The Vaccine Aristocrats
Covid-19 cases are rising, but the “Pandemic of the Unvaccinated” blame-game campaign is the worst way to address the problem
By Matt Taibbi, Jul 27, 2021
Then there was the educated Texan from Texas who looked like someone in Technicolor and felt, patriotically, that people of means – decent folk – should be given more votes than drifters, whores, criminals, degenerates, atheists and indecent folk – people without means. — Joseph Heller, Catch-22
On This Week With George Stephanopoulos this past Sunday, a bafflegab of Washington poo-bahs including Chris Christie, Rahm Emmanuel, Margaret Hoover, and Donna Brazile — Stephanopoulos calls the segment his “Powerhouse Roundtable,” which to my ear sounds like a Denny’s breakfast sampler, but I guess he couldn’t name it Four Hated Windbags — discussed vaccine holdouts. The former George W. Bush and Giuliani aide Hoover said it was time to stop playing nice:
If you’re going to get government-provided health care, if you’re getting VA treatment, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, anything — and Social Security obviously isn’t health care — you should be getting the vaccine. Okay? Because we are going to have to take care of you on the back end.
Brazile nodded sagely, but Emmanuel all but gushed cartoon hearts.
“You know, I’m having an out of body experience, because I agree with you,” said Obama’s former hatchet man, before adding, over the chyron, FRUSTRATION MOUNTS WITH UNVACCINATED AMERICANS:
I would close the space in. Meaning if you want to participate in X or Y activity, you gotta show you’re vaccinated. So it becomes a reward-punishment type system, and you make your own calculation.
This bipartisan love-in took place a few days after David Frum, famed Bush speechwriter and creator of the “Axis of Evil” slogan, wrote a column in The Atlantic entitled “Vaccinated America Has Had Enough.” In it, Frum wondered:
Does Biden’s America have a breaking point? Biden’s America produces 70 percent of the country’s wealth — and then sees that wealth transferred to support Trump’s America. Which is fine; that’s what citizens of one nation do for one another… [But] the reciprocal part of the bargain is not being upheld…
Will Blue America ever decide it’s had enough of being put medically at risk by people and places whose bills it pays? Check yourself. Have you?
I’m vaccinated. I think people should be vaccinated. But this latest moral mania — and make no mistake about it, the “pandemic of the unvaccinated” PR campaign is the latest in a ceaseless series of such manias, dating back to late 2016 — lays bare everything that’s abhorrent and nonsensical in modern American politics, beginning with the no-longer-disguised aristocratic mien of the Washington consensus. If you want to convince people to get a vaccine, pretty much the worst way to go about it is a massive blame campaign, delivered by sneering bluenoses who have a richly deserved credibility problem with large chunks of the population, and now insist they’re owed financially besides.
There’s always been a contingent in American society that believes people who pay more taxes should get more say, or “more votes,” as Joseph Heller’s hilarious Texan put it. It’s a conceit that cut across party. You hear it from the bank CEO who thinks America should thank him for the pleasure of kissing his ass with a bailout, but just as quickly from the suburban wine Mom who can’t believe the ingratitude of the nanny who asks for a day off. Doesn’t she know who’s paying the bills? The delusion can run so deep that people like Margaret Hoover can talk themselves into the idea that Social Security — money taxpayers lend the government, not the other way around — is actually a gift from the check-writing class.
In the last decade or so I had the misfortune of watching this phenomenon rise within both parties. After 2008, the “We’re pulling the oars, so we should steer the boat” argument dominated the GOP. Offshoots of Ayn Rand-ian thinking about ubermenschen producers and their dubious obligation to society’s masses of parasitic looters provided talking points both for TARP recipients (who insisted America needed to be invested not just in their survival but their prosperity) and the Tea Party. Remember Rick Santelli on CNBC, calling for a referendum on whether or not we should “subsidize the losers’ mortgages” or whether we should “reward the people who carry the water, instead of drink the water”?
The same thinking long ago started to dominate “New Democrat” messaging. Ending “welfare as we know it” was a major initiative of Clintonian politics, and no matter what your feelings about welfare as a policy might be, there was something extremely creepy and moralistic — I might even say paternalistic and racist — about the rollout of the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act” and its attendant reforms. Rather than simply cut welfare, Clinton made a great show of making welfare moms jump through hoop after hoop just to get their miserable TANF checks, a national shaming ceremony that recalled a triangulating Third Way version of Cersei’s Walk of Atonement in Game of Thrones.
By the time I wrote The Divide in 2009-2010, during a period when companies and executives who’d committed fraud in the hundreds of millions were routinely getting off without even a warning, the welfare bureaucracy had been rebuilt and revamped — supposedly as a fraud-deterrent, but also to make sure check-takers were living up to the standards of puritanical rectitude demanded by check-writers in both parties.
A program in San Diego, “Project 100%” or P100, sent city workers unannounced into the houses of welfare applicants and had them literally rifling through women’s underwear drawers with pencil-ends, in search of sexy clothes, extra toothbrushes, or other signs of a cohabitating boyfriend (for a woman on public assistance must have an empty bed and boring undergarments). Another version of this attitude popped up in the arguments for smoking laws, which were favored more by Democrats, who among other things argued the public shouldn’t have to bear the health costs of those with bad habits.
In the pre-Trump years, there was by tradition a split in public messaging. I’m embarrassed to say I was part of this phenomenon, but it was real: blue-friendly pundits like me snickered at the uneducated, while the National Review crowd sneered at the irresponsible poor.
Then Trump came along, and the media and political landscapes were re-ordered. Now there was no philosophical or political split among America’s wealthiest and most educated people. Both strains of snobbism — one looking down on the unschooled, the other looking down on an economically parasitic underclass — fused, putting wealthy America’s pretensions under the same tent for the first time.
