Opinion

The curious case of the COVID-free conservatives

The conservative TV elite thrive while hinterland radio hosts are dying of COVID-19. That's telling.

Another anti-vaccine conservative radio host has died of COVID-19: Bob Enyart, the Denver personality infamous for once reading the obituaries of people who had died of AIDS on the air while playing Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust." By my count, that makes five such deaths in the past couple months: Enyart, Florida's Marc Bernier and Dick Farrel, and Tennessee's Phil Valentine and Jimmy DeYoung. Each one refused to get vaccinated and paid with his life.

Elderly unvaccinated men dying of COVID-19 is sadly unremarkable in America today. What's noteworthy is who has been spared: the most elite ranks of conservative media. While B-list regional radio guys are being felled on a near-weekly basis, the Fox News primetime lineup is all healthy and safe. It reflects the psychotic disregard the conservative movement has for the lives of its own members.

We know for a fact that most of Fox News is vaccinated, and it's a safe bet that the ones that refuse to say have as well. Rupert Murdoch got his dose at the first possible moment. Steve Doocy, Ainsley Earhardt, Brian Kilmeade, and Mark Levin all got their shots. Tucker Carlson's angry refusal to say whether or not he did speaks for itself. The Fox headquarters even has a requirement that all staff disclose their vaccination status, and the unvaccinated have to wear masks and submit to daily health checks.

Now, this is not to say that all the top conservative elite are cynical liars who don't believe the right-wing propaganda they espouse. Their level of genuine belief varies between hosts and topics — Carlson, I'll wager, knows perfectly well he is spreading lies about the vaccine, but he also gives every sign of being a committed white supremacist. Sean Hannity also knows the vaccines works and has said so, but he can't bear his viewers yelling at him for a single second. Doocy, meanwhile, seems to be the network's lone voice unequivocally advocating for vaccines

By the same token, it's hard to know why exactly lower-ranking conservative radio guys didn't follow Doocy's advice. It could be the different social context of being an ultra-rich celebrity in New York, and therefore seeing personally thousands of people who got the vaccine with no ill effects, versus being in a conservative backwater where liberals are less present. It could just be that radio guys are more addicted to their own propaganda, or spend more time in the fever swamps of Facebook ivermectin groups.

Whatever the case, conservative elites didn't exactly sit around a big table in a smoke-filled room and say to each other "how best can we spread the coronavirus to harm Joe Biden?" It's more that the conservative movement settled on that strategy through a dialectical dance between ruthless will-to-power and abject insanity. As Brian Beutler writes, if you assume that Republicans will always harm the country however they can if a Democrat is in the White House, you could have easily predicted Republicans' pro-pandemic turn:

You simply need to observe that a critical mass of conservative elites view undercutting Biden and Democrats as a political lodestar, and make immensely consequential governing and broadcast decisions on that basis alone … If you understood before the election that reflexive, oppositional demagoguery is the main weapon of Republican partisan warfare … you also knew that Democrats should have embraced vaccination inducements, if not outright mandates, from the outset, because the idea that Republicans would subvert the goal of herd immunity under a Democratic administration didn't strike you as ungenerous or unreasonable. It was just a straightforward application of their strategic worldview. [Crooked Media]

"We should deliberately fuel the worst pandemic in a century so that Biden gets blamed for it" might be a political strategy, but it's also incredibly cavalier about the lives of the Republican base. That's where the insanity comes in. On the one hand, conservative media addicts have been consuming 200-proof lunacy for so long they can believe virtually anything. Thus comforting lies to obscure the risk took hold instantly: denying the pandemic exists, or insisting COVID-19 is no worse than the flu, or that the vaccines don't work, or that horse paste is a magic cure for the disease, or other crack-brained fantasies.

On the other hand, for decades the conservative base has been primed to always make the most grossly irresponsible choice possible, and been told over and over that "American freedom" means they never have to do anything other than whatever they want, all the time. Being told to make any sacrifice, no matter how microscopic, on behalf of any person — even themselves or their own family — thus creates boiling outrage among the loudest and angriest conservatives. 

The frankly disturbing fact is that a lot of the pressure to turn Republicans against the vaccine came from the base itself, even while ICUs were being stuffed full of unvaccinated conservative voters. When Hannity issued a mildly pro-vaccine statement one night, he was deluged with furious complaints and backtracked instantly. When Trump urged a rally to get their shots, he was booed. If there's one thing conservative media does, it's pander to their viewers' desires — because if they don't, they will quickly be out-pandered by a yet more insane media network.

At bottom, a huge chunk of movement conservatives would rather die than admit they live in a society with other human beings who also deserve consideration and respect, and these radio hosts did just that. They weren't the first and they won't be the last.

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