The Power of a Lie

This deadly cynical calculation has left America more deeply divided—and still inadequately vaccinated

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I’d prefer to focus on the victories, the historic achievement of the Biden administration to deliver 338 million doses of coronavirus vaccine so far, with over half the country fully vaccinated. This has made it possible to go to work without fear of dying, cheer at a basketball game with thousands of other fans or hug someone without worrying about contracting the deadly disease.

But numbers are rising again. The easily transmissible delta variant is spreading. And millions of Americans have chosen to not get the vaccine, placing themselves and those in their orbit at risk of getting infected and dying.

Their child. Their parent. Their wife or husband. Their neighbor. A friend. A stranger. That’s where it starts. With little effort these days, they could immunize themselves and make their community safer.

Yet they listened to a lie: They listened to Trump and his methodically deadly efforts to minimize the danger and exploit the willing. They listened to Tucker Carlson and his claims that a vaccination could be worse than COVID itself. They listened to Laura Ingraham, who dismissed the vaccines as “experimental,” and other cynical Fox News entertainers spreading misinformation.

But this is not a one-way street. These self-serving acolytes of the Trump death cult—does anyone doubt they’ve all been vaccinated, just like their disgraced, twice-impeached leader?—are finding a receptive audience.

I don’t believe that all those millions lack the capacity to grasp that Covid-19 is a deadly virus or comprehend that many infected Americans have ended up in hospitals or morgues, including many in their own communities. I’m not convinced we’ve reached the point of untethered mass hypnosis, in which tens of millions are unable to comprehend the death and destruction that America has suffered.

But what we are witnessing is the power of a lie—to “own the libs,” to reject the scientists and the elites, to flaunt their hostility toward anyone who they think wants to steal their world and tell them how to live. This isn’t about freedom, even if they said so when they refused to wear a mask, this is about membership in a community of believers that increases their feelings of power and belonging. Even if they have to pay for it with their lives.

Yet with every new life lost and every new family devastated, we can see the poisonous power of a political lie to take root and infect the body politic. With each life taken—because they refused vaccination and felt empowered by joining a science-rejecting, government-hating, Trump-loving tribe—they have proven the tragic power of a narrative to convince people to sacrifice everything.

Think I may be a tad hyperbolic? Note that the White House last week said “virtually all” of the new hospitalizations and deaths are from unvaccinated people, the worst new outbreaks are in states with below-average vaccination rates and the CDC called the new surge in numbers “a pandemic of the unvaccinated.” Note that CPAC attendees last week cheered a vaccine skeptic who referenced low vaccination rates. Note that Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs claimed that the real purpose of going door-to-door to encourage vaccinations is spying.

Note Tucker Carlson, with nearly 3 million viewers, who has called efforts to increase vaccinations “the greatest scandal in my lifetime, by far.” He went further, referencing college students required to get vaccinated to return to campus: “They shouldn’t get the shot. It’s not good for them. There’s a risk involved, much higher than of COVID…” Asked by New York Times columnist Ben Smith whether he’s been vaccinated himself, Carlson proffered this smarmy non-answer: “When was the last time you had sex with your wife and in what position? We can trade intimate details.”

Meanwhile, back in the world of reality, Dr. Anthony Fauci had this to say to CNN’s Jake Tapper when asked about that cheering CPAC crowd: “It’s horrifying. They’re cheering about someone saying that it’s a good thing for people not to try and save their lives…I just don’t get that, and I don’t think anybody who’s thinking clearly can get that.”

But let’s not underestimate the softening-up that’s been underway during these last four years, the methodical efforts every day to disconnect Trump supporters from reality and convince them to believe a pathological liar and his enablers rather than their own eyes and knowable facts.

That’s what culminated in the Big Lie of election fraud, the deadly insurrection of January 6, the continuing perpetuation of that democracy-rejecting lie, and the ongoing work to whitewash January 6 as little more than a tourist visit and an attempt to make Trump look bad. Add to this the increasingly broken, racist-fueled polarization that has made it nigh impossible to engage in dialogue and recognize the opposition as fellow Americans and part of a shared experience.

In recent weeks, I’ve read a lot of comments from people who are angered about the refusal of others to get vaccinated. This has frequently been followed by almost gleeful talk of Darwinian natural selection and the thinning of the most foolish among us from the herd.

I get the point. I hate to see rising infection rates again—especially when this is so avoidable—and the risks this poses for all of us. No one who reads these dispatches would think I support autocracy-loving, science-hating, Trump-bowing Americans who also refuse to get vaccinated. But I think it’s important for us to not lose our humanity. COVID is a deadly, ravaging disease. Every death, any death, is a tragedy.

Let’s not forget the horrors of the last year that, to date, has led to more than 600,000 dead Americans, many of whom have died alone. Take the time to read the remarkable piece of writing and reporting by Elizabeth Dias called “The Last Anointing,” which raises not only necessary questions about how we live, but about how we should die. As Dias noted, many children said goodbye to dying parents through windows, on FaceTime, or not at all.

She began her New York Times story from June 2020, a time in America she referred to as the “shadow of the valley of death,” like this:

“Beyond the glass lay a man, unconscious in the electric blue light, shrouded in tubes. His family was not allowed to visit. His body could not be touched.”

I leave you today with a simple request from yesterday:


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