Talking Points

A Trump vaccine counterfactual

By now it's well-established that enthusiasm for the COVID-19 vaccines is split along partisan lines. A new NBC News poll shows that 88 percent of Democrats have gotten their shots, compared to just 55 percent of Republicans. Liberals have mostly patted themselves on the back for this state of affairs amid increasing frustration with their unvaxxed neighbors as the pandemic continues to rage.

But what if the vaccines had become widely available before the 2020 presidential election, instead of right after?

That's certainly what then-President Donald Trump wanted, believing an early vaccination push would help his re-election chances. During the campaign, he said the vaccines might be ready for approval by October 2020. (They weren't.) The media was filled with stories suggesting Trump might push to make shots available before their effectiveness and safety had been reliably determined.

The skepticism found its way to the campaign trail. Then-candidates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris both expressed mistrust. "Let me be clear: I trust vaccines, I trust scientists, but I don't trust Donald Trump," Biden said in September 2020. Other Trump critics piled on. "Trump's vaccine can't be trusted," a Foreign Policy headline blared the same month. "If a vaccine comes out before the election, there are very good reasons not to take it." A poll taken six weeks before Election Day showed 52 percent of Americans — and 88 percent of Democrats — didn't trust Trump on the issue.

I didn't trust Trump on the issue, either. And I've wondered if I would have been so eager to get my shots if he had been in power when they became available to me.

While we all like to think we're rational individuals, it's also true that political polarization often drives our beliefs instead of the other way around. Before the pandemic, anti-vaccination sentiment was picking up steam and could be found on both the left and right. "Maybe it's not about vaccines, but about who's in power," the sociologist Charles McCoy wrote in 2019. That suggests we liberals might temper our rage at the unvaxxed with a little knowledge of our own fallibility. It's easy to envision a scenario in which more Republicans and fewer Democrats would have been vaccinated by now, if only Trump had got his way.