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Robert Kennedy Jr., left, and Tucker Carlson

As the omicron variant threatens to inflict yet more suffering and death, it is maddening to realize how easily this next wave of the coronavirus could have been avoided or certainly mitigated if only more Americans had been fully vaccinated. And confronting that terribly obvious truth raises the most enduring enigma of the pandemic: the campaign by right-wing Republican leaders, in both politics and media, to herd their sheeplike followers into a suicidal rejection of vaccines.

The anti-vaccine campaign, a paranoid mindset once relegated to the kook fringes of American life, has been adopted in whole or in part by the Republican Party along with its media subsidiaries. They have taken that campaign well beyond any libertarian objection to coercive government, publicizing fake statistics to exaggerate the very minor perils of vaccination while promoting (and sometimes profiting from) medications that are more likely to kill than cure.

It is a crusade rife with contradictions at every level. As president, Donald Trump was responsible for financing the "Operation Warp Speed" effort to bring forth vaccines as rapidly as possible and could even claim some credit for its success. As soon as they became available, prominent conservatives such as Rupert Murdoch, the superannuated Fox News boss, went abroad to get vaccinated as soon as possible. Murdoch soon ordered all of his employees to either get vaccinated or submit to daily COVID-19 testing, despite the anti-vax propaganda constantly emanating from his network.

The weird hypocrisy of the inoculated vaccination opponents even enveloped anti-vaccine publicist Robert Kennedy Jr., when the invitation to a Christmas party at his home urged those planning to attend to get vaccinated. While he keeps fabricating scary statistics about mortality among the vaccinated, Kennedy himself refuses to disclose his own vaccination status, as if this is a matter of principle. So do his pal Tucker Carlson and many of Carlson's Fox colleagues.

It is reasonable to assume that all of these misleaders are, in fact, fully vaccinated and boosted, like any other moderately intelligent person. So why are they encouraging their followers to reject vaccination and risk death?

The bloody consequences of their demagoguery are starkly illustrated in real statistics as well as charts and graphs. Invariably displayed in shades of red and blue are the data showing that Republicans are succumbing to coronavirus at far higher rates than Democrats. Analysts can select any variety of geographic or political criteria to measure the rates of infection and death, but the answer is always essentially the same.

Today, according to the invaluable health analyst Charles Gaba, the rate of new infections in the most Republican areas of the country is nearly three times higher than in the most Democratic areas. The death rate in those reddest counties is nearly six times higher than in the bluest counties. Those same numbers can be plotted along lines of vaccinated versus unvaccinated, and of course they match almost perfectly.

Which again raises the unanswered question of why the Republicans have so eagerly adopted the anti-vaccine ideology once confined to a sideshow of barking crazies and grifters. Why are they fighting to ban vaccine mandates — even for health care and nursing home workers? Why are they promising to protect and even reward workers who refuse vaccination? Why are they forcing schools to abandon masking, vaccination, and other protective measures?

Why, as we surpass the morbid milestone of 800,000 dead, are they doing everything in their power to ensure that we will have to bury many more? The most plausible answer is so disturbing and so criminal that it is hard to believe, even hard to articulate.

But given the circumstances, it is equally hard to imagine any alternative explanation -- keeping in mind that the principal advocates of this insanity are themselves fully vaccinated.

Maybe the Republicans are seeking to keep death rates high in the hope that voters will blame President Joe Biden, who promised to stem the pandemic when he ran for president. Maybe they don't mind sacrificing their own sheeplike followers. They are betting that enough Americans will stupidly avoid vaccination, and more than enough will ignore the real causes and effects of that stupidity.

Right now they are winning that bet — and our country is losing.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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