Inside the growing alliance between anti-vaccine activists and pro-Trump Republicans

Inside the growing alliance between anti-vaccine activists and pro-Trump Republicans

5:27pm Dec 06, 2021
In October, Eric Trump, son of the former president, spoke to a conference filled with anti-vaccine activists.
In October, Eric Trump, son of the former president, spoke to a conference filled with anti-vaccine activists.
Screenshot by NPR / Bitchute
  • In October, Eric Trump, son of the former president, spoke to a conference filled with anti-vaccine activists.

    In October, Eric Trump, son of the former president, spoke to a conference filled with anti-vaccine activists.

    Screenshot by NPR / Bitchute

  • Anti-vaccine activist Del Bigtree says he's seen his audience grow on the political right.

    Anti-vaccine activist Del Bigtree says he's seen his audience grow on the political right.

    The Washington Post via Getty Images

  • GOP political operative Roger Stone has become a key connector between the pro-Trump political movement and anti-vaccine activists.

    GOP political operative Roger Stone has become a key connector between the pro-Trump political movement and anti-vaccine activists.

    Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images

  • Some Republicans believe that vaccine mandates, such as this New York City requirement to enter museums and other public places, will be a potent political issue in 2022.

    Some Republicans believe that vaccine mandates, such as this New York City requirement to enter museums and other public places, will be a potent political issue in 2022.

    Spencer Platt / Getty Images

  • Pastor Mark Burns spoke at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Now a congressional candidate, he recently spoke at a major gathering of anti-vaccine activists.

    Pastor Mark Burns spoke at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Now a congressional candidate, he recently spoke at a major gathering of anti-vaccine activists.

    Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images

In October, a conference filled with anti-vaccine activists in Nashville, Tenn., received a high-profile political guest: former President Donald Trump's son Eric Trump.

While portions of the younger Trump's half-hour address were typical political platitudes, some of his biggest applause lines came when he attacked COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

"Do you want to get a vaccine or do you not? Do you want to be left alone or not?" said Trump to a roaring audience.

Still, Trump's emphasis was very different from those of many of the other speakers at the event, put on by longtime anti-vaccine activists Ty and Charlene Bollinger.

The day before Trump's speech, a homeopathic doctor named Edward Group stood on the same stage and suggested to the audience they should drink their urine as an alternative to getting vaccinated against COVID-19. Another speaker, Carrie Madej, said the vaccines contained microscopic technology designed to put "another kind of nervous system inside you." The true purpose of the vaccines, she claimed, was to turn humans into cyborgs.

It's the sort of fringe views that kept political figures away from this conference in the past. But as America heads into midterm elections next year, the political right and the anti-vaccine movement are drawing ever-closer together. It's an alliance that promises to give both sides more power, but the cost is potentially thousands of American lives.

To understand what's going on, it's important to understand where the parties are coming from. The anti-vaccine movement was not always especially political. Some of the movement's leaders, such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the son of the late Democratic Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, have championed other liberal causes in the past.

An unlikely alliance

"The truth is, I'm still a registered Democrat," says Del Bigtree, a well-known anti-vaccine activist. Even before COVID-19, he wrote and produced a documentary that falsely claimed childhood vaccines were linked to autism. But the message never caught on with the liberal audience he was targeting.

Instead, it seemed to tap into something on the political right. He still remembers the first time he noticed; it was after he was invited to speak at a conservative women's group in Texas.

"Clearly I was shocked as a lifelong liberal progressive that I was hugging and hanging out and having a great time with a bunch of extremely conservative mothers and grandmothers," says Bigtree.

Bigtree has been banned from social media platforms like YouTube for making false claims about the dangers of COVID-19 vaccines. But as the pandemic has dragged on, his conservative audience keeps growing. Often he speaks at conferences alongside people who claim the election was rigged and promoters of QAnon conspiracy theories.

"Unless there's going to be a white supremacist on the stage or I find out that there's something that I truly find distasteful, then I just see that stage as simply an audience that I want to hear this message," says Bigtree.

It's a numbers game. He wants to grow his movement, and he'll talk to anyone who will listen.

On the other side of this alliance are far-right conservatives like Trump's former political adviser Roger Stone. Stone has been a Republican political operative since the 1970s, beginning with Richard Nixon's 1972 campaign. He's a longtime friend of Trump's and was convicted of lying to Congress about his knowledge of the 2016 Trump campaign's contacts with Russia. Trump pardoned Stone in December 2020.

Stone, who spoke at the conference, says he's quite open to some of the ideas presented there about vaccines. But he also sees the shot as a powerful wedge issue that Republicans can use to motivate conservative voters during next year's midterm elections. Citing public polls, Stone says that in particular, vaccine mandates are "highly likely" to be a campaign issue.

Vaccine mandates have many features that make them a good issue to motivate conservative voters. It invokes a fight about the government regulation and personal liberty. But add in the apocalyptic views of anti-vaccine activists and the political power of arguments against vaccine mandates gets punched up to a whole new level.

For example, Bigtree falsely claims that the COVID-19 vaccines are killing people and represent an existential threat to humanity: "I believe that this vaccine approach, this vaccine itself, this brand-new technology, is so incredibly dangerous, that we are actually putting our species at risk."

It's the synergy between real politics and imagined dangers that is bringing the pro-Trump movement and anti-vaccine activists together.

But the result of this union increasingly appears to be an even higher death toll from COVID-19, in part because it's causing many people to resist getting the shot.

"We find a huge correlation between belief in misinformation and being unvaccinated," says Liz Hamel, who heads public opinion research with the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health care think tank.

Between conservative media and GOP politicians, many Republican voters are being pummeled with bad science about vaccines almost daily. Kaiser's polling found that 94% of Republicans think one or more false statements about COVID-19 and vaccine safety might be true.

Over the past eight months, Hamel has watched as Republican vaccination rates have fallen further and further behind the rest of America. While Republicans tracked with other groups in terms of vaccination rates earlier this year, Kaiser's research shows that now, an unvaccinated person is three times as likely to lean Republican as they are to lean Democrat.

COVID now affecting Republicans more

A new analysis by NPR suggests that Republicans are probably dying at a higher rate as a result. A nationwide comparison of 2020 presidential election results and COVID-19 death rates since vaccines became available for all adults, found that counties that voted heavily for Trump had nearly three times the COVID-19 mortality rate of those that went for Joe Biden. Those counties also had far lower vaccination rates.

The analysis only provides a geographic association, and the individual political affiliations of those taken by COVID-19 remains unknown. "It's a little crass to ask someone what their loved one's ideology was after they passed away," says Charles Gaba, an independent health care analyst who has been tracking partisanship trends during the pandemic. But the strength of the association, combined with polling information, strongly suggests that Republicans are being disproportionately affected.

When asked about Republicans' low vaccination rates, Stone was nonplussed. "Each person must make their own choice, God bless them." He went on to falsely claim that getting the vaccine actually enhances a person's chance of getting the disease. "So I guess I'd be more concerned if I were a Democrat," he says.

Other conservative politicians try to avoid the thorny issue by keeping the conversation on the issue of choice. "It's not about whether the vaccines work or not," says Mark Burns, a conservative pastor closely affiliated with Donald Trump. "What matters for me is that you are stripping citizens [of] the right to choose what's best for their own life."

Burns, who is running for Congress in South Carolina, likened the choice about vaccination to smoking: "Cigarettes kill people every day, but yet you can go to the supermarket right now and buy it with no issue, that's their choice. If they want to go put cancer into their lungs, they have a right to do so." He felt his position would help him win the primary in the conservative district where he hopes to be elected.

'The worst element in American politics today'

But for many Republicans who are concerned about public health, the willingness to parlay a lifesaving vaccine into political capital is disturbing.

"They just care about winning," says Annette Meeks, a lifelong Republican who heads the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota conservative think tank. "It's the worst element in American politics today."

Meeks has seen the data on vaccines, and she's watched people she knows get sick. "To see people reject those vaccines based on pseudoscience or worse — lies — and to see lives lost is a tragedy beyond words," Meeks says.

In addition to the moral failings, Meeks says embracing the anti-vaccine movement carries huge political risks for the GOP. That's because elections in states like Minnesota are won and lost in the suburbs. And those suburban voters tend to be vaccinated.

"I believe that the long-term consequences for the Republican Party will be a lot of those independent suburban voters will look askance at us and say, 'What is this all about? I got vaccinated, my whole family got vaccinated, and we're just fine.' "

The risks for the Republican Party in lives and votes may be real, but the there is little downside for the other party in this alliance — the anti-vaccine movement.

Del Bigtree says he's seeing more people at speaking engagements and getting millions of visitors to his website each week.

"We are growing in size, in numbers, in confidence and in finances," he says. And for now, his audience is clear: conservative America.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The anti-vaccine movement and the political far right are moving closer together. For example, in October of this year, Donald Trump's son, Eric, spoke to anti-vaccine activists at a conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIC TRUMP: We love the United States of America. It's the greatest country on Earth - greatest country on Earth.

CORNISH: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel explains what's drawing them together. And a warning - this piece contains strong language.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Eric Trump delivered his half-hour speech to thousands of people at the Gaylord Opryland Resort in Nashville, Tenn.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: U.S.A. U.S.A. U.S.A.

BRUMFIEL: Some of his biggest applause lines came when he attacked the COVID vaccine mandates.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Do you want to get a vaccine? Do you not? Do you want to be left alone or not? Do you want to own a firearm? So do I.

BRUMFIEL: This all sounded really different from what came just hours before. On the same stage, an anti-vaccine activist named Carrie Madej claimed the vaccines contained microscopic technology designed to turn humans into cyborgs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARRIE MADEJ: They're trying to put another kind of nervous system inside of you, but - an AI kind. These are my hypotheses. I encourage you to do your own research.

BRUMFIEL: It's those sort of fringe views that kept political figures away from this conference in the past. But as America heads into an election year, there seems to be a magnetic energy drawing the political far right and the anti-vaccine movement towards each other. The promise is more power for both sides, but the cost could be thousands of American lives. To understand what's going on, first, you need to understand where the two sides are coming from. The anti-vaccine movement has not always been politically aligned.

DEL BIGTREE: The truth is, I'm still a registered Democrat.

BRUMFIEL: Del Bigtree is a major anti-vaccine activist. He's struggled to make his message appeal to liberals, but it seems to tap into something on the political right. He still remembers the first time he noticed. He was invited to speak about a documentary he'd written and produced at a conservative women's group in Texas. They loved it.

BIGTREE: Clearly, I was shocked as a lifelong, liberal progressive that I was, you know, hugging and hanging out and having a great time with a bunch of extremely conservative mothers and grandmothers.

BRUMFIEL: Bigtree has been banned from social media platforms like YouTube for making false claims about the dangers of COVID vaccines. But as the pandemic has dragged on, his conservative audience keeps growing. Often, he speaks at conferences alongside people who claim the election was rigged and promoters of QAnon conspiracy theories.

BIGTREE: Unless there's going to be a white supremacist, you know, on the stage, then - you know, or I find out that there's something that I truly find distasteful, then I see that stage as simply an audience that I want to have hear this message.

BRUMFIEL: It's a numbers game. He wants to grow his movement, and he'll talk to anyone who will listen. Now, on the other side of this alliance are far-right conservatives like Trump's former political adviser, Roger Stone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROGER STONE: Most of you know my story.

BRUMFIEL: He was convicted of lying to Congress about the Trump campaign's ties to Russia and later pardoned by Trump. Stone was invited to this conference by anti-vaccine activists Ty and Charlene Bollinger. He sees vaccines as a potent wedge issue that can motivate conservative voters in the upcoming election cycle.

Do you think that, going forward, the vaccines are going to be something that people are willing to fight over?

STONE: In an enormous amount of public polling, which I think is honest - I mean, legitimate polling shows that it is. So we don't get to decide. We get - we read what the public is saying as a political strategist, and you have to respond accordingly. I think it is highly likely that this will be an issue in the 2022 elections.

BRUMFIEL: Vaccine mandates may be a good way to get out the conservative vote. It's a fight about the role of government and personal liberty. But add in the views of anti-vaccine activists, and that whole fight gets punched up to another level. Just listen to Del Bigtree.

BIGTREE: I believe that this vaccine approach, this vaccine itself, this brand-new technology is so incredibly dangerous that we are actually putting our species at risk.

BRUMFIEL: That kind of rhetoric, even though it's false, creates an existential crisis. It's this synergy between real politics and imagined dangers that's bringing these two movements together. But there's a side effect. Many thousands of conservative Americans are dying from COVID, in part because they're being pummeled with a lot of bad information about the vaccines. Liz Hamel heads public opinion research with the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health care think tank. She says misinformation is now a major barrier to vaccination.

LIZ HAMEL: We find a huge correlation between belief in misinformation and being unvaccinated.

BRUMFIEL: And Republicans are on the receiving end of a lot of that misinformation, which comes to them daily through conservative media channels. Kaiser's polling found that 94% of Republicans think one or more false statements about vaccine safety might be true. Hamel has watched over the past eight months as Republican vaccination rates have fallen further and further behind the rest of America. Today...

HAMEL: An unvaccinated person is three times as likely to lean Republican and as they are to lean Democrat.

BRUMFIEL: To see the impact of this vaccination gap, NPR checked COVID-19 death rates against 2020 election results. The trend was clear. Since May, when the vaccines became widely available, counties that voted heavily for Trump experienced nearly three times the death rate from COVID-19 compared to those that voted for President Biden. They also had far lower vaccination rates. When asked about Republicans' low vaccination rates, Roger Stone said this.

STONE: Each person must make their own choice. God bless them.

BRUMFIEL: So it doesn't bother you? You're not worried about Republicans potentially getting COVID, getting sick, not having the vaccine?

STONE: I actually think that the - taking the vaccination probably enhances your chances of getting the disease, so I guess I'd be more concerned if I were a Democrat.

BRUMFIEL: That last statement is contrary to all of the scientific and medical data available. Stone also declined to say whether he was vaccinated.

ANNETTE MEEKS: He doesn't care if people are dying and he's spreading - pardon my French - [expletive] quasi-medical information. They don't care about that. They just care about winning. That - it's the worst element in American politics today.

BRUMFIEL: Annette Meeks is a lifelong Republican. She heads the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, a conservative think tank. Meeks has seen the data on vaccines, and she's watched people she knows get sick. She is worried.

MEEKS: To see people reject those vaccines based on pseudoscience or, worse, lies, and to see lives lost is a tragedy beyond words.

BRUMFIEL: But she also says embracing the anti-vaccine movement carries huge political risks for the Republican Party as a whole. That's because elections in states like Minnesota are won and lost in the suburbs, and suburban voters tend to be vaccinated.

MEEKS: I believe long-term consequences for the Republican Party will be a lot of those independent suburban voters will look askance at us and say, what is this all about? I got vaccinated. My whole family got vaccinated. And we're just fine.

BRUMFIEL: The risks for the Republican Party in lives and votes may be real, but there is little downside for the other group in this alliance, the anti-vaccine movement. Anti-vaccine activist Del Bigtree says he's seeing more people at speaking engagements and getting millions of visitors to his website each week. He's hiring, expanding. And for now, his audience is clear - conservative America.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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