Former President Donald Trump has of late become an advocate for Americans getting Covid-19 vaccinations. It’s not that Trump, in testifying to the vaccines’ scientific efficacy and lifesaving powers, has suddenly developed a sense of public-mindedness all too missing in his presidency. Rather, it’s a classic case of doing the right thing for the wrong reasons.
Though many in his party disdain the vaccines, their creation under his watch is an accomplishment Trump wants to claim.
With the highly contagious omicron variant surging, Trump is using Covid as a cudgel to bash President Joe Biden ahead of an expected 2024 bid to reclaim the White House. Though many in his party disdain the vaccines, their creation under his watch is an accomplishment Trump wants to claim.
When weighing politics against self-promotion, Trump’s ego almost always wins (see how he deflated GOP turnout by attacking the legitimacy of the vote in furtherance of his lie that the 2020 election was tainted). So there’s a chance that Trump could be out-Trumped by those in his party taking an even harder line against vaccines. But there’s a bigger chance that there’s a political payoff for Trump — and he’s betting on the latter by starting to use vaccines as a wedge issue against potential rivals for the 2024 GOP nomination.
Just Tuesday, Trump, in a television interview with the far-right One America News Network, went so far as to call politicians who refuse to say whether they’ve received the booster shot “gutless.” Trump suggested these elected officials are trying to avoid offending anti-vaccine supporters even though they know the shots save lives.
“I watched a couple of politicians be interviewed and one of the questions was, ‘Did you get the booster?’” said Trump, who noted he had gotten his. About elected officials who have also gotten the booster, Trump said, “They don’t want to say it. Because they’re gutless.”
Trump didn’t name his target. But Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a rising GOP star and oft-mentioned potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate who is building his national image in Trump’s pugilistic image, has dodged questions about whether he has received a Covid vaccine booster.
“So, I’ve done whatever I did, the normal shot,” DeSantis said in a December Fox News interview. “And, you know, that, at the end of the day, is people’s individual decisions about what they want to do.”
Trump, in contrast, has for months talked up the merits of Covid vaccines, and more recently booster shots, even though it’s earned him pushback from the supporter base he’s long bragged is so loyal to him.
Trump in August got booed at an Alabama rally for telling supporters to get vaccinated. Four months later, during a Dallas event with former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, Trump got booed again after revealing he got a Covid booster shot. Days later, Trump engaged in a heated back-and-forth over the shots with conservative media personality Candace Owens, a Covid vaccine denier.
“The ones that get very sick and go to the hospital are the ones that don’t take the vaccine,” Trump told Owens. “People aren’t dying when they take the vaccine.”
The former president’s split with his base over vaccines is their first real rift since candidate Trump in January 2016 memorably said his supporters would stay loyal even if he were to shoot someone in New York City.
But Trump is betting that the cult of personality around him is still strong enough to withstand differences on the vaccine and keep his supporters in line, propelling him to the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. He may very well be right. Trump in his vaccine messaging is effectively reminding DeSantis and other potential 2024 GOP challengers — like his former vice president, Mike Pence — who’s boss in the Republican universe.
Trump’s Covid vaccine advocacy also lets him get in some fresh jabs against Biden, who has made virus recoverya key element of his administration during its first year. Research for the coronavirus vaccinations began during the Trump administration’s final year, but since it was on Biden’s watch that the vaccines became widely available to the public — with more than 60 percent of the U.S. population now fully vaccinated — that’s left the Trump administration’s role overshadowed, in the former president’s view.
“This was going to ravage the country far beyond what it is now,” Trump said of the success of the vaccines during his December appearance with O’Reilly in Texas. Trump implored his supporters: “Take credit for it. Take credit for it. Don’t let them take it away. Don’t take it away from ourselves.”
Those remarks weren’t just vintage Trump braggadocio. They’re likely also smart politics, as they provide an opening to win back some suburban voters that fled from him toward Biden in 2020. Sixty-seven percent of suburban residents were vaccinated as of August, according to a late summer NBC News poll. That was below the 79 percent of urban residents who got the vaccine, but well above the 52 percent of rural residents, where support for Trump runs deep. Even Biden gave credit to the Trump administration for the development of the Covid vaccine and for getting a booster shot.
It’s unclear that a pure anti-vaccine message is a winner in the 2024 Republican primary fight. Yes, vaccine opposition is highest among Republicans (along with young adults). But that still leaves millions of primary voters who got the vaccines. So Trump’s positioning could also further push DeSantis into fighting for a fringe of the GOP electorate rather than the broader coalition necessary to win the party’s 2024 presidential nomination.
Indeed, Virginia GOP Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin shows the potential for success with a middle-ground approach. The first-time candidate said on the campaign trail in the fall that he supports the Covid vaccine but opposes mask and vaccine mandates. He went on to beat former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe 50.6 percent to 48.6 percent, earning crucial support from swing voters that included younger Virginians, moderates, independents and white women, among others.
Trump’s digs against political rivals who won’t get boosters and his positive talk about vaccinations can easily be seen as cynical and craven calculations aimed not at helping humanity but in boosting his political interests. Still, whatever the motives, they’re right on the public health merits. Politically, they may also be effective in ensuring somebody even Trumpier than Trump doesn’t emerge as his replacement.
David Mark is an editor, author and lecturer based in Washington, D.C.