What anti-vaxxers taught me about Trump supporters

Vaccination

I despair for the future of our country.

It’s not simply because I am a liberal, though political liberalism is my bones. It’s not just because Trump is an ignorant, narcissistic bully, though he most certainly is. It’s because Trump and his supporters remind me of a group that I have written about and dealt with for decades: anti-vaxxers.

Both believe that truth is irrelevant and feelings are everything.

Anti-vaxxers have taught me about the damage and death that can be caused by movements based on ignorance and selfishness, built on bald-faced lies, whose life blood is social media. Trumpism is anti-vax to the max.

At first glance, you might think that the analogy is facile. What connection could there be between pseudoscience and a political movement?

Consider the following

1. Truth is irrelevant.

This, of course, is the bedrock of both anti-vax pseudoscience and Trumpism. The truth does not matter in the least.

Vaccines are settled science. Physicians, researchers and public health officials around the world are in agreement that vaccines are safe, effective and one of the most successful public health efforts of all time, having saved and continuing to save millions of lives each year. Yet anti-vaxxers cling fiercely to delusions that vaccines are unsafe, ineffective and cause “vaccine injuries” including autism and just about any other poorly understood syndrome that you care to name.

The causes of lower middle class economic floundering are equally well understood: automation, irreversible globalization, the switch to a technology based economy among others. Yet Trumpists cling fiercely to delusions that Mexicans are stealing their jobs, black people are stealing their benefits, gay people are stealing their religious freedom and Democrats are stealing their guns.

2. Feelings are everything

Both anti-vax advocacy and Trumpism represent the rise of what comedian Steven Colbert has described as “truthiness.”

According to Wikipedia:

Truthiness is a quality characterizing a “truth” that a person making an argument or assertion claims to know intuitively “from the gut” or because it “feels right” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.

Anti-vaxxers are quite explicit in their reliance on “truthiness” over truth. Vaccines cause autism because some parents feel that vaccines caused their children’s autism. Never mind that copious scientific evidence has shown that there is no causal connection between vaccines and autism. In the view of anti-vaxxers, if they feel it, it must be true.

Trumpists are, if anything, more dependent on truthiness than anti-vaxxers. They feel that Mexicans are stealing their jobs so we should built a wall to keep Mexicans out; they feel that black people are getting more than their fair share so they should be knocked down a peg or two; they feel that religious freedom means they ought to be free to force the government to advance their religious beliefs and prejudices despite the fact that America was founded explicitly on a separation between Church and State; they feel that Democrats are coming for their guns, their only source of power in their purportedly powerless existence, so common-sense gun laws must be opposed with extraordinary vehemence.

Democrats, and even many Republicans, have been astounded that Trump can lie with impunity. But that’s only to be expected when people give feelings priority over facts.

3. It makes no difference if others are harmed.

We told anti-vaxxers for years that decreasing immunization rates would lead to injuries, illnesses and deaths of innocent children from vaccine preventable diseases that would inevitably come roaring back. And that’s precisely what happened. No matter. Unless and until anti-vaxxers are personally harmed by vaccine preventable diseases, they don’t care.

You can point out to them that anti-vax is immoral, relying as it does on the fact that anti-vaxxers are free riders, enjoying the benefits of herd immunity while refusing to accept the burdens of supporting that immunity through vaccination. They could not care less.

You can point out to Trumpists, that much of Trumpism is immoral and certainly anti-Christian, relying as it does on vicious prejudice against, Hispanics, blacks, Muslims, etc. They could not care less.

4. Support for and legitimation of ignorance is critical

Social media is the life-blood of both anti-vax advocacy and Trumpism for two reasons. First, social media allows for the unimpeded distribution of fake news. Second, social media promotes social cohesion among believers.

Fake news did not originate with this election or even with politics itself. Fake news has long been prominent in alternative health, particularly anti-vax. Fake news is a never ending stream of lies, prejudice and conspiracy theories constantly pumped out by anti-vaxxers to support each other in their delusions. No claim is too ridiculous since truth doesn’t matter; only feelings matter. Anti-vaxxers feel victimized so they present a never ending litany of grievance.

Alt-right fake news is a never ending stream of lies, prejudice and conspiracy theories constantly pumped out by Trumpists to support each other in their delusions. No claim is too ridiculous since truth doesn’t matter; only feelings matter. Trumpists feel victimized so they present a never ending litany of grievance.

Perhaps even more remarkable that Trumpists’ overwrought sense of grievance is their utter unwillingness to explore or even acknowledge that they have been victimized by many of their ideological confrères. The Republican party has been practicing a never ending charade of bait and switch on their own voters for years. They tell them that reducing taxes will solve their financial difficulties when the truth — that tax reductions benefit the rich, not the poor — has long been glaringly obvious.

Republican policy has allowed economic inequality to grow. It has led to the wealth of the country becoming ever more concentrated in the hands of kleptocrats like Trump. It has led to the personal bankruptcies that destroy middle and lower class families in contrast to the business bankruptcies that allow failed businessmen like Trump to avoid the cost of their mistakes. It has led to the outsourcing of jobs that provide further benefits for Trump and his ilk. No matter.

5. Solidarity builds self image.

I’ve written repeatedly about the social dimension of anti-vax advocacy. Anti-vax is not about vaccines and it’s not about children. It’s about anti-vax parents and how they wish to see themselves. Social media allows anti-vaxxers to cocoon themselves within supportive communities where ignorance, gullibility and penchant for conspiracy theories are normalized.

Similarly, social media allows the alt-right to cocoon themselves within supportive communities where ignorance, gullibility and a penchant for conspiracy theories are also normalized.

In both anti-vax and the alt-right, social media communities provides a platform from which to lash out at the “enemy” and be cheered for doing so, no matter how ugly, vicious or factually wrong the attack. Just as Facebook emboldens anti-vaxxers, Twitter emboldens racists, misogynists, homophobes and anti-Semities. Social media empowers individual bigots to become verbal lynch mobs, doxxing, smearing and threatening.

The conclusion I draw from the similarity between anti-vaxxers and Trumpists is that defeating both will involve different tactics than might ordinarily be used:

Anti-vaxxers have demonstrated beyond doubt that they are fact resistant. Therefore, arguing facts with them is doomed to failure and may even reinforce their sense of grievance. Sadly, they seem to respond only to two things: personal pain and social humiliation.

The biggest blow to the anti-vax movement has been reality itself. Only the growing threat of vaccine preventable illness to the children of anti-vaxxers can shake their faith in lies and conspiracy theories. I fear that only serious harm to the economy, judicial system, standing of the US in the world, etc. can shake Trumpists from the fantasy world of grievance in which they live.

In the meantime, the best weapon we have available is social humiliation.

Both anti-vaxxers and Trumpists are desperate to see themselves as the good guys: smart, savvy, clear-eyed, and poised to save world from itself. We should make it clear to both groups, in all possible ways, that they are none of the above. In truth they are contemptible; their ignorance and prejudice should be fought continually and with every means at our disposal.

  • HarryPsalms

    Well written

  • It is going to be so delicious observing President Trump draining the swamp in DC by dismantling the CDC and the FDA and breaking the monopoly the pharmaceutical companies currently enjoy.

    I will be chuckling and bwa ha haha’ing with every step.

    Public ridicule and social humiliation to shame us into submission?

    Hardly.

    Who, pray tell, gives a rip what you think?

    Still chuckling out loud.

    Jenny Hatch
    http://www.JennyHatch.com

    • “breaking the monopoly the pharmaceutical companies currently enjoy”

      How, by giving them tax breaks removing regulations so they can get their drugs to market faster?

      ‘In a “pharma” meeting in the Oval Office, the President told executives from companies such as Merck & Co. and Johnson & Johnson that they have done a “terrific job over the years” but that prices for drugs must come down.

      “So you have to get your companies back here. We have to make products … We have to get rid of a tremendous number of regulations,” Trump said. “I know you have some problems where you cannot even think about opening up new plants. You can’t get approval for the plant and then you can’t get approval to make the drugs.”

      “We’re also going to be streamlining the process so that from your standpoint so that when you have a drug you can actually get it approved — if it works — instead of waiting for many, many years.”
      http://www.cnn.com/2017/01/31/politics/donald-trump-pharma-meeting/

      In the words of Johnny Rotten, ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?

  • Gatita

    Apart from all the horrors that await us here in the US, it’s also terrifying that Putin now has free reign to march into Eastern Europe and reassemble the Soviet Union. Trump could literally usher in World War 3.

    • VikingAPRNCNP

      Sweden is very concerned. They are literally preparing for invasion…..

  • Sean Jungian

    Spot-on assessment Dr. Amy. (Sadly spot-on).

    I have never been more affected by a national election campaign than I was this time. I just hope to get through it relatively unscathed. As the mother of a teenage son, my biggest fear is that another war will open up.

    I’m trying to grin and bear it. I am grateful for your blog, keep telling it like it is.

  • Heidi

    The parachuters over at that other post are just depressing. Most of them don’t even try to present something that even sounds sciencey or factual. Mostly just a bunch of, “How can you even say that?! Do your research! Omigod, you should be ashamed!” Is that what counts as debate today?

    I don’t know how much these overly-emotionally, science illiterate, willfully ignorant people account for, but they scare me. I am scared for their children! It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to know the chance of dying or being severely negatively affected as direct or indirect result of a VPD is much, much more likely than the 0.7/1,000,000 chance of a legitimate vaccine-related injury. My mom surely doesn’t know a million people, and she knows of one person who has a permanent limp from polio, she had a gym teacher who was rendered infertile from mumps, and she went to school with brain-damaged individuals as a result of VPDs. I’m sure she had peers that died, too, before they even were able to start school.

    I love how they parachute in and babble some nonsense but then place the blame on not talking real nice to them. Come on, you don’t parachute in and be a total jackass because you had the intent to learn something or even consider that maybe you’re wrong. You no longer deserve respect.

    • RudyTooty

      I’ve been using it as an exercise – and probably miserably failing – to practice how to engage dialog with Trump voters.

      Yes, the parallels are strikingly similar. Frighteningly similar.

      We have to learn how to talk with each other – or to humiliate the crap out of people who believe and promote nonsense that causes harm. I dunno. I am so on the fence.

      I used to believe in engaging in conversation with people who have differing views. We humans have largely demonstrated that we don’t know how to do this using online media.

      • Heidi

        I don’t know how you engage with the people. My guess is it will take being harmed by their illogical beliefs for them to reconsider. That being said, they are going to take a lot of innocent people down with them. In fact, their own children are innocent victims, but the small percentage who don’t receive immunity from vaccines, the cancer patients, those truly unable to get vaccinated because of a real reaction, the immune compromised, babies, and the elderly are going to pay for their hateful, selfish pigheadedness, too. Same with Trump. Sure, he ain’t bringing back manufacturing jobs or giving working class Americans tax cuts, but it’s not like just his supporters suffer. It’s so depressing and infuriating.

  • namaste863

    Folks, I am really, honestly baffled. How in the name of all things good and holy did this lunatic ever get elected? Dr. Tuteur, someone, ANYONE, please help me to understand how this country could have possibly been so stupid.

    • Empress of the Iguana People

      3 decades ago, there were lots of good paying manufacturing jobs, but much of them have been lost and all the regular guys in politics have largely been ignoring them.

      • AnnaPDE

        And the people who used to hold said jobs could afford to cultivate a mentality of dismissing education as pointless waste of time, and a feeling of being entitled to a pretty good social and financial status, as opposed to similarly uneducated “bad” city people whom they looked down on for needing support. So when their jobs were autmated and outsourced away, they had no backup, but a lot of resentment against “those people” who, in the meantime, had managed to gain some status and money through education.
        They feel that their world is taken away from them by women, POC, immigrants… you know, all those people who rightfully should be worse off than themselves. But saying this directly is a but embarrassing these days. So they latch on to the guy who is proud to say these things out loud and blame everyone else.
        Also: There’s a reason why dishonest used car sales people are doing well, and it is closely related to how Trump got elected.

        • The Bofa on the Sofa

          They feel that their world is taken away from them by women, POC, immigrants…

          Yep, that’s why those “everyday Americans” have “take America back.” Because women, POC and immigrants aren’t “everyday Americans.” But don’t you dare suggest they are racist.

      • The Bofa on the Sofa

        Right. Like when Clinton went into West Virginia and talked about how her goal was to try to help coal miners transition to new occupations as the coal mining jobs go away, and the response was “SHE IS TAKING COAL MINING JOBS AWAY!!!!!’

        She didn’t ignore them. They just didn’t listen.

        • AnnaPDE

          After all, that’s not what they used to do and we all know change is bad, right? Also, only “those people” need government support and programs, and we’re not them, that couldn’t be right! So just take your condescending plans somewhere else, we’re going with the guy who’ll magically turn back tome to restore what we deserve!

          Must sound something like that in their heads. I wonder how hard Trump has to screw them over to admit they’ve been conned.

  • Lee McCain MD

    Well the liberals had their candidate. But instead they chose Clinton over Sanders. All knowing super delegates. KInd of like the Clash losing to Starland Vocal Band in the Grammys. The elites over riding the will of the people. As someone who lives among the “deplorables” in middle America I saw this coming. Clinton is elitist and Ivy league condescension in every sense of the word. There was never a better antagonist to rile this morass of miscreants I call home than Clinton. Sanders would have carried the liberal ideal. But indeed for the machinations that run the Democratic Party the truth is irrelevant.

  • Amy

    Awesome post. But can we stop calling it the alt-right? They’re neonazis, white supremacists, and white nationalists. Alt-right sounds vaguely cool; as a child of the late 80s and early 90s, it makes me think of alternative music and how much cooler Nirvana and Pearl Jam were than the New Kids on the Block.

    Your second point particularly resonated with me. I noticed that the Republican National Convention this summer was seriously lacking in facts or evidence. Rather, speaker after speaker talked about FEELINGS. It didn’t matter how much crime rates were down, people FELT like they were higher. It didn’t matter that bin Laden was killed on Obama’s watch or that deportations are at record highs under the Obama administration, people FELT like Obama was in cahoots with Al Qaeda and letting a stream of immigrants into the country.

    • Amy Tuteur, MD

      I’m just using the terminology that others are using for ease of understanding.

      • Daleth

        I do think we should call them what they are instead of helping them rebrand themselves.

    • Lee McCain MD

      and yet New Kids out sold both Nirvana and Pearl Jam worldwide and alas Nirvana’s lead singer killed himself with a shotgun and his large toe.

      • The Bofa on the Sofa

        Sorry no video, just the song

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Y266BC3_1U

        My wife had a neighbor in the dorm that was a big NKotB fan and would cry when this song came on the radio

        (it was Christmas 1988 when it came out)

      • Amy

        Selling more tickets doesn’t make them better musicians. Come on, you’re a doctor– you should be smart enough to figure that out! You don’t need to know a lot about music to know that better-selling doesn’t equal higher quality.

  • maidmarian555

    I just want to take a moment to THANK YOU Dr Amy. I found your blog this year during a very dark time for me. Between you and all the BTL commenters, I feel that you’ve grown my world and helped me understand things/subjects I would have otherwise struggled to grasp. And it’s not just me, thanks to the things I’ve read here, I was able to effectively support my best friend through an unexpected C-Section (for a breech birth). The women that frequent this blog are AMAZING. Keep doing what you do. It’s so important. When I read the bonkers nonsense being spouted by the parachuters it makes it even more clear to me how essential the message that you ladies are spreading is. You literally saved my life. There are many more women out there who are going to have their lives saved by you and your message. Please don’t stop spreading it.

  • RudyTooty

    Since this election, I have really lost my tolerance for all things untrue.

    Not just the big things. But all the things. Right down to the most trivial.

    I realize that every time I let someone’s faulty beliefs into the open air without challenging them with REALITY, then I’m lending myself to this environment where a buffoon like Trump can find himself elected to the Presidential office.

    I’ve tolerated my friends’ mythical beliefs about essential oils and herbal teas and breastmilk.

    I’ve tolerated my co-workers whining and pontificating about the safety of the flu shot (and yes, I work in health care, and these are licensed health care workers).

    I’ve gone to (mandatory) workshops put on by the large healthcare organization for which I work on aromatherapy and *therapeutic touch* (AKA magical sparkle fairy nonsense) and the whole time I was thinking (BUT NOT SAYING): “Holy shit! How about some scientific evidence for this garbage you’re peddling?!?” But, integrative therapy sells tickets to the show. Holistic healing brings in business. The hospital is a business. They’re catering to this bullshit because patients want it. The patients will think they’re getting better care if we give them a basil and green tea aromatherapeutic inhaler while they’re with us for their appendectomy. So we provide it. Truth be damned.

    I’ve tolerated too much nonsense. Because I wanted to be polite, or something like that. I didn’t want to be rude, or to rain on someone’s parade, or to ruin their nice, smug, happy-righteous feeling, even when I knew they were wrong.

    You never seemed to suffer from this problem. I’m sorry I wasn’t following your lead sooner.

    Not that anyone listens to the truth. They’re too busy being righteous in their delusions.

  • Empress of the Iguana People

    This does not help my depression. sigh.

    • MaineJen

      *sigh* indeed. This has been one very disheartening month.

    • sdsures

      Same. And I’m not even American!

    • Amy

      This fall my depression has gone from comfortably managed with a low dose SSRI to full-on depression and anxiety requiring twice as high a dose along with a stash of Xanax to take “as needed.”

  • Megan

    One thing that has been the most disheartening this election cycle is just how strong people’s confirmation biases are.

  • I know this is little comfort, but history tells us that conditions of the sort we are seeing now never hold; reality always bats last.

    • N

      But at what price?

      • A very high one unfortunately, but I’m afraid it will have to be paid. There is no route back to sanity that isn’t going to go through a major crisis, events are going to have to run their course.

    • The Bofa on the Sofa

      Yeah, the optimist in me says that this is a last gasp effort by the bigots. The world is moving past them and they are doing what the can to hold on.

      The sad part is how popular bigotry is. The problem in this election is not how awful Donald Trump is, it is how awful his supporters are in supporting that nonsense.

      The religious right completely sold its soul. Morals? We don’t need no stinking morals.

      And how in the bloody hell can the Party of Reagan support a candidate that is a puppet of Russia? Even if you denied their influence on him, it was obvious. All of Europe overwhelmingly supported Clinton, whereas the only populations that supported Trump were 1) Russia and 2) North Korea.

      That’s your company, Republicans? You agree with the Russians and North Koreans? It’s a good thing St Ronnie had dementia when he died because if he was coherent, he’d be rolling over in his grave.

      Imagine a Democratic candidate who was despised the world over and the only the Russians supported him. He would (justifiably) be laughed out of town. But that’s who the GOP picked?

      They have lost all moral standing. They have no standards at all. None. Completely sold out.