The 2016 election brought forth this weird paradox. On one hand it was abundantly clear that Trump was playing class politics. His schtick was aimed at “elites,” and the response to him was couched as an openly upper-class defense of “excellence” and “expertise,” and against “populism.” As Thomas Frank wrote in his terrific The People, No, Trump was portrayed as an ignoramus revolting against his betters, with a New Yorker cartoon depicting a mutiny of airline passengers capturing the tone:
“Those smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us,” bellows one of them. “Who thinks I should fly the plane?”
Propaganda aims however required that it be denied that Trump was about anything but race. Statistic after statistic was cited proving Trump was not a “working class” phenomenon, that while the median Trump voter earned less than the Kasich voter, that person also earned more than either the Clinton or Sanders voter.
Maybe that’s the case. But there were other, more telling numbers. The Brookings Institute noted that Hillary Clinton won 472 counties in 2016, which accounted for 64% of the country’s GDP. Trump meanwhile won 2,584 counties, many in flyover territory, which collectively produced 36% of national wealth.
As noted here before, by 2018, it was also true that 41 of the 50 wealthiest congressional districts voted Democratic, with states like California, Virginia, New York, Maryland, and New Jersey dominating. Furthermore, those Brookings stats became an active talking point — for Democrats, who now began to stress the affluence of their voters as an indication of their moral superiority. “I won the places that represent two-thirds of America’s gross domestic product,” Hillary Clinton crowed, on a trip to India. “So I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward.”
Democrats for the first time in a long time not only outperformed Republicans in affluent white communities, but essentially owned those territories. Even Mitt Romney outperformed Barack Obama by about 20 points in predominantly white areas, but Hillary Clinton crushed Trump in those places. In districts where the median income was $250,000 or more, she won by 27 points, a 39% increase over Obama’s performance. As the New York Times noted, “It appears that Mrs. Clinton succeeded at winning over many rich and well-educated Republicans.”
By 2020, the divide was greater, as Frum himself noted. Joe Biden’s 509 counties accounted for 71% of the nation’s wealth, while Trump’s 2,547 counties accounted for 29%. In practical terms, what this meant is that education and income, which track pretty closely with each other, became primary determinants in national politics.
This is why it’s no longer surprising to see people like Frum — an incomparable villain in liberal circles even ten years ago — cheerfully identifying himself as part of the “Blue America” that’s “had enough.” Like Rand’s famous Atlases, they all want to go on strike. American politics is no longer an argument about supply-side economics, or war, or big vs. small government. It’s about check-writers versus check-takers, the book-learned against the dolts.
The former group, the people who say they’re paying the bills, have spent years now trying to let the rabble know there’s a limit to both their patience and their generosity. They’ve made it clear there are limits to how much speech freedom they’ll confer, how much political choice or right to assembly will be permitted, how much ignorance will be allowed to fester. The news landscape has become Frank’s dreaded “utopia of scolding,” with every screen full of finger-wagging Rahms and Brian Stelters telling us how “fed up” they are with others’ inadequacy. This approach not only will fail, it already has, over and over.
Now this new vaccine debate has been amped to 11. The universal consensus of the “Powerhouse Roundtable” types is that it’s time to start opening the whoop-ass cans on the vaccine-hesitant, yanking services and civil liberties from those murderous holdouts who are, the president tells us, “killing people.” They do this acting like the public doesn’t remember the messaging from the Biden-Harris campaign last year, which was talked about at the time as being irresponsible precisely because it set a precedent of urging the public to distrust the vaccine. Biden repeatedly came out with statements like:
When we finally do, God willing, get a vaccine, Who’s going to take the shot? Who’s going to take the shot? You going to be the first one to say, “Put me — sign me up, they now say it’s OK”?
See what Biden & Harris said about the Vaccines & the need for full trials, complete data & transparency, when they were candidates. See what they say now, despite lack of trials, data & transparency of Vaccines even now pic.twitter.com/EfUPmTxkOv
— Prashant Bhushan (@pbhushan1) July 19, 2021
It’s bad enough they went this route last year, which almost certainly resulted in some of the early reported “hesitancy” among communities of color, but now that Biden and Harris are in office, aristocratic America is exerting its institutional influence to sterilize their history. Politifact, which now basically exists to deflect criticism from the administration, rated “False” the claim that “they actually had reservations about the safety of the vaccines.”
The site’s excuse is that Biden and Harris “were raising questions not about the vaccines themselves, but about then-President Donald Trump’s rollout of the vaccines.” What the hell does that mean? That it’s okay to have reservations not just about the White House but about the CDC, FDA, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna, and every other institution involved with the vaccine effort if you don’t like or trust the president? Isn’t that exactly the problem with Republicans who say they won’t get the vaccine now?
Along with other transparent fabrications — like that Republicans only last week became pro-virus, and didn’t implement 27 state vaccination programs, and didn’t have Trump on Fox twice in March and April to boast about Operation Warp Speed and urge people to get the vaccine — the press and Democratic politicians alike are compounding the very problem they claim to care about. There was similar end-of-the-world howling about everything from the nomination of Bret Kavanaugh to Trump’s Helsinki meeting with Putin to the “insurrection,” which we’re told daily was worse than 9/11 when it clearly was not. People see the hyperbole, and don’t adjust back to credulity when they’re told to get a shot.
This is the same political story that’s dominated America since Trump arrived. Why did Americans vote for such a truth-challenged candidate? Because they trusted the political aristocracy less. How did the aristocrats respond to that damning message sent at the ballot box? They doubled the lies and doubled the scolding, increasing the mistrust. Is anyone going to bother trying to break this cycle?
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