Back in July, Kay Ivey, governor of Alabama, had some strong and sensible things to say about Covid-19 vaccines. "I want folks to get vaccinated," she declared. "That's the cure. That prevents everything." She went on to say that the unvaccinated are "letting us down."
Three months later Ivey directed state agencies not to cooperate with federal Covid-19 vaccination mandates.
Ivey's swift journey from common sense and respect for science to destructive partisan nonsense -- nonsense that is killing tens of thousands of Americans -- wasn't unique. On the contrary, it was a recapitulation of the journey the whole Republican Party has taken on issue after issue, from tax cuts to the Big Lie about the 2020 election.
When we talk about the G.O.P.'s moral descent, we tend to focus on the obvious extremists, like the conspiracy theorists who claim that climate change is a hoax and Jan. 6 was a false flag operation. But the crazies wouldn't be driving the Republican agenda so completely if it weren't for the cowards, Republicans who clearly know better but reliably swallow their misgivings and go along with the party line. And at this point crazies and cowards essentially make up the party's entire elected wing.
Consider, for example, the claim that tax cuts pay for themselves. In 1980 George H.W. Bush, running against Ronald Reagan for the Republican presidential nomination, called that assertion "voodoo economic policy." Everything we've seen since then says that he was right. But Bush soon climbed down, and by 2017 even supposed "moderates" like Susan Collins accepted claims that the Trump tax cut would reduce, not increase, the budget deficit. (It increased the deficit.)
Or consider climate change. As recently as 2008 John McCain campaigned for president in part on a proposal to put a cap on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. But at this point Republicans in Congress are united in their opposition to any substantive action to limit global warming, with 30 G.O.P. senators outright denying the overwhelming scientific evidence that human activities are causing climate change.
The falsehoods that are poisoning America's politics tend to share similar life histories. They begin in cynicism, spread through disinformation and culminate in capitulation, as Republicans who know the truth decide to acquiesce in lies.
Take the claim of a stolen election. Donald Trump never had any evidence on his side, but he didn't care -- he just wanted to hold on to power or, failing that, promulgate a lie that would help him retain his hold on the G.O.P. Despite the lack of evidence and the failure of every attempt to produce or create a case, however, a steady drumbeat of propaganda has persuaded an overwhelming majority of Republicans that Joe Biden's victory was illegitimate.
And establishment Republicans, who at first pushed back against the Big Lie, have gone quiet or even begun to promote the falsehood. Thus on Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal published, without corrections or fact checks, a letter to the editor from Trump that was full of demonstrable lies -- and in so doing gave those lies a new, prominent platform.
The G.O.P.'s journey toward what it is now with respect to Covid-19 -- an anti-vaccine, objectively pro-pandemic party -- followed the same trajectory.
Although Republicans like Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott claim that their opposition to vaccine requirements is about freedom, the fact that both governors have tried to stop private businesses from requiring customers or staff to be vaccinated shows this is a smoke screen. Pretty clearly, the anti-vaccine push began as an act of politically motivated sabotage. After all, a successful vaccination campaign that ended the pandemic would have been good political news for Biden.
We should note, by the way, that this sabotage has, so far at least, paid off. While there are multiple reasons many Americans remain unvaccinated, there's a strong correlation between a county's political lean and both its vaccination rate and its death rate in recent months. And the persistence of Covid, which has in turn been a drag on the economy, has been an important factor dragging down Biden's approval rating.
More important for the internal dynamics of the G.O.P., however, is that many in the party's base have bought into assertions that requiring vaccination against Covid-19 is somehow a tyrannical intrusion of the state into personal decisions. In fact, many Republican voters appear to have turned against longstanding requirements that parents have their children vaccinated against other contagious diseases.
And true to form, elected Republicans like Governor Ivey who initially spoke in favor of vaccines have folded and surrendered to the extremists, even though they must know that in so doing they will cause many deaths.
I'm not sure exactly why cowardice has become the norm among elected Republicans who aren't dedicated extremists. But if you want to understand how the G.O.P. became such a threat to everything America should stand for, the cowards are at least as important a factor as the crazies.