star,” he said. To the people there, Salvini declares: I will defend you. He does not offer a dream. He offers protection — mainly against the concocted threat of migrants, whose numbers were in fact plummeting before he took office because of an agreement reached with Libya.
The great task before the parties of the center-left and center-right that will most likely be battered in this election is to reconnect. They must restore a sense of recognition to the forgotten of globalization. Pedro Sánchez, the socialist Spanish prime minister, just won an important electoral victory after pushing through a 22 percent rise in the minimum wage, the largest in Spain in 40 years. There’s a lesson there. The nationalist backlash is powerful, but pro-European liberal sentiment is still stronger. If European elections feel more important, it’s also because European identity is growing.
As for the curiously prescient Italian political laboratory, Bannon is investing in it. He’s established an “Academy for the Judeo-Christian West” in a 13th-century monastery outside Rome. Its courses, he told me, will include “history, aesthetics and just plain instruction in how to get stuff done, including facing up to pressure, mock TV interviews with someone from CNN or The Guardian ripping your face off.”
Bannon described himself as an admirer of George Soros — “his methods, not his ideology” — and the way Soros had built up “cadres” throughout Europe. The monastery is the nationalist response to Soros’s liberalism. There’s a war of ideas going on in Italy and the United States. To shun the fight is to lose it. I am firmly in the liberal camp, but to win it helps to know and strive to understand one’s adversary.
Manohla Dargis of The New York Times compared Celsius 41.11 unfavorably to FahrenHYPE 9/11, another documentary film aimed at rebutting the arguments made by Michael Moore. While Dargis felt that the purpose of FahrenHYPE 9/11 was the detailed rebutting of the arguments put forward by Moore’s film, she felt that the purpose of Celsius 41.11 was to “make you afraid — very, very afraid”. She stated that Celsius 41.11 “presents a vision of the world verging on the apocalyptic“. Dargis concluded “finally [the film is] interesting only because it represents another unconvincing effort on the part of conservatives to mount a viable critique of Mr. Moore.”
Criticisms of the production
The Boston Globe and the New York Times both questioned the reliability of some of the individuals interviewed. The Globe called the experts “occasionally dubious” saying that they “offer[ed] drive-by disses and plain untruths“. Manohla Dargis of the New York Timeswas particularly critical of the film for not detailing the extent of Mansoor Ijaz‘s investments in the Middle East or “just how intimately familiar he was with the nonsense of the Clinton White House”. Both publications, however, spoke well of the contributions of Fred Thompson with the New York Times calling him “thoughtful” and the Globe adding that “with his level head and reflective words, [he] makes partisanship seem dignified.”
Several critics felt that insufficient time had been spent on the film. Maitland McDonagh of TV Guide said that it “bears all the hallmarks of having been thrown together in a heated rush”, a criticism echoed by Robert Koehler of Variety who called the editing “choppy”.Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe described the film as “a seemingly last-minute series of talking heads and montages”. A number of critics compared the style of the film to that of a PowerPoint presentation